The battle continues

Hezbollah — a renegade organisation to some, and legitimate resistance movement to others — now finds itself under increasing international pressure, along with its Syrian and Iranian backers.

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By  Massoud A. Derhally Published  March 12, 2006

|~|56863222-200.jpg|~|RESISTANCE: Hezbollah boss Hassan Nasrallah has defied calls from the international community for the Shi’ite movement to give up its weapons.|~|Hezbollah — a renegade organisation to some, and legitimate resistance movement to others — now finds itself under increasing international pressure, along with its Syrian and Iranian backers. Massoud A. Derhally speaks to its international relations chief, Nawaf Al-Mussawi about the challenges ahead for the controversial group. Nawaf Al-Mussawi, Hezbollah’s chief of international relations, is in the Shi'ite group's stronghold of Harit Hrayik, a suburb south of Beirut. Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hezbollah, is giving a talk just before we meet, much of it a rebuttal to speeches made two days before, when a number of political figures including Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and the head of the Christian Lebanese Forces Samir Geagea took swipes at the group. As Nasrallah finishes his speech, Mussawi, dressed in a black suit and sweater and sporting a razor sharp beard, enters the living room whose walls are adorned with pictures of Shiite religious figures and the late Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran. As we exchange greetings, he apologises for the delay. Mussawi is a close confidant of Nasrallah and is responsible for articulating the organisation’s views to the outside world. He sits down next to the yellow flag of Hezbollah and takes a deep breath before answering who exactly is in charge of Lebanon today. The prevailing political stalemate in Lebanon between groups aligned with Syria and those who want Damascus to pay for its 30 year, de-facto occupation of the country, as well as the recent spate of assassinations of Lebanese political figures, has electrified the country for months. In such a charged atmosphere, little has been able to happen in the country in the past year. The economy has had 0% growth, no meaningful reform measures have been implemented to curb its behemoth US$38 billion debt, political assassinations have continued unabated and relations with Syria appear beyond repair. So who’s ruling the country? Mussawi’s answer is drawn out. “Lebanon enjoys a particular political system and whoever doesn’t understand this makeup doesn’t know how to rule. The political system is built on political representation and Lebanon has 18 different confessions.The political system in Lebanon must be based on the foundation of understanding and consensus between these confessions before one speaks about other confessions that take part in the role in the governing of the country.” Mussawi emphasises the Shiites are the majority in Lebanon, even though they are not the majority in parliament. The Amal and Hezbollah movements represent them, whereas the Christian Maronite section of the population is represented by a number of figures including Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir and former army general Michel Aoun who leads the Free Patriotic Movement. Saad Hariri, and the majority government he leads at the moment, with prime minister Fouad Siniora, represent the Sunni population. When the parliamentary elections took place last May and June, an alliance brought Hezbollah, Amal, Aoun, Hariri and Jumblatt together. But things have changed since then, mainly because the newly formed government, largely anti-Syrian, called for an international tribunal to try those responsible for the killing of former premir Rafik Hariri and to look into the subsequent murder of other figures. In response to this, as well as to calls from some MPs, most notably Jumblatt, for Hezbollah to lay down its arms (in line with UN resolution 1559, which calls for the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon), the Shiite group shifted its alliances. Yet in the midst of this continuously evolving situation, what has and continues to remain uniform is Hezbollah’s strategic alliance with the Baathist regime in Damascus and the Ayatollahs in Tehran. The Shiite movement sees its fate as diametrically linked to both countries. But by the same token, as a result of the mounting international pressure on Syria and Iran, Hezbollah too is feeling the brunt of the weight of the international community. In its heyday, when Hezbollah was engaged in a war of attrition with Israel, questioning the organisation’s patriotism or purpose was unheard of, almost sacrilegious. But the Israeli exodus from Southern Lebanon in 2000, coupled with the anger of many Lebanese at Syrian hegemony, has put Hezbollah in a new light. The Shiite group’s relations with Syria and Iran are now constantly questioned. The relevancy of its army and cache of weapons supplied by two countries considered pariah states by the international community, have raised questions about its loyalty. Hezbollah itself is largely a concoction of Syria and Iran. The organisation came to the fore during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, before developing over the years into a resistance movement, widely supported by the majority of Lebanese, to counter the Jewish state’s presence in the southern tip of the country. But after Israel withdrew, the dynamics of Lebanese politics began to gradually shift — even more so when the country’s constitution was amended, under the coercion of Damascus, to allow the term of Lebanese president Emile Lahoud to be extended. Then came the earthquake assassination of Hariri in February 2004. That unleashed a rebellion against Damascus and its allies in Lebanon. But being in the face of the cannon has only emboldened the radical movement. When pressed about whether Syria is ruling Lebanon, rather than the Lebanese people, Mussawi says: “Syria had a big role in forming all past governments. These governments didn’t include any members from Hezbollah's party, and all the top positions in the governments did not include Hezbollah party members. The people who have turned against the role and presence of Syria today were the biggest beneficiaries, and in fact built their political dominion and private wealth by currying favour with Syrian officials and officers. This included influencing decisions regarding the electoral law and investment projects in their towns. Today after Syria’s withdrawal, the role of external forces is increasing, especially that of France and the US, so we can say there is no stability in Lebanon.” There may be some truth to that, but aside from Hezbollah, which is largely a pawn in the hands of Syria and Iran, president Lahoud is another remaining icon of the era of Damascus' tutelage over Lebanon. When asked whether Hezbollah agrees Lahoud should step down, and whether the group aligns itself with Lebanon or Syria, Mussawi brushes off the issue. “We are not interested such a nonsensical argument, and we don’t care to obtain a certificate in our patriotism from those who were and still are agents of Israel,” Mussawi says, in a swipe at Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Christian Forces, without mentioning him by name. Mussawi continues: “We are in no need of a certificate of our patriotism from those who exploited the Syrian role [in Lebanon] and encouraged it. Those people themselves are the ones who need to prove their patriotism. These indictments are cheap and untrue, and those people use these indictments to cover their real face. We, as the Hezbollah party, don’t need evidence from those people about our patriotism or belonging. “We belong to Lebanon, and sacrificed a great deal of blood to free Lebanon from the occupation. And if we want to talk about the issue of presidency, we think it is not an issue exclusive to the presidency but a matter of reconstructing national consensus after the Syrian withdrawal and state institutions.” As for Lahoud, Mussawi says: “Raising the issue today does not stem from a desire to serve the building of the state’s institutions. It should be raised on the basis of involving all the forces of the country. But the timing now does not require the change of the president, and upon the end of his term there should be a dialogue.” Mussawi likes to recount historical facts when discussing the Syrian involvement in Lebanon. He likes to point out that it was the Lebanese, specifically the Christians, who invited the Syrians into the country, as the Lebanese state was unable to tend to the security needs of the country in 1975 when civil war broke out. But then he puts things in perspective, explaining: “Those who asked the Syrians to come started to feel they were losing the struggle, so they asked the Syrians to withdraw from Lebanon. During the Israeli invasion, we liberated, through our efforts, Beirut and parts of Lebanon down to Sidon. Beirut was empty of Israeli soldiers and Syrians, so who asked these forces to come back?” asks Mussawi. He adds: “In 1985, Walid Jumblatt was the leader of a war called Al Alamayn, when he burnt the Lebanese flag against the Amal [militia], and that enraged the inhabitants of Beirut who asked the Syrians to come back. And when the Syrian forces entered Lebanon under General Ghazi Kanaan, he committed a massacre against the resistance’s mujahideen [Hezbollah’s soldiers] and he participated in the killing of more than 23 young men. What mattered to us about our relationship with Syria was to build a strong Lebanon against Israel and maintain civil peace. We want a unified Lebanon with a good and healthy relationship with Syria and our Arab brethren.” Some in Lebanon say that the root of the fallout between Jumblatt and Hezbollah lies in the ability of secretary general Nasrallah to successfully mediate with Syria on the Druze leader's behalf. “Let us suppose that this is the reason," says Mussawi. “This means that Jumblatt was trying to rebuild his relationship with Syria, so what is the reason for this strange change of mind and the reason to attack someone you wanted to establish relations with? Just as Walid Jumblatt miscalculated in the Al Alamayn war, he is now miscalculating assuming the winds have changed and hoping that his boat arrives on the beach safely. This is the game of politicians in Lebanon. It’s the game of looking out for your personal interests and about their role as leaders.” The crisis between Jumblatt and Hezbollah broke up the alliances that were formed in the run up to the parliamentary elections, and ultimately led to a union between Nasrallah and Aoun. The former general had been adamantly anti-Syrian during the 15-year civil war, in which he fought a “war of liberation” in the last days against the Syrians. Now, after having returned from exile, he has been pushing for the implementation of a social, economic and political programme, which he claims is unparalleled by anything any of the other politicians have to offer, and has entered into an alliance with Hezbollah, a group that is backed by the Syrians and the Iranians. He says he has nothing against the Syrians as they are now out of Lebanon. For his part, Mussawi says the alliance between Hezbollah and Aoun should be seen in the context of the political system that compels tie-ups among the major sects. “We cannot discount a big movement like that of Michel Aoun and build a nation without him. Doing so defies reality and will not bring about stability in Lebanon,” he says. Yet some in Lebanon believe the deal is leading to sectarian confrontation between the Shiites and Christian supporters of Aoun, and the Sunnis, Druze and Christians of other political leanings. “Were it not for the memorandum of understanding that we signed [with Aoun] I would have said that it was true,” Mussawi says about talk of civil war. But he adds: “We confirmed our readiness for dialogue from the beginning, with all other political forces, and our alliance does not call for war as is the case with the calls of Samir Geagea and Walid Jumblatt. When you hear a speech quoting Tariq Bin Ziad [the Muslim Conquerer of Spain, who burnt his invading ships and said behind lies the sea, in front of you the enemy, which is being taught in Lebanese schools, it is the same call that is coming from Jumblatt. [It] provokes a large audience among the Lebanese people and is unfair to the resistance. Is it sensible to describe Aoun as a goat shepherd? I liked Aoun’s response to that, when he said ‘maybe like a shepherd I lead my people to peace — I am not a butcher taking people to be slaughtered'. If it was not for the wisdom of the leadership and the public compliance with its instructions following the insane speeches there would have been clashes as a result of it,” emphasises Mussawi. But why won’t Hezbollah lay down its weapons and become part of the Lebanese army? “The resistance's weapons should not be surrendered unless a final and comprehensive settlement, approved by Hezbollah, is reached,” says Mussawi, echoing the position of Nasrallah. “We are committed to our understanding with the Free Patriotic Movement of Aoun. As long as there is an occupation, prisoners and intrusions [by Israel] into Lebanese territory, we will not surrender our weapons,” says an adamant Mussawi. Hezbollah considers the Shebaa farms to be Lebanese territory, occupied by Israel, thus justifying the organisation being armed. Mussawi said Hezbollah would not recognise Israel in the future. He said this wasn’t possible, as “it is equal to treason under any circumstances and for humane reasons, we are talking about an entity that is based on a single ‘race’ and discrimination and torture against Arabs and Palestinians". “Let us not forget that Israel has issued a memorandum claiming all rivers in Lebanon as theirs, and when the Lebanese people decided to make use of the water Ariel Sharon threatened to hit all water facilities. We do not accept this racist entity — whether in Palestine or anywhere else in the world. Our vision in Hezbollah for the future is that there will be solutions to fit the human aspect that must prevail in the 21st century. “Most Palestinians are living in the diaspora, so how can we accept a settlement that does not recognise those people’s return. The Jews always say they were subjected to a big tragedy, which killed many of them, but they forget that the Arabs and Muslims had no role in this calamity and that the West is responsible. So why do we have to pay for it?” With respect to the investigation into the assassination of Hariri, Mussawi says Hezbollah supports the investigation. “We are against any one who has committed this crime and we support bringing them to justice — so long as the investigation is professional and objective and is conducted and carried in a way that does not blackmail Syria, as US administration officials have done publicly. Asked who killed Hariri, if it wasn’t the Syrians, who have been implicated in the assassination by two UN reports last year, Mussawi questions the credibility of the findings of the reports. “This is the task for the investigation to find out. We hope that the report is not politicised because prime minister Hariri, whom we miss now more than ever, was among the basic pillars of security in Lebanon. And if he were alive we would not have heard outrageous speeches. We want the details of the crime [exposed] because what happened targeted Lebanon’s strength and national unity."||**||

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