Any person who was in Beirut on May 24, 2000, the day Hezbollah liberated South Lebanon, understands how immensely popular the enigmatic Hasan Nasrallah is in the country’s Muslim, and particularly Shi’ite, community. Any person watching his speech five years later, this month, after the US started to press for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, and the disarming of Hezbollah, of which Nasrallah is the head, knows how easy it might be for the United States to get Syria to leave Lebanon, but how difficult, if not impossible, it would be to disarm or weaken the Shi’ites.
Syria said on Thursday that it was ready to work with the United Nations to implement a Security Council resolution requiring its approximately 17,000 troops to quit Lebanon, but that speeding up the pullout would require stronger Lebanese security forces. International pressure on Syria to pull out its troops and relinquish its political grip on its tiny neighbour intensified after the February 14 assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri. Many Lebanese blame Syria for his killing in a huge blast in Beirut.
The long road to power
Napoleon Bonaparte once said: “I can no longer obey; I have tasted command, and I cannot give it up.” Disarming Hezbollah, and writing them off the political scene in Lebanon, would be like asking the Iraqi Shi’ites, who have now tasted power after decades of oppression under Saddam Hussein, to leave office willingly, abandon their new-found rights, and return to the wretched state they were in during the previous 100 years.
They would not do that without putting up a bloody war – bloodier even than the Anglo-American war of 2003. The Shi’ites, after all, are a majority in Lebanon, estimated at 1.37 million (40%) of the nation’s total population of 3,777,218. So much has been said over the past two weeks about the disarming of Hezbollah and the implementation of UN Resolution 1559 in Lebanon for the withdrawal of its troops. Can that be done with minimal damage to Lebanon, Syria and the Middle East as a whole? Have all parties seriously considered the Nasrallah factor?
The Shi’ites of Lebanon, like the Shi’ites of Iraq, are a majority who have long suffered from Sunni domination, especially during the 400-year rule of the Ottoman Empire in what is present-day Lebanon. Located in the eastern Bekka Valley, they survived during the early years of the 20th century through trade with Palestine, which was cut off completely by the creation of Israel in 1948. Preoccupied with domestic issues, consecutive Lebanese regimes paid little attention to the plight of the Shi’ites, and they were forgotten, politically and economically, during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
While government funds poured into the modernization of Beirut, making it the “Switzerland of the East” during the 1960s, the Shi’ite districts were neglected, receiving 0.7% of the state budget in 1974, although they made up 20% of the population at the time. Their representatives in parliament were all absentee feudal landlords who paid little attention to their plight, making the Shi’ites an economic under-class during the booming years of Beirut.
An Iranian-born cleric named Musa al-Sadr emerged as leader of the Shi’ite community in the 1960s, creating the Movement of the Dispossessed in 1974 for emancipation of the Shi’ites. When the civil war broke out in 1975, he founded a military branch for his party, called Amal (Hope). It was trained by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) of Yasser Arafat and flourished in a poor neighborhood of Beirut, known as al-Dahiyeh, where the majority of the Shi’ites lived and worked.
Sadr’s movement demanded more government funds for the Shi’ite community, better infrastructure, increased representation in politics, and more access to government jobs. All of this was only achieved many years later, under the leadership of Nasrallah in the 1990s. Amal fought with the Palestinians and Druze militias of Kamal Jumblatt against Syria and its Christian allies. They soon switched sides to the Syrians, fighting with them against the Christians.
Sadr disappeared, under mysterious circumstances, while on a visit to Libya in 1978, and he was replaced by the less popular Husayn al-Husayni, a man with no charisma or strong power base in the Shi’ite community. Many shed doubt on the ability of Amal to continue in the absence of Sadr, but then came the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, inspiring new fervour among the Shi’ites of Lebanon, who were supported wholeheartedly in their war for emancipation by the new mullahs of Tehran.
In 1980, Husayni was replaced by Nabih Berri, a secular Shi’ite lawyer who had excellent relations with Syrian president Hafez al-Assad. During the heyday of Syria’s war with Arafat, Amal waged a bloody war against the Palestinians, blaming them for the reprisal attacks carried out by Israel against Arafat’s forces in South Lebanon. Amal called it a “war of the camps” against Arafat’s PLO. The ones to suffer most from Israeli attacks were the Shi’ites, Berri argued, since 80% of the South was Shi’ite. Radical elements of Amal broke away in 1984, with money from Iranian hardliners, wanting initially to establish an Iran-like theocracy in Lebanon. This group announced its official existence in a press release, naming itself Hezbollah (Party of God).
Amal began to lose popular support among ordinary Shi’ites in the late 1970s for its backing of the Maronite president Elias Sarkis and the secularism of its leader, Nabih Berri. The reputation of Berri suffered a blow when, in 1984, he became minister of state for rebuilding South Lebanon, under president Amin Gemayel, forcing him to concentrate on political matters rather than the military campaigns of Amal.
Husayn al-Husayni also lost credit when he became Speaker of parliament in 1985-92 and diverted his attention from Shi’ite grievances at the grassroots level. In June 1985, Hezbollah hijacked TWA Flight 847, forcing it to land at Beirut airport and taking hostages, who were only released after Israel released 700 Lebanese prisoners. The TWA hijacking increased the popularity of Hezbollah, at the expense of Berri, and its members began to clash openly with both Berri and Dawoud Dawoud, the leader of Amal in South Lebanon.
In February 1988, Hezbollah attracted more supporters by kidnapping Lieutenant-Colonel William Higgens, an American working with UN Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFL). Dawoud led an offensive against them in South Lebanon, and in September 1988 was ambushed and killed. Some pointed fingers at Hezbollah, others at Berri, accusing him of eliminating Dawoud to clear the stage for his unchallenged leadership of Amal. Berri’s rise to pan-Shi’ite leadership was challenged, however, with the rise of radical leaders in Hezbollah who captured the minds and hearts of the Shiite masses from the mid-1980s onwards. It was during this time that Hasan Nasrallah, a young charismatic leader of Hezbollah who was 22 years Berri’s junior, began to make headlines as one of the impassioned military commanders of the new Shi’ite militia.
The rise of Nasrallah
Hasan Nasrallah was born on August 31, 1960, in Beirut. His father was a vegetable vendor, originally from Bassouriyeh village in South Lebanon. He once said in an interview with the Cairo-based al-Ahram, “No one from my family had been a cleric before. I am one of those few who have no family claim to this profession.”
When the civil war began in 1975, his family moved back to South Lebanon, where he was exposed to Amal, and the charismatic leadership of Musa al-Sadr. Nasrallah became a devoted Shi’ite Muslim, frequenting mosques in his neighbourhood and capturing the attention of a cleric named Mohammad al-Ghrawi, who advised him to continue his theology studies in Najaf, Iraq, at the hawza (Islamic seminary) there.
Ghrawi gave him a letter of recommendation to give to ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr, who welcomed him and placed him under the guidance of another Lebanese Shi’ite named Abbas al-Musawi, the future secretary general of Hezbollah who was assassinated in 1992. Musawi, in turn, was a disciple of Sheikh Mohammad Husayn Fadlallah, the current supreme Shi’ite cleric in Lebanon, who had returned from his studies in Najaf in 1966.
Until the present, Nasrallah’s relations with Fadlallah remained perfect. After the Islamic Revolution of Iran in 1979, Saddam Hussein began persecuting Shi’ite activity in Iraq, accusing the Shi’ites in Najaf of being agents for ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, working to topple the secular Ba’athist regime with a theocracy.
Nasrallah returned to Lebanon to study and teach at an Islamic institute founded by Musawi in Baalbak. His young age and charisma attracted a large following of Shi’ite men, who began looking up to him for guidance and leadership. Nasrallah was expelled from Amal in 1982 for criticizing its leadership’s weakness in light of the Israeli invasion of Beirut, and in 1985 joined the newly founded Hezbollah, bringing along a large number of his students and followers.
He became involved in military activity, and in 1987 succeeded in driving Amal militias out of districts in Beirut. Realizing that he was en route to becoming a Shi’ite leader in his own right, Nasrallah cut short his military career to complete his religious studies in Qom, Iran. Religious credentials are a must for any ambitious Shi’ite leader in the Arab world. He returned to Lebanon in 1989 to lead his commandos against Amal militias in Iqlim al-Tuffah, South Lebanon, and was wounded in battle. He became a member of Hezbollah’s central military committee at the age of 29.
Capturing the party
In October 1989, the leaders of Hezbollah supported the Taif Accord, a peace formula orchestrated by Syria and Saudi Arabia to bring an end to the civil war in Lebanon. Hezbollah agreed to release Western hostages it had captured during the war, to back Syria’s policies in Lebanon, which included the ousting of the anti-Syrian army commander Michel Aoun, but refused to disarm as all the militias did, claiming that it was needed in South Lebanon to liberate the region from Israeli occupation.
Hezbollah’s decision was dictated directly by Iranian president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, and backed by Assad, against the will of hardline clerics in Iran who wanted to establish a theocracy in Lebanon, such as Ali Akbar Mohtashemi.
Nasrallah, by now emerging as one of Iran’s favourites in Lebanon, went to Tehran in September 1989 to receive the blessing of Rafsanjani, and worked briefly as Hezbollah “ambassador” to Iran. In 1991, his mentor Musawi became secretary general of Hezbollah, but was ambushed and killed in February 1992 by Israeli helicopters. The Iranians, most notably Rafsanjani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, backed Nasrallah’s claims to leadership of Hezbollah, since he had been Musawi’s right-hand man, although the party’s hierarchy showed that the post should go to Sheikh Naiim Qasim, the deputy secretary general. The blessing of Tehran secured the post for Nasrallah, however, and Qasim remained deputy, a post he still holds today, 13 years later.
The ascent of the young Nasrallah was surprising to a majority of veteran leaders in the Shi’ite community, notably Nabih Berri (by now Speaker of the Lebanese parliament). Only 31 years old, Nasrallah was many years younger than most clerics, regarded politically and religiously inexperienced (he had spent only two years studying theology in Najaf, while Musawi had spent nine).
The same claims were made in April 2004 against Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq, who in his late 20s emerged to lead the Mehdi Army and challenge more established Shi’ite leaders, such as the veteran Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. He, too, attracted a wide audience because he was challenging conventional leadership, motivating the masses with his patriotic speeches, and using force, rather than diplomacy, to combat the enemy.
The young leader in Lebanon started his new career by promising to avenge Musawi’s blood. On March 17, 1992, a car bomb went off at the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 people. Nasrallah had sent off a clear message to the world: Hezbollah was a key player in Lebanon that could not be dismissed or eliminated that easily, and would strike at its enemies with force if they dared to confront it.
In May 1994, Israeli commandos penetrated into Lebanon and captured Mustapha al-Dirani, a pro-Hezbollah member of Amal. An infuriated Hezbollah responded in July 1994 with a suicide bomber blowing himself up at the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association in Buenos Aires, killing 85 people. Hezbollah denied involvement, to avoid international pressure to limit its casualties to the battlefield, but everybody knew that Hezbollah was behind the bombing, in retaliation for the capturing of Dirani.
For the next 10 years, Nasrullah would mention Dirani, and other senior Hezbollah prisoners, in every single one of his speeches, promising to release them from Israel. He eventually succeeded when conducting a massive prisoner exchange with Israel in January 2004. In July 1993, Israel carried out a seven-day offensive against Hezbollah, and Nasrullah responded by showering Israel with 142 Katyusha rockets.
In April 1996, war broke out again, for 16 days, and Hezbollah responded with 489 Katyusha rockets. In September 1997, Nasrallah’s 18-year-old son Hadi was killed in combat, and Nasrallah received news of his death with stunningly calm composure. An article in al-Ahram described Hadi’s funeral, saying:
Sayed Hassan Nasrallah entered the hall in solemn dignity accompanied by Jawad, his teenage son. He stopped before each coffin and offered the Fatiha[ the Muslim equivalent of the Lord’s Prayer] until he reached the one marked 13. He beckoned an aide and spoke to him in a whisper. The aide summoned two workers of the Islamic Health Association, a Hezbollah outfit. They opened the coffin, exposing a body wrapped in a white shroud. Sheikh Nasrallah’s eyes closed, his lips trembled as he offered the Fatiha. Slowly, he bent over and tenderly stroked the head of Hadi Nasrallah, his eldest son, who was 18 years old when he died in battle on September 13 . Jawad, the younger son, stood still and pale next to his father. A deep silence fell on the room while his right hand rested on his son’s chest. It was broken by the clicking of a reporter’s camera, but promptly returned when Sheikh Nasrallah looked up in cold surprise.
Over the next decade, Katyusha rocket attacks on Israel became common combat methods for Hezbollah, usually in response to Israeli attacks, but they rarely caused real physical or military damage inside Israel. The psychological damage on Israeli citizens, however, was paramount and the Israeli media would portray them as “terror attacks”. After every attack, an inflammatory speech by Nasrallah would follow, and hundreds of Hezbollah followers would roam the streets of Beirut, shouting:“Ya Nasrallah Ya Habib, Damer, Damer Tal Abib!” (Oh Nasrallah, our Beloved. Destroy, destroy Israel!”
The popularity that Hezbollah accumulated in the 1990s was due to two things: its massive media machine, and the countrywide educational and social network of schools, charities, hospitals and mosques that they operated, often under Nasrallah’s direct supervision. Hezbollah put a lot of money into rebuilding poverty stricken neighbourhoods of the Shi’ite community, and subsidizing housing in South Lebanon, after the Israeli withdrawal in 2000.
Much of the money initially came from Iran, but after gaining nationwide popularity in 2000, Hezbollah began to raise a lot of money on its own. On every road leading into Beirut, and on every route to the Shi’ite neighbourhoods, Hezbollah youth would create friendly roadblocks, adorned with pictures of Nasrallah, the yellow flag of Hezbollah, booming nationalist songs, and a charity box. These petty donations added up and pretty soon larger donations came in from the emigrant Shi’ite community in the US, Latin America and Africa.
Needy families in the Shi’ite community received sealed envelopes from the secretary general of Hezbollah at the start of every month, with a decent stipend. This endeared him to the lower class of the Shi’ite community, which 30 years earlier Musa al-Sadr had described as the “wretched of the Earth”.
Part of Nasrallah’s success was that while always appealing to the Shi’ites, he never mentioned pan-Shi’ite loyalties, and always claimed to be speaking for Lebanon. This was not the case with Musa al-Sadr, who rose to power in the 1960s and 1970s through emphasis on Shi’ite nationalism as part of the greater Lebanese nationalism.
This different approach gave Nasrallah a fairly large following among the Sunnis of Lebanon as well. Like Sadr, however, he fully understood the multitude of Lebanon’s confessional system, never once calling for an Islamic state in Lebanon, and always proclaiming to be a firm believer in the right of all Lebanese, regardless of religion, to live in harmony. Sadr, on the other hand, had referred to the Shi’ites as “disinherited,” criticizing Maronite arrogance toward the Shi’ite community and the disproportionate representation of Shi’ites in senior political posts. While Sadr was highly critical of the Lebanese army for failing to protect the South from Israeli attacks in the 1970s, Nasrallah requested the protection of no one, claiming that Hezbollah can do well in South Lebanon without assistance from the Lebanese army. This was partly in order to maintain his hold over the South, and mainly to have a free hand in launching sporadic cross-border attacks against Israel.
Nasrallah liberates South Lebanon
Nasrallah’s attacks on Israel usually resulted in retaliatory attacks on South Lebanon. In 1999, however, Israel’s new prime minister Ehud Barak responded by bombing Beirut, causing much discontent among non-Shi’ite civilians who did not want to pay the price for Nasrallah’s war. They quickly silenced their grumbling when one year later on May 24, 2000, Nasrallah liberated South Lebanon from the Israeli occupation it had been under since 1978. He was hailed throughout the Arab and Muslim world as a great leader, the only Arab to fight a war and emerge victorious against Israel since 1948.
Many speculated that he would now lay down his arms, and transform Hezbollah into a political party, but Nasrallah had other plans. He refused to disarm, just as he is doing today with regard to Resolution 1559, claiming that Israel still occupies Sheba Farms in South Lebanon.
President Emile Lahhoud could do little to stop him, since by that point Hasan Nasrallah was literarily the strongest man in Lebanon, supported wholeheartedly in his war against Israel by both Syria and Iran. The death of Syria’s president Hafez al-Assad in June 2000 left the activities of Hezbollah unchecked inside Lebanon, since only Asad had the influence to dictate policy on the Shi’ite guerrillas.
They maintained a strong relationship with Syria’s new leader, Assad, based on common objectives in the Middle East, but no longer received orders from Syria. They informed the Syrian government of their plans, received guidance, supported Assad, and often relied on the Syrians for advice, but apart from that, this is where Syrian influence ended.
Nasrallah’s team entered the political arena, running for parliament and winning 12 seats in 2000. In 1992, they had won eight seats in the 128-seat parliament. Hezbollah refused to assume government office, however, because according to Nasrallah, this would make the party bear responsibilities for mistakes done by any regime, whereas in the resistance it remains purified from political corruption and blundering.
After liberation of the South, Nasrallah was received as a guest of honour at the Presidential Palace by Lahhoud, and in 2000 met with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan during his visit to Lebanon. In reviewing the situation in Lebanon, Annan had to meet with all decision-makers, and it was impossible for him to sidestep Nasrallah.
To increase its power base outside Lebanon, Hezbollah began to transmit its al-Manar TV by satellite in 2000. Hezbollah propaganda and Nasrallah’s inflammatory speeches could now be viewed by Arabs and Muslims all over the world, much to the displeasure of the US and Israel. In 2004, it was estimated that 10 million people watched al-Manar.
Not once on al-Manar were the Arabs portrayed as defeated. Every single piece of propaganda showed a victorious guerrilla warrior, either during battle striking at Israeli targets, or returning from combat in triumph. Military operations were often filmed in detail, and so was training of Hezbollah commandos. Nasrullah would meet with every single bomber before he/she carried out an operation against Israel. To raise their morale, he would stress that they are going to heaven, because religious war (jihad) was an obligation in Islam, and tell them: “Give my regards to the Prophet Mohammed.”
Al-Manar drummed up a lot of support against the US war on Afghanistan in 2001, and Iraq in 2003. After September 11, 2001, US President George W Bush wanted to name Hezbollah as one of the “terrorist organizations” in the world, but was prevented from doing so by Lebanese premier Hariri, who warned that this would undermine support for the US war on Afghanistan throughout the Arab World. Syria, at the time cooperating with the Federal Bureau of Investigation to track down al-Qaeda members in Europe, also lobbied on Hezbollah’s behalf in Washington.
Nasrallah increased his cooperation with Syria in late 2000, after the Maronites mobilized behind their patriarch, Mar Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, demanding that the Syrian army withdraw from Lebanon. This threatened to increase Maronite influence in Lebanon, at the expense of the Shi’ites, and return the community to the plight of the pre-1975 era.
Nasrallah was loud and clear in refusing Sfeir’s demands, claiming that the Syrian army in Lebanon was needed so long as the Israelis remained in the Sheba Farms. In March 2001, Sfeir returned from a visit to the US aimed at lobbying international support against the Syrians in Lebanon. He had applied for a meeting with Bush, but had been turned down by the White House.
He was greeted, nevertheless, by thousands of Christian supporters opposed to Syria. Nasrallah responded by staging a public rally in April 2001, where about 300,000 Hezbollah supporters gathered to listen to their inflammatory leader defend Syria. The presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon, Nasrallah argued, “was a regional and internal necessity for Lebanon” and a “national obligation for Syria”.
Matters worsened for Hezbollah when Syria fell from Washington’s grace after the US war on Iraq in March 2003. As US pressure on Syria increased, so did accusations against Hezbollah, whom Bush described as a “terrorist group” with “global outreach”.
At the US Institute of Peace, then deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage said that Hezbollah was an “A-team” of “terrorists” with a “blood debt” to the US, in reference to the bombing of a US Marine Corps base at Beirut airport in 1983, widely believed to be the doing of the Amal militias that became Hezbollah in 1985. Armitage threatened that Hezbollah’s time would come, and meanwhile, think-tanks, US media and neo-conservatives described the Shi’ite militias as the next al-Qaeda.
Yet nobody made any move against Hezbollah, because the Shi’ites of Iraq would not hear of it. By 2004, the US was involved in an all-out war with militant Shi’ites in Iraq, headed by Muqtada, arousing much anger among the community, which comprises 60% of the Iraqi population.
The US could not afford another Shi’ite war in the Middle East, which would turn all the Shi’ites of Iraq, and not only Muqtada’s Mehdi Army, into enemies of the United States. Nasrallah can, with ease, call them into combat and unleash hell for the Americans in Iraq, especially since some media reports are saying that he has already set up cells for Hezbollah in Iraqi cities like Basra and Safwan, a fact that he denies.
Instead of taking action against him, Washington tried to isolate the Shi’ite guerrillas of Lebanon by getting Canada to label them a “terrorist organization” in 2002, followed by Australia in mid-2003. The European Union, however, declined to follow suit, yet al-Manar was forbidden from broadcasting in France in 2004.
Then came the assassination of Hariri this month. Hariri was believed to have been behind the passing of UN Resolution 1559 in 2004 calling for Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon and the disarming of Hezbollah. The Lebanese opposition, along with the US, pointed accusations for the murder against Syria, claiming that it had failed to protect Hariri, or even ordered his elimination since he had joined the opposition in late 2004 to oppose renewing the presidential mandate of Lahhoud, Syria’s No 1 man in Lebanon, until 2007.
While the Druze rallied around their leader Jumblatt, a onetime puppet of Damascus, in calling on the Syrians to leave Lebanon, the Maronites rallied around their leaders, and so did most of Hariri’s Sunnis, who were accusing Syria of having failed to protect their leader. Standing alone in the fight for Syria were Hezbollah and the Shi’ites of Lebanon. Nasrallah responded to the massive demonstrations that took over Beirut after Hariri’s death by calling for a public rally on the Shi’ite ceremony of Ashura, attracting thousands of Hezbollah followers.
The Ashura event, usually broadcast exclusively by al-Manar, was aired on all Arabic and Lebanese satellite stations, reportedly at Nasrallah’s request. Particular emphasis was placed on the number and power of Shi’ite militias in Lebanon, who roared while clad in black: “Death to Israel!” Nasrallah stressed that contrary to what many were saying, he did not have cells for Hezbollah in Iraq.
Iraqi Interior Minister Falah Hasan al-Naqib had said earlier that his government had arrested 16 members of Hezbollah in Iraq. “Let Iraq utter the full name of one of them,” Nasrallah replied. He refused the internationalization of the Syrian-Lebanese crisis, demanding that all conflicting parties sort out their differences among themselves.
“Today, our responsibility and commitment for a nation make it obligatory for all parties to avoid further deterioration. God forbid, if the roof collapses, it collapses on all of us.” He added, “We must not repeat mistakes of the past,” in reference to the civil war that led to the killing of 250,000 people, 15% of the population of Lebanon. “Let us discuss, calmly and rationally, the implementation of Resolution 1559 and the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon,” he added.
Hezbollah described the Ashura march this year as “a massive rally in defense of the resistance”. “We gather today to express the people’s will to protect the resistance movement against all attempts that aim at eliminating its presence and ending its role,” Nasrallah said.
And that is exactly what Nasrallah will do: work for the protection of his interests, those of Syria, and the Shi’ites of Lebanon, against all external meddling by the US.
Asia Times Online, 26 February 2005