[News] Lebanon: In Context

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Tue Sep 5 08:32:42 EDT 2006


Lebanon: In Context
<http://www.leftturn.org/Articles/Viewer.aspx?id=970&type=W>http://www.leftturn.org/Articles/Viewer.aspx?id=970&type=W


An Interview with Bilal El-Amine in South Lebanon

Bilal El-Amine, founding editor of Left Turn, moved back to his native
Lebanon over a year ago. When Israel started bombing Lebanon, Bilal did
what he knows best and started reporting for independent media outlets on
the Israeli devastation of the country and the Lebanese resistance. He
reported almost daily from South Lebanon throughout the 34-day invasion
for Flashpoints on Pacifica radio network. Left Turn editor, Sasha Wright,
spoke with Bilal immediately after the UN “cease-fire” resolution was
passed about the context of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, its impacts on
Lebanese society and politics, and about the South Lebanese resistance and
Hezbollah.

LT: What was the political atmosphere in Lebanon like before the latest
invasion by Israel?

BE: On the Israeli/Lebanese front—even though Israel was forced to
withdraw from Lebanon in May of 2000—there were a number of issues that
Israel deliberately left open that could have easily been resolved. Israel
kept some Lebanese land called the Shebaa Farms. Israel would not provide
maps for the mines that they had planted throughout South Lebanon that
caused many injuries and deaths in the South. Israel continued its
constant breaches of Lebanese airspace with almost daily incursions by
Israeli warplanes over Lebanon. Israel also refused to release the
Lebanese prisoners still in Israeli prisons—there were many of them at
that time. The issue of the prisoners took one slight step forward in
2004, when Israel finally decided to do a prisoner exchange with
Hezbollah, but even then, Israel held on to three Lebanese prisoners at
the last minute before the exchange.

The long and devastating occupation by the Israelis by all accounts killed
approximately 20,000 Lebanese from 1982 to 2000. Then when Israel was
driven out at great sacrifice through the Islamic resistance—the military
wing of Hezbollah—Israel decided to hold onto a few things to keep that
front open. These are all minor issues that Israel could have completely
put to an end. Instead, Israel decided to keep a few things that would be
a source of friction to provide them with an excuse to go back into
Lebanon at a later stage and try to rearrange the political balance inside
the country in their favor, as they tried to do in 1982. Israel felt that
it was humiliated by having to withdraw from Lebanon and wanted to exact
revenge on Hezbollah, so they kept these files open. That is really where
the story starts about who started this round of fighting.

Within Lebanon, the political atmosphere was as usual, divided—mainly
because of the assassination of the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in
February 2005. Many people thought Syria was the culprit and the country
became divided along the lines between Syria’s allies—the “loyalists”
considered to be Hezbollah and a number of other groups and the
“opposition” made up of Hariri supporters, the Druze, and the Christians
of Lebanon. After the elections the so-called opposition came into power
and they were essentially running the government. Hezbollah joined the
government after winning a very solid base in the elections, but
nevertheless it acted more as an opposition party to the neo-liberal
Hariri block.

There was a lot of pressure on Hezbollah to disarm from the Hariri folks
in cooperation with the Americans and the French based on UN Security
Council Resolution 1559 that was passed after Hariri’s assassination that
called for the Syrians to leave Lebanon as well as the disarming of all
militias in Lebanon. In the run-up to what happened in July, there was a
lot of discussion about what would it take for Hezbollah to willingly
disarm and Hezbollah was quite open about discussing it. Many people
thought that the fact that Syria was finally forced to leave Lebanon would
have a cataclysmic impact on Hezbollah and they would collapse completely,
but in fact the very opposite started happening. Hezbollah was probably at
the peak of its popularity and the Hariri government—with the US behind
them—was having a difficult time getting them to disarm.

LT: What have been the effects of Israel’s attacks on Lebanese civil
society? What has been the response of Lebanese activists and NGOs?

BE: Israel used a shock treatment approach to Lebanon hoping that by
attacking the country as a whole—the civilian infrastructure and civilians
themselves—that Israel would be able to turn people against Hezbollah,
which hasn’t worked. Israel thought it could destabilize the country for a
long period of time by just sticking their finger on all of the wounds,
and particularly, the sectarian divisions that exist here. Israel’s plan
was to pulverize the country’s infrastructure and then displace a quarter
of the country—mainly Shia Muslims—and force them to live in Christian,
Sunni Muslim, and Druze areas—hoping that frictions would develop and the
Lebanese would be at each others’ throats fairly quickly and put pressure
to bear on Hezbollah and its supporters internally.

No one in Lebanon, particularly not the government, was prepared to deal
with any of this, whether on the level of helping to defend the country or
helping to deal with the humanitarian disaster that was created in the
course of one month. The NGOs were also completely overwhelmed. Some of
the NGOs were able to move quickly and do some good work, and many of them
are connected to Hezbollah and other political parties here. But also, a
lot of young people who are unaffiliated activists around various issues
moved very quickly to address the large number of displaced people that
were flooding into Beirut and other areas—living in parks and being put up
in schools which are completely inadequate for living.

These young people started one relief effort in a park, trying to bring
people food and help them find a place to stay, and then it developed more
into more organized volunteer groups and the beginnings of NGOs or aid
agencies that bring food, distribute it, and provide shelter for people.
I’ve heard of several of these groups who have taken a slightly political
tone as well. One of them is called Samidoun, which translates into a
rather ugly word in English “steadfastness,” but it is how people
characterize being in solidarity with the resistance. The refugees, and
all of us, are going to have to hold fast so that the resistance can be
able to do the same at the front and the two allow each other to stand up
in the face of Israel. By helping the displaced and dealing with their
issues, it’s a way of supporting the resistance.

That front was just as important as the front that Hezbollah was fighting
on at the border with Israel. These people and organizations tried their
best. But when you have a land, sea, and air blockade against you, and you
have F-16’s pulverizing the country; destroying all the fuel; bombing milk
factories and chicken farms; driving people from virtually all of the
agricultural land in the south and east of the country; causing all sorts
of mayhem; and not allowing the Red Cross or even the UN to bring in
supplies and aid—no one could possibly keep up and deal with that kind of
situation. But it did actually allow for a spirit of solidarity to develop
that probably bridges a lot of the sectarian divides that exist in the
country.

LT: How does the attack on Hezbollah fit into the US and Israeli plans for
the region as a whole, with Iraq and the war on terror?

BE: There’s always been a close coincidence of interest between Israel and
the US in the region. Both of them stand in opposition to everyone else in
the region, although for different reasons For the US, the oil factor is
obviously the key. The US wants to ensure that there is no opposition or
resistance to them in the region—it does not want any nationalist
movement, or any kind of movement, that could try to divert more of the
region’s oil profits towards developing the region and its people or
potentially use oil as a weapon against the US. Rather, the US wants to
keep the region under US control and it has gotten more aggressive since
George W. Bush came in with this policy of trying to literally re-shape
the whole region so it is cleansed of any opposition to the US, whether
it’s a movement or a regime.

Israel’s very foundation was opposed by all the Arabs, and came at the
cost of the Palestinian people and also the neighboring countries. Israel
has continually waged wars upon and humiliated just about every country in
the region. Most of the people in the region feel that it’s an unjust
situation and feel a great deal of hostility towards Israel.

So Israel and the US end up being in the same boat and obviously they
support each other in advancing their interests in the region. Policy
statements were written by neocons in the US for the Israeli and US
governments that outlined a plan to wipe the slate clean in the Middle
East—to get rid of stubborn regimes that they can’t get under their
control like Syria, Iraq during Saddam’s time, Iran, as well as any
movements like Hezbollah and Hamas. Neocons argued that it was in the
interest of both Israel and the United States to topple or break these
regimes and movements.

Both Israel and the US had been preparing to deal a blow to Hezbollah in
Lebanon sooner or later, and because Hezbollah captured two Israeli
soldiers, they decided to do it at this time. The US, as it always has,
gave Israel diplomatic cover when Israel came under a lot of pressure.
Then the US delayed as much as possible when Hezbollah’s resistance
undermined their plans. To compensate for this, the US drew up a
resolution that is heavily in favor of Israel. So where Israel actually
failed on the ground, the US tried to save it diplomatically with a UN
resolution.

LT: What is your analysis on the recent negotiations for a cease-fire?

BE: UN Security Council Resolution 1701 calls for a cessation of
hostilities but not an immediate cease-fire. Actually, Hezbollah is called
upon to stop all of its attacks but 1701 calls on Israel to only stop its
offensive operations. Israel has always described its most aggressive and
preemptive wars as defensive and therefore it will interpret any action it
wants as being defensive and will continue attacking in this way if the
international community allows it. The resolution also blames Hezbollah
for this war and it does not say a single word about the month of Israeli
war crimes committed against the Lebanese population—nothing about the
excesses and the breaches of all sorts of conventions of war. Neither does
1701 have any word about reparations after Israel has literally destroyed
the country. So UN Resolution 1701 rewards Israel in many respects,
despite it waging a war of terror and committing a series of war crimes.
On the question of the prisoners, which is at the heart of this whole
matter, 1701 calls for the unconditional release of the Israeli prisoners
but says nothing about the Lebanese prisoners. Hezbollah has accepted 1701
because of its characteristic flexibility and pragmatism. But we have yet
to see how 1701 will be interpreted on the ground, especially by Israel
who will read it for every advantage it can possibly get.

LT: Does UN resolution 1701 call for the disarmament of Hezbollah?

BE: No. 1701 calls for the Lebanese army to deploy south of the Litani
River and to increase the number of the UN forces in South Lebanon
already. 1701 does not directly call for the disarming of Hezbollah but it
does say that previous resolutions must be implemented, referring to
Resolution 1559, suggesting that disarming Hezbollah should be part of it.

LT: What has been Hezbollah’s role in Lebanese politics in recent years?

BE: Essentially, if it weren’t for the 1982 invasion of by the Israelis I
don’t think there would have been a Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah grew
out of Israel’s invasion and very long occupation. Israel very mistakenly
decided to extend well beyond its immediate goals at that time which was
to expel the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization, from Lebanon. In
only about three months into the invasion, Israel was able to achieve that
goal and the PLO was shipped out of Lebanon to various countries. However,
rather than withdrawing at that point, the Israelis decided that they were
going to stay and essentially impose a new order and force Lebanon to sign
a peace treaty and impose themselves as a overlord of Lebanon.

The Israelis obviously are not the most delicate in the way they work in
their means of occupation and were rather heavy-handed using torture,
imprisonment, and collective punishment widely—all of the things that
Israel does in Gaza and the West Bank. This caused people throughout the
south of Lebanon and through most of Lebanon to rebel and to begin to
fight back.

Hezbollah at first started as an umbrella group for many small factions
that were beginning to gather around the idea of developing an effective
resistance organization to the occupation. By 1985, they had declared
their statement of purpose, called the “Open Letter,” where they started
to formulate some of their ideas; but they didn’t really elect a
leadership until the late 1980s.

Since its founding, Hezbollah has surprised people that have very negative
images of Islamist activist groups. Hezbollah established itself as an
Islamist group that is very open and tolerant and is not fixated on
imposing an Islamic state on people that do not want one and has said so
from the very beginning. When Hezbollah liberated the South of Lebanon,
there was a small but substantial number of Christians in the South, many
of whom collaborated with Israeli occupation quite openly and were the
front line torturers and thugs for the Israelis. But when the area was
liberated, there was not a single incident of sectarian revenge against
collaborators, Christian or Muslim.

Hezbollah then went on to immerse itself into the political mainstream of
Lebanon, trying to establish itself as a Lebanese party and participate
more and more in the government. They first did this in the parliament,
where Hezbollah enjoyed a lot of success and became the largest
parliamentary block. In the most recent round of elections, they took it
one step further and joined the cabinet of the government with two
ministers. This was called the Lebanization process and some people split
off from Hezbollah because of this track. Nevertheless, Hezbollah has
continued to immerse itself into Lebanese politics.

Although often accused of being Syrian or Iranian agents, Hezbollah
actually represents the high point for the Shia Muslims of Lebanon who
have been represented in the past by people who did not have their best
interests at heart. Hezbollah is very much a Lebanese party with
tremendous popular support, probably more that any political party has,
whether in Lebanon or elsewhere. Hezbollah can call hundreds of thousands
into the streets within an hour because they are very well organized and
have really delivered for these very people, whether by driving out one of
the mightiest armies in the world after twenty-odd years of occupation,
representing their interests in the government, or through humanitarian
work improving the livelihood of the people it represents.

LT: How would you characterize the leader of Hezbollah and how is he seen
in the Arab world especially after the latest confrontation with Israel?

BE: Some call him the new Saladin others call him the new Nasser (the Arab
nationalist hero of the 1960s). Nasrallah’s pictures are now raised in
protests across the Arab world, although he is very distinctly a Shia
cleric and most Muslims in the Arab world are Sunni and in the past would
have had prejudices against Shia. That has all fallen by the wayside after
this outbreak of fighting. Nasrallah has really become a hero to many
Arabs. He is someone who, as they say “lifts our spirits.”

Nasrallah and Hezbollah have presented an alternative to the corrupt Arab
regimes—who amass great money and weapons but at the cost of their own
people or to use against their own people—and also an alternative to Al
Qaeda and that kind of very right-wing Islamist politics that had been
presented as the opposition before.

LT: What are Iran and Syria’s real roles in the recent conflict? What
influence do they have on Hezbollah?

BE: Iran is the main backer of Hezbollah—providing them with money and
other kinds of support. No doubt this support was critical to the
formation of Hezbollah, for sustaining it throughout this time, and its
success. Nevertheless, Hezbollah was very much an organic development
rooted in Lebanon. The Iranian revolutionary guards helped train the early
members of Hezbollah, especially in fighting and military matters. But
there has hardly been a foreign participation in Hezbollah—it has been
primarily Lebanese. I would say Hezbollah is about 99% Shia
Lebanese—mainly people who were affected by the occupation of Lebanon. The
Iranian Revolution provided the support and the inspiration but really
Hezbollah took off only after the Israeli invasion and grew because of the
long occupation that followed.

Syria has mainly been a conduit for Hezbollah to get arms and also when
the Syrians were in control of Lebanon before 2005 they had an agreement
with Hezbollah that they would be given freedom to conduct the resistance
without intervention.

No one denies that there is an alliance or relationship. The problem comes
when opponents of Hezbollah present this argument that Hezbollah does not
act in the interest of the people of Lebanon and that Hezbollah is a
puppet or a stooge of either the Syrians or the Iranians. But, at every
point, if you examine Hezbollah’s record it has always acted within the
interests of at least the people it represents here in the country and it
represents one third of the people. Whatever decisions that Hezbollah
makes are made here in Lebanon and implemented here.

There is also an attempt to link them also for other reasons—to tie
Hezbollah to the “axis of evil” making things convenient for US and Israel
who want to force them into a common front so they can take them all out
as they tried to do in this war and haven’t really succeeded.

LT: How will this confrontation affect Palestinians in Lebanon and Palestine?

BE: Over all, the effect on Palestinians would be that they’ve seen a
resistance movement be able to fend off, and maybe more than fend off, the
Israeli army and for a second time break the armor of invincibility that
the Israeli army relies on to keep everyone, particularly the
Palestinians, down. And maybe this has given them a boost after many years
of continuous assaults by Israel. Maybe this has exposed them to a set of
tactics, ways of organization, and ways of resistance.

After the liberation of Southern Lebanon in 2000 it was only few months
before the second Intifada began in Palestine, and many attribute what
Hezbollah was able to do to the Israeli army in Southern Lebanon as at
least one cause or inspiration of that Intifada. The fate of the Lebanon
and Palestine are very much tied together. Many people suggest that Hamas
is now beginning to adopt more of Hezbollah’s approach to politics and how
to conduct itself rather than operating like the more traditional Islamist
groups that focus less on fighting occupation and US imperialism and more
on Islamic morals and sectarian issues.

LT: How should the US Left view Hezbollah?

BE: This is important, especially for what I see in US left approaches to
Islamic activism. Obviously there’s a very self-serving interpretation of
Islamism, or what people often wrongly call Islamic fundamentalism, that
the right wing uses as its new bogey-man after communism as a
justification for aggression of and unilateralism. This right-wing
interpretation is often a caricature of Islamists as fanatic terrorists
killing people for the sake of killing that we see in the mainstream media
and in Washington. This interpretation unfortunately extends into much of
US Left analysis.

Many people on the left in the US make the mistake that any time they see
a movement that has Islam as part of the way it expresses its politics,
they immediately put it into one category that some go as far as calling
Islamic fascism and others call reactionary. There’s often very little
distinction made between the various trends in Islamism that exist now.
These trends are so varied at certain points that Islamism almost ceases
to be a useful term. For example, if you look at secular groups, it is
very hard to put all secular groups in one political category. The
fascists were secular and the republicans are technically a secular group;
and then there are Marxists and anarchists on the left. You have to look
at Islamism in the same way. There are many different groups that exist
under that umbrella and they’re quite varied and have different histories.
This is particularly true with Hezbollah because there is such a profound
difference between Hezbollah and some of the other Islamist groups that it
is very difficult to even talk about them as being part of the same
movement.

There has to be a deeper understanding and we have to lift the prejudice
that just because there’s religious _expression in the politics it does not
immediately mean that it’s a reactionary movement or a movement that we
have to be wary of. Al Qaeda is a reactionary organization— it seems to
simply want to enforce Islam; it probably has some very sectarian
anti-Christian and anti-Jewish and even anti-Shia politics; and it uses
horrific methods to achieve its goals. Hezbollah is the very opposite of
that—it is a national liberation movement of a certain sector of the
population here that has always been at the bottom and at the very
margins. Hezbollah represents the very high point of the Lebanese Shia’s
self-organization and this just happens to be the way they express
themselves.

Hezbollah has been a very successful movement and it has been rather open
and tolerant at many levels—it has not sought to impose Islamic morals on
secular people or people of other religions and its tactics are often the
same as any social movement. Hezbollah does have an armed resistance wing,
but that is something that was forced upon it by the Israeli occupation
and it has never used that against anyone except the Israeli occupation.

So we have to be really wary of this knee-jerk reaction to any movement
that has Islamic content, as you will find most movements do here in the
Middle East and increasingly so. We have to look past that and see the
real content—what the movement represents, what its goals are, what its
tactics are—and judge it on that basis.

LT: Among many activists, the tendency has not been to
compare Hezbollah to Al-Qaeda, but to compare them to the Islamists in the
Iranian Revolution. Can you discuss that comparison?

BE: Hezbollah’s goal is not to create an Islamic state here. There has
historically been a big difference between the Shia of Lebanon and the
Shia of Iran at the ideological level because the Shia here have always
been a minority and the underdog; while in Iran, Shiism has been a state
religion for five hundred years or so and the clergy that led the
revolution there were in a vastly different position than the ones here.
Although Iran developed an opposition to American imperialism, no doubt
that’s what fueled the Islamic revolution in Iran, once they were in power
the nature of that regime changed profoundly. Hezbollah’s politics, even
though they’ve now merged within the state, have actually gone in a more
liberal, open, flexible, and pragmatic direction.

Hezbollah’s leadership has literally no resemblance to the Mullahs of
Iran—nor do they take their orders from them. In terms of religious
leadership, what they call a spiritual leadership, there’s a local cleric
by the name of Fadlallah, who provides much of the religious guidance to
Shia in Lebanon. If you read his stuff he’s extremely liberal. We
shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that just because Iran financially
supports Hezbollah that they’re one and the same. There are quite
substantial differences.

LT: What are important things for US activists to be doing in order to
support the Lebanese people? What will be the most important thing in the
next stage?

BE: There are a lot of things that can be done. The most basic thing is
raising funds to help re-build the country. Helping the country to
re-build quickly will be a continuation of the resistance that happened
and a way sending the message to Israel, “All your brutality is not going
to break us and we will rebuild and be strong again.” People can also come
here, as some did in Palestine, to see for themselves, take pictures and
videos, and use them as a tool when they get back to relay the real story
back to people in the states in effective ways.

We need to try to follow up on the war crimes that Israel committed, and
there are dozens. I’ve heard of efforts even in the US to do this. By
drawing up some cases and then taking them to any courts that we possibly
can, whether it’s the United States or in Europe or in other international
bodies, we may not get justice but at least it would a be way of making
sure that Israel knows that it is going to be held accountable.

The heart of why Israel is such a source of instability and wars in the
region is because its very foundation was at the cost of hundreds of
thousands of people—Israel was founded on stolen land and it is in
continuous confrontation with all of the people around it. We have to find
a way of removing that source of friction and aggression and the only way
is to address the Palestinian question and all of the outlying problems
that have developed from that, including Israel’s occupation of Syrian and
Lebanese land.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bilal El-Amine is a writer based in Lebanon. He can be reached at
<http://us.f546.mail.yahoo.com/ym/Compose?To=zaloom33%40yahoo.com>zaloom33 at yahoo. 
com. Previous reports on the Lebanese elections and other
articles by Bilal can be found at
<http://www.leftturn.org/Articles/SpecialCollections/Lebanonreports.aspx,>http://www.leftturn 
.org/Articles/ SpecialCollectio ns/Lebanonreport s.aspx,
www.beirut.indymedi a.org, www.muslimwakeup. com and www.zmag.org.
http://www.leftturn.org ***

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