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Hezbollah, Israel, and the damage done

Rice in LebanonLebanon is a country that has undergone more than its share of suffering and drastic change in the twentieth century. From independence in 1943, the withdrawal of French troops in 1948, civil disturbance in 1958, through to the tragedy of almost continual war from 1975 until 1990, Lebanon has known suffering and tragedy that we in the privileged West simply cannot begin to comprehend.

Lebanon is a state founded upon division. In 1943, it was agreed that the position of President would be always held by a Maronite Christian, and the position of Prime Minister held by a Sunni Muslim. In 1990, this arrangement was formalized in the Taif agreement, which also made provision for the Speaker of the House to always be a Shi’ite Muslim. While in theory this sort of formalized power sharing arrangement may seem to be a reasoned, practical approach, in practice this division of powers has come to symbolize the deep divisions that exist within the country.

The fighting in the south of Lebanon is nothing new. The 1975-1990 civil war grew out of Christian-Muslim tensions, the influx of Palestinian refugees that had begun in 1948 with the establishment of the Israeli state, and interference by Syria, Iran and the Palestinians, who were led for the most part by Yasser Arafat as a quasi State-within-a-State. Though the 1990 Taif agreement marked the formal cessation of hostilities, Israel did not withdraw its last troops from the south until 2000; Having done so, Syria filled the void with it’s troops that had been stationed in the North until 2005, when they withdrew after international and internal pressure – the so-called ‘Cedar Revolution.’

The history of Hezbollah (from the Arabic Hizb Allah – Party of God) is difficult to trace, and involves more than one change in direction. Founded in 1982 as an anti-Israeli group, an off-shoot of the group Amal, Hezbollah (composed primarily of Shi’ite Muslims) was initially provided with support by Iran.

While the current US President was initially heard decrying Syria’s involvement in urging on and supporting Hezbollah in their current actions against Israel, Syria and Hezbollah have not always been closely allied. Though it is true that the Syrians have at times supported Hezbollah strongly, their have also been periods of animosity, and even open fighting in 1987 between these (respectively) Sunni and Shi’ite groups. As Muath Amayreh, of the Australian National University says, ‘Many governments of the Middle Eastern region fear a direct Syrian involvement, which could lead the entire Middle East in to war.’

What is certain is that the founders of Hezbollah shared the vision of the Iranian Khomeini regime for establishing a state that practiced Sha’ria law, and which followed the principle of ‘Wilayat al Fakih’, or the Rule of the Jurist. This was one of the founding goals of Hezbollah.

The other primary goal of Hezbollah, when it was founded, was the expulsion of Israel, and Israeli-supporting Phalangist militias from the south of Lebanon. Hezbollah gained a lot of credibility in 2000 with Lebanese citizens of all stripes, when Israel finally withdrew. Hezbollah, under the leadership of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah since 1992, has also moved into the mainstream of Lebanese politics in the last decade, contesting elections for the first time. Hezbollah is in many respects a very different organization to that which was founded in 1982. It has members of parliament - and not just Shi’ite members– but Sunni and even Christian members. It runs a TV station–Al-Manar. It also has a radio station, shopping centres, and community and welfare services.

In many respects Hezbollah has changed significantly, and made major concessions to its original vision. In other ways, Hezbollah is very much the organisation it has always been. It’s hatred of Israel has never ceased.

IDF homepageThis hatred of Israel is part of what has led to the current crisis between these neighbouring countries. Hezbollah, as strong supporters of Hamas, have since 2000 been increasingly bold in their relations with the Israelis. Hezbollah has continued to fight Israel around the Shebaa Farms area (upon which at least three countries have some sort of a claim), it has been accused of funding and offering financial incentives to the families of would-be suicide bombers, and even the Palestinian Authority has accused it of seeking to disrupt the (now moribund) peace process with Israel.

The Israeli’s strategic dismantling of Lebanon’s infrastructure has horrified many people. This action was touched off by Hezbollah’s cross-border raid into Israel, which killed a number of Israeli troops on a routine border patrol, according to the Israelis. Of course, Hezbollah claims that this action was in support of the Palestinians, who were themselves being over run by the Israelis, following the capture of an Israeli solder in the Gaza strip by militants.

As Muath Amayreh says, ‘War appears to be the only language Israel and the USA are willing to use with these (Hezbollah and Hamas) organizations. According to this notion it is, supposedly, sensible to bomb homes, streets, buildings, airports, bridges and the infrastructure of Lebanon and Gaza.’

While it is true that Israel’s use of force has been, in both Gaza and in southern Lebanon, out of all proportion to the number of troops it has had kidnapped and killed, the situation is perhaps not so clear cut. Before the Hezbollah action, support around the world for an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was high. By kidnapping more soldiers, crossing a UN-mandated border, and firing rockets into Israeli civilian populations (regardless of who fired the first rocket or mortar, Hezbollah or Israel), the balance of world opinion has changed. As Muath Amayreh says, ‘Some believe it was an uncalculated risk by Hezbollah, while others believe that Hezbollah has played by the pre-set rules (of hostage capture and negotiation), and that the sudden Israeli aggression is completely unacceptable.

Al Jazeera HomepageWhile the United States struggled to proffer vocal support for recent Israeli actions in Gaza, the US has had no problem supporting Israel’s attacks on an organization the US considers to be a primarily a terrorist organization, and which has support from a member of the ‘Axis of Evil.’

Hezbollah has broadened the conflict, and to the advantage of no one. Support for the party in Lebanon has plummeted. Furthermore, Hezbollah’s actions have linked the Palestinian people together in with these extremist Lebanese in the international ‘collective subconscious’ – much to the detriment of the Palestinians.

The short term future of the Lebanese people looks bleak. Bombs continue to rain down on their nation, foreigners flee, and Israel claims it is well within its rights to defend itself. The people of Gaza are again losing out. Half a world away, North Korea continues its machinations and obfuscations, Indonesia suffers through another Tsunami, and the world is distracted by a conflict that need not have occurred.

As Muath Amayreh points out, ‘The feeling of injustice that will mount from another wave of fighting will unfortunately lead many Arabs and Muslims away from trying to understand the Western World. It will leave the families that ran for cover tripping over dead bodies thirsty and hungry for justice. The genuine fear is that, as Kahlil Gibran answered in The Prophet, when asked about good and evil, ‘verily when good is hungry it seeks food even in dark caves, and when it thirsts it drinks even of dead water.’



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