Face to face with Hezbollah

In a rare meeting, Massoud A. Derhally discusses the future of Lebanon with a senior member of Hezbollah.

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By  Massoud A. Derhally Published  April 3, 2005

Face to face with Hezbollah|~|POWER-TO-THE-PEOPLE-200.jpg|~|POWER TO THE PEOPLE: The anit-Syrian demonstation in Beirut was attended by more than 1 million protesters.|~|IT WAS THE DAY AFTER THE SHIITE MOVEMENT. Hezbollah had staged a behemoth of a rally in Riad El Solh Square, that a black sports utility vehicle with tinted windows picked me up from my hotel at 10am. As we drove off, Abbas (not his real name) who is a member of Hezbollah started to speak about the state of mind Lebanon was in at the moment. But it wasn’t until we sat down at one of the cafes off the corniche did the conversation to the testing times the country was undergoing. “Palestine is for Palestinians in the end … Israel is a cancer state that wants to control the Arab and Muslim world. Its America’s brainchild,” he says. Hezbollah had fought for years against Israel and when Israel withdrew from Southern Lebanon in 2000, the general view was that the movement had been a monumental thorn in the side of the Jewish state for 18 years, that it could no longer withstand the price of continuing the occupation. But the movement which has been involved in Lebanese politics for over a decade, and has nine lawmakers in the current 128-seat parliament was flexing its muscles in the aftermath of the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. It had been classified as a terrorist organisation by the US. The UN Resolution 1559, sponsored and passed by the United States and France, called on 14,000 Syrian troops to withdraw from Lebanese territory which they had entered in 1976. However, the resolution also called for the disarming of Hezbollah. Herein lies the problem that has polarised the Lebanese, with those who support the implementation of the Taif Agreement that ended the 15-year civil war and those who want Syria out and the movement disarmed. As the dynamics continue to change, in the aftermath of Hariri’s murder, the movement has gone from being considered a guerrilla resistance movement in the eyes of some Lebanese, to being the last parapet of Syria’s authority. “Hezbollah since its inception has two dimensions; an internationalist dimension and the Lebanese dimension. So long as they did not clash they could play on it,” says Chibli Mallat, a law professor at the University of St. Joseph in Beirut. “Today there is an objective clash. They have to choose between charting a Lebanese course and a sort of Syrian-Iranian course. So far they have been undecided. In this demonstration the projection is going to be on the wrong side of history that is to be more on the Syrian-Iranian one — but I don’t think it is sustainable.” With its back gradually moving closer to the wall, Hezbollah showed its strength at several rallies, flooding the streets of downtown Beirut with some 500,000 protesters a day after it had widely shunned demonstrations held by opposition supporters. Addressing the audience, Hezbollah’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah said, “You came to this rally to rebuff the attempts of the Americans and other foreign powers to impose their mandate on our country … The cause of the people revolves around whether the role and identity of Lebanon follows Arab nationalism and Syria, or the American-Israeli strategy.” Nasrallah spoke with certitude, with charisma moving the crowd. And his ability to lay out a clear vision for his followers as to what his organisation was about and what policies it would be following was more than what leaders of the opposition had provided to their followers up to this point. “Nasrallah’s speech,” says Abbas, “is meticulously organised, step-by-step. It makes people understand where they are heading. People like him because they have seen his leadership and Nasrallah’s attitude is if I am going to benefit you, I have to make you understand.” The demonstration certainly dwarfed the anti-Syrian rally the day before, but in fairness it did so for a number of reasons. Hezbollah was better organised than the opposition, more successful at mobilising a large crowd mainly because of the welfare role it has played in the poorer parts of the country and because it was able to transport people from Tripoli, Syria, Palestinians from the refugee camps and many others from all over the country. “The position of Hezbollah today with this demonstration, however balanced they want to appear, is coming down as being opposed to the trend of the opposition. It’s still nuanced. Is it a reversible course? I don’t think it is. It all depends on what happens in terms of the Syrians continuing to withdraw. [If they do] Hezbollah will be isolated in Lebanon,” says Mallat. “The position of Hezbollah as an armed force [was], in effect, terminated in 2000 because nobody [expects that] Hezbollah [will] liberate Palestine.” He adds: “We have this gimmick called Sheba (farms) but it’s not serious. Everyone knows the limits of Sheba. So the guerrilla dimension against Israel was over by June 2000. The only way they can use their power today is against the Lebanese, and I doubt very much they will come to that If they [do], then we come to a civil war. But why would they come to that? It doesn’t make sense It's not that they are threatened in their existence, but their armed dimension has been superfluous since 2000, so it’s not essential.” But what of Hezbollah's attitude to the public polarisation? When asked what he thought of the rally, Abbas says coolly with a smile: “The Hezbollah demonstration was made up of 90% Muslim supporters. The opposition’s was largely made up of Christians. Those camping out in Martyrs’ Square are supported by the American Embassy. “People don’t come to Hezbollah [demonstrations] because it is a faction, they do so because of religion. Nothing unifies a people like religion. People want a convincing leadership and Nasrallah has a martyred son,” explains Abbas. He adds that part of the allure is that Hezbollah represents honesty and a commitment from those running it to their followers. “Decisions are made and based on Sharia, so this attracts people. We look at things from a religious interpretation,” he says. When asked why Hezbollah was against 350,000 Palestinian refugees, residing in Lebanon for more than 50 years, getting citizenship and being authorised to work in Lebanon, Abbas’s answers: “If every country was to give citizenship to Palestinians, what would happen? Who would come back to the country? These Palestinians that people say citizenship should be given to — it’s like saying forget about your country,” says Abbas. The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have been considered an unbearable burden and a unassimilable group since the first wave arrived in Lebanon following the 1948 war. When Hariri’s procession took place, Hezbollah and Lebanese from the Shiite community were notably absent. Abbas says this is because “mobilisation of people requires orders from the top”, meaning from secretary general Hassan Nasrallah. Though the relationship between Nasrallah and Hariri was invisible to the public eye, it was after Hariri’s murder that the world learned that there clearly was a two-way dialogue under way between the former prime minister and the head of Hezbollah. “Relations were very good between them and Hariri was responsible for decisions related to how Hezbollah is viewed in Europe,” Abbas said, in an apparent reference to France refusing Israel’s demand and American pressure to brand the movement as a terrorist organisation. The killing of Hariri doesn’t affect Hezbollah, but all of Lebanon, says Abbas. Hezbollah understood it lost a leader, but that it never depended on him. “Those who killed Hariri planned in advance and they understood his killing would be key to being able to enter the country,” says Abbas. Driving his point home, Abbas says the reason the operation was not carried out by local elements was because of Hariri’s sophisticated security apparatus. “Only three other people in the world had his security, so no ordinary person committed the crime,” says Abbas, “its clear who did this, its America.” Abbas said the UN had proved it was no longer “objective” and that it was “clear who was influencing” the organisation. Lest America entertain the thought of coming back to Lebanon, Abbas says, “They came here in 1982 and they got slapped in the face. They know what Lebanon is.” When asked what he thought of Druze MP Walid Jumblatt who has become the pointman of the opposition, Abbas turns around, points to a wave in the sea and says: “You see that wave? Jumblatt is riding that wave. “After yesterday’s demonstration, the opposition knows what lies ahead, what its size is and each knows what they can and can’t accomplish.” Five days later, commemorating one month since Hariri’s killing, more than one million anti-Syrian Lebanese opposition supporters demonstrated. For now, Hezbollah's support appears solid. But the real test will come in May, when elections are due to be held in Lebanon. Hezbollah has already showed itself to be a strong force politically. However, it has made clear it will not disarm under current circumstances. Whether those circumstances change remains to be seen. ||**||

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