Middle East Into the Heart of Hezbollah

Beware the seeming omniscience of an author who gives Lebanon a free pass at Israel’s expense, and be privileged to find out the essence of Hezbollah’s success

Matt Beynon Rees
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Matt Beynon Rees

A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel, by Thanassis Cambanis
Free Press, 336 pages, $27

Beware of Small States: Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East, by David Hirst.
Nation Books, 496 pages, $29.95

Hezbollah is often portrayed in the West as a caricature of implacable Islamic terrorism. Lebanon also has become something of a stereotype, its name now synonymous with any process of rampant sectarian division. The problem with caricatures and stereotypes is that they’re easy to write off. We can remain comfortable in our ignorance of such forces, because we have a shorthand for dismissing them. That neither of these books will be comforting reading for Westerners and for Israelis in particular might be the most powerful reason to read them.

Thanassis Cambanis’ compelling account of Hezbollah, one of Israel’s toughtest enemies, details an organization of almost superhuman effectiveness and adaptability. And David Hirst’s weighty tome is filled with reasons for pessimism about the future wars the author is certain Israel will have to fight in Lebanon.

An Israeli soldier in Yarun, Lebanon, 2006. Cambanis gives a flavor of what it was like to be an ordinary Lebanese civilian under Israel’s air raids.Credit: AP

An important difference between Cambanis’ “A Privilege to Die” and Hirst’s “Beware of Small States” is that Cambanis isn’t seduced by Hezbollah and is critical of its aims (without ever expressing partisanship with Israel). Hirst, by contrast, clearly thinks that, as a result of its tactics over the years in Lebanon, Israel deserves whatever nastiness descends upon it.

A former Mideast bureau chief for The Boston Globe who now does freelance reporting from the region for The New York Times, Cambanis offers a description of the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah that gives the feel of combat. He writes of gunfire that came from “so close that it felt like someone ripping a sheaf of paper in my ear while tickling the inside of my gut with a feather.” The sound of a rocket in flight is an “incongruously whimsical” high-pitched raspberry. He also adds revealing insights into the lives of normally secretive Hezbollah fighters from his own interviews.

The essence of the Shi’ite organization’s success, as Cambanis sees it, is its ability to carve out clear answers to Lebanon’s vital national questions. That gives it a big advantage over the cloudy mass of Lebanon’s other vicious sectarian parties. One voter tells Cambanis that his choice of Hezbollah was based on the fact that he was “sick of all these other assholes.”

Hezbollah’s leader since 1992, Hassan Nasrallah, enforces a strict fundamentalist discipline within the party. But unaffiliated supporters are allowed to enjoy broader freedom. By eschewing the hard line of Hezbollah’s early days, Nasrallah has made it appealing even to Muslims who don’t want to live as if Beirut were Tehran, but who do wish for the pride that comes with resistance to Israel. “In a landscape of nihilism,” Cambanis writes, “Hezbollah understood the intrinsic appeal of spiritual clarity.”
That clarity is based on a set of principles Cambanis describes as “rapture, resistance, revolution.” To illustrate the first of these, he takes his title from a comment by a Lebanese man with whom he spoke during the Second Lebanon War: “It would be a privilege to die for Sayyed Hassan [Nasrallah].”

Willful ignorance

Both Cambanis and Hirst apportion considerable blame for Lebanon’s troubles to the often wishful ignorance of Western diplomats. It’s something I can vouch for. I was once with the British ambassador in his compound on the slopes above Beirut and asked him his opinion about a major issue in the Lebanese politics of that moment. “God only knows,” Whitehall’s man said. “I bloody don’t.”

Cambanis finds U.S. diplomats just as clueless: “A trio of diplomats briefed me on aid, military cooperation, and politics. I hoped they were lying to me, because their assessments were so out of kilter with reality.” Hirst takes such observations a step further, arguing that wherever Western governments misread Lebanon, it’s always deliberately in Israel’s favor.

Hirst, a former correspondent for The Guardian, has lived in Lebanon for half a century. Disappointingly, he doesn’t invest his narrative of Lebanese history with the personal anecdotes that might have made it come alive. Instead, he prefers the seemingly balanced and measured tone of a historian except when he’s conjuring adjectives for people he dislikes, starting with the French and British colonialists, Maronite Christian militia leaders, Saddam Hussein and, of course, Israelis. At these times, Hirst’s method throws into relief the tepid digest of books and news clips that make up most of “Beware of Small States,” in contrast to the colorful way in which he tosses off scathing barbs about Israel’s “overweening hubris” and “monstrous” security tactics.

Almost by stealth, Hirst’s academic style reveals the angry and emotive book underneath. In describing the Lebanese civil war as a regional conflict fought inside Lebanon, he writes that the “Palestinians triggered the war, but Israel truly waged it.” The 1982 massacre at Sabra and Chatila, for Hirst, was “by no means the largest such genocidal, or quasi-genocidal, slaughter of the twentieth century, but perhaps the most hideously ironic.” Ironic, that is, because Israel grew out of the largest genocide of the 20th century and therefore oughtn’t to be the hidden hand behind even a small one.

The title of Hirst’s book comes from 19th-cenutry Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, who warned that leaders of great powers should “beware of small states” and their ability to cause chaos out of all proportion to their size. But one can’t help feeling that Hirst really doesn’t mean this to refer to Lebanon. Though he tells the story of Lebanon’s history more or less from its independence in 1920, it comes to seem that Israel is the small state about which he cautions us. He puts his cards on the table as early as page 13. The Lebanese, he writes, have been pushed around by “more powerful states. Chief of these was one whose creation amounted to a vastly more arbitrary example of late-imperial arrogance, geopolitical caprice and perniciously misguided philanthropy than Lebanon’s could ever have done the Jewish state-to-be.” No irony there.

‘War of the Others’

The Lebanese have a number of names for their 1975-1990 civil war. One of them is “The War of the Others.” The civil war, they contend, was caused by the Syrians, the Israelis, the Palestinians, the Americans. Pick any one you like. It wasn’t the fault of the Lebanese. Hirst seems almost to buy this line. Undoubtedly Israeli entanglements with its northern neighbor haven’t been a bed of roses, whether diplomatic or military, and Hirst doesn’t entirely overlook the fickleness of some of Lebanon’s sectarian leaders. But his focus on Israel in particular as the malign element in Lebanese history tends to give the Lebanese a free pass.

In fact, his last two chapters aren’t about Lebanon at all. He devotes one of them to the Cast Lead campaign in Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009, tenuously tacking it onto his book with the assertion that Israel wanted to pound Hamas as a way of showing that it wasn’t scared to do the same to Hezbollah. But his real reason for including the Gaza battles is revealed in the final pages. He thinks Lebanon isn’t quite as central to the next Middle East war as any reader who ploughs through to the end of the book might have assumed.

“Not a few people in the region believe that while the next resort to arms might thus and for the umpteenth time begin on the Israeli-Lebanese front, for thirty-six years the only militarily active one outside Palestine itself, it might not, this time, remain confined to it ... And in this case, the small state of the Middle East would no longer be its battleground, or, at least, no longer its only one.”

The last war fought over that front, in 2006, is one of numerous Israeli assaults repeatedly and offhandedly described by Hirst as a “blitzkrieg.” Cambanis’ reporting on that conflict is more nuanced and gives a flavor of what it was like to be an ordinary Lebanese civilian under the Israeli air raids. Cambanis is also clearer and more concise than Hirst in his explanation of how Hezbollah emerged from the battering of 2006 to gain de facto control of Lebanon today. Diplomatic shilly-shallying is at fault again. The United States failed actively to back the (relatively) liberal Lebanese leadership in 2008 and didn’t press allies, like the Vatican, into action. The result: Hezbollah had the stage to itself and soon forced its way into the cabinet.

By contrast, Hezbollah’s leadership suffers none of the apparent blind spots that afflict Western diplomats. Cambanis mentions that Nasrallah once told an interviewer he was reading the memoirs of Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu. “I never heard an Israeli politician say he was reading [Hezbollah deputy leader] Naim Qassem’s ‘Hezbollah: The Story from Within,’” Cambanis writes.

To anyone who views Hezbollah’s aims and methods with distaste, “A Privilege to Die” is fascinating and dispiriting. In contrast to the fickle Western diplomats and their corrupt Lebanese allies, Hezbollah comes across as supremely efficient. With a budget estimated at anywhere between $20 million and $200 million a year, it manages to provide more and better services to ordinary Lebanese than the country’s stuttering government does with $10 billion.

At the heart of that astonishing capability is the ghoulish reality of martyrdom. “There is a secret between man and God,” one Hezbollah official tells Cambanis. “This is the strategy of Hezbollah. It is that we are not afraid of death. This is the center of the training of the fighter, to make him unafraid of death, so you prefer to die rather than live humiliated.”

It’s a secret shared by other Muslim militants, but it has found its most frequent and effective manifestation in the form of Hezbollah. Cambanis’ title is well-chosen. The privilege of death truly is the heart of Hezbollah’s success.

Matt Beynon Rees is the author of a series of crime novels about Palestinian sleuth Omar Yussef.



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