Monday, July 24, 2006

Hezbollah: entwined and enmeshed in Lebanon

Many--including myself--have used the phrase "hostage" to describe the Lebanese people in the current crisis. And no doubt many of the citizens of that country are in just that position.

But not all. Although it's difficult to know the true percentages, one cannot deny that Hezbollah has a great deal of support in Lebanon.

Hezbollah, the organization that is driving the present action in Lebanon, was originally a foreign graft from Iran. But over the years it has insinuated itself so deeply and profoundly into Lebanese life that one can say that, if the Lebanese people are being held hostage, it is by an organization that many of them have supported and/or tolerated, and have been the social beneficiaries of, for decades. Lebanon has not only failed to eradicate Hezbollah, the group has grown in power in recent years and is now closely intertwined in Lebanese life and politics.

Take a look at the history of Hezbollah in Lebanon (and yes, it's from Wikipedia, but it seems to be a fairly straightforward and undisputed article). Originally arriving in Lebanon 1982 as an arm of the mullahs of Iran, devoted to the ideology of Ayatollah Khomeni and aimed at engaging the Shiite majority of Moslems in Lebanon, Hezbollah positioned itself from the start as the potential liberator of Lebanon from the Israeli occupation that began in 1982 and lasted until Israel's withdrawal in 2000. All the while, Hezbollah has been openly and unabashedly dedicated to the destruction of Israel, rather than any sort of coexistence or negotiation with it.

There is no question that the events of 2000 allowed Hezbollah to claim victory over Israel, and earned it regard throughout Lebanon for this. In 2003, for example, the Maronite Christian President of Lebanon at the time, Emile Lahoud, is quoted as saying [emphasis mine]:

For us Lebanese, and I can tell you the majority of Lebanese, Hezbollah is a national resistance movement. If it wasn't for them, we couldn't have liberated our land. And because of that, we have big esteem for the Hezbollah movement.

Like many terrorist organizations, and in the time-honored fashion of other political groups with power agendas, Hezbollah has also won over the people by establishing organizations such as schools and hospitals, filling gaps in the system of social services (much as the decidedly non-terrorist but extremely corrupt Tammany Hall did in New York City of the 1850s through 1930s).

After 2000, Hezbollah made it clear that not only did it take responsibility for the Israeli withdrawal, but that it considered said withdrawal a reflection of Israeli weakness. Ever since, Hezbollah has been consolidating its power in Lebanon and burrowing its way ever deeper into Lebanese political and military life.

The relative calm in Lebanon has enabled Hezbollah, in its role as liberator, to become the de facto army of southern Lebanon, and to seed throughout that area the Syrian- and Iranian-supplied rockets used in the present attacks, storing them in strategic locations--"strategic," in this case, being (of course!) embedded in the midst of civilians, the better to maximize Lebanese civilian casualties when Israel retaliates.

In the Lebanese election of 2005, Hezbollah increased its representation in Parliament by a multiple of three, going from a previous high of eight representatives to its present twenty- three, as well as gaining, for the first time, ministers in the executive branch of the government.

It's interesting to speculate whether those Lebanese who supported Hezbollah as liberators and social workers ever thought about the hidden Hezbollah agenda, which was to use the Lebanese people as the aforementioned hostages to score propaganda points with the press and the West when those hostages inevitably become victims. Were they aware of this plan, as well as the very clear statements by Hezbollah that their goal was not peace, but the eradication of the state of Israel? If so, did the supporters of Hezbollah care? Did they see the possible consequences for themselves?

Going back to the bank robber/hostage analogy, one might say that many of the Lebanese people are in the position of having been minor accessories to the crime--roughly analogous to those who might gain prior knowledge of a crime about to be committed but who fail to act or to alert authorities so that it might be prevented--who then find the main actor in the crime (the bank robber), a former trusted friend and accomplice, suddenly grabbing them and placing them between the police and himself. It may be a surprise to the hostage--but should it be?

It's clear that Hezbollah needs to be rooted out of Lebanon. But it's very difficult to see how this could happen if the Lebanese people themselves don't wish it to happen--and even then, it would be far from easy to accomplish at this point. Syria, as Hezbollah's main supplier, could theoretically be involved, but that has the danger of "inviting" the Syrians back into greater power in a country that's only recently begun to detangle itself from its nefarious influence.

That word "detangle" is a good one, because excising Hezbollah from Lebanon is not going to be a simple act of surgery. Many metaphors come to mind: Hezbollah in Lebanon is like a tumor without sharp borders or boundaries; a neuroma that's burrowed itself into the tissue in a deep and complex manner, a family that's too deeply enmeshed for members to individuate and separate.

This is one of the reasons that Condoleezza Rice's words at Friday's news conference were so interesting. If you read the transcript, you'll find that, over and over, she emphasizes the issue of Lebanese sovereignty, an appeal to Lebanese pride in its own autonomy. Knowing how instrumental Hezbollah was in Lebanese perception of that autonomy from Israel back in 2000, and how pleased the country is to have recently expelled the Syrians, she carefully phrases the eradication of Hezbollah from Lebanon as an issue of Lebanese sovereignty as well.

Whether this will be at all effective is unclear. But it's the right sort of rhetoric for the occasion, to be followed by tough negotiations that--as Rice herself says--don't just put into place a meaningless cease-fire that perpetuates business as usual, but some sort of lasting change for the better that damps down Hezbollah's power in the region.

[Cross-posted at Winds of Change.]

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