Hizbollah: Born with Vengeance By Hala Jaber. Estate Press, London, UK. 1997. pp.240. Price: UK 14.99
In western mythology, Lebanon is generally identified with mayhem, warfare, hostage-takers and hijackers. Similarly, the name Hizbullah conjures up images of gun-toting Muslim zealots out to get ‘peaceful’ westerners. Books on Lebanon written since the eighties run along these themes, some with more fanciful details than others but the general thrust is the same. The plight of western ‘hostages’ without addressing the underlying causes of people’s grievances or mentioning Israeli occupation and brutalities have been the standard staple of such books.
It would be too much to expect that Hala Jaber, a journalist who has worked for Associated Press and Reuters, would give us a vastly different picture. After all, these images of Lebanon and the Hizbullah have been created by correspondents like her. Yet there is something refreshing about her book even if she insists on spelling the Islamic group’s name as ‘Hezbollah’. Jaber traces the origins of the Hizbullah to the immediate aftermath of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982 and the horrible brutalities inflicted by the Zionists on innocent civilians. This was a time when south of the country was dominated by Yassir Arafat’s PLO, who had become a state within the state, throwing their weight about and arousing the resentment of ordinary people, particularly the Shi’a communities. The Lebanese people quickly realized, however, that the zionist occupation would be even worse. The PLO were quickly defeated by the Israelis, who occupied the whole of the country south of Beirut. Within months of the invasion, the PLO was expelled from the country, forced to flee to camps established in Tunisia. This was quickly followed, in September 1982, by the massacres of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila. Then the zionists committed one mistake too many. They thought that the people of Lebanon would react in much the same way that populations of other Arab States had done under occupation, and that Israel could use its iron fist to cow down the people. In Lebanon, this turned out not to be the case. The Israelis also made the mistake of rounding up thousands of young Muslims and taking them, blindfolded, to Israel where they were dumped in concentation camps. Within Lebanon, the zionists started to coerce villagers into forming local militias to do their bidding. Those who refused were brutalized. Jaber identifies October 16, 1983 as the defining moment on which ‘the Israelis committed the final provocation’ against the people of South Lebanon (p.18). The people were commemorating Ashura, the tenth day of Muharram when religious passions are high among Muslims on the occasion of the martyrdom of Imam Husain.
An Israeli military convoy insisted on driving through a procession of 50,000 mourners in the town of Nabatiyeh. Israeli occupation of their towns and villages was bad enough; the zionists added insult to injury with their crude behaviour. They shot and killed two mourners and injured 15 others as they drove through the procession.
Shaikh Mehdi Shamseddin, head of the Higher Shiite Council in Beirut, immediately issued a fatwa calling for ‘civil resistance.’ The call was taken up by others and the Lebanese National Resistance (NLR) was born. Initially, this was dominated by Amal, the group established by Imam Musa al-Sadr, who disappeared in 1978 during a trip to Libya. Jaber gives considerable detail about Imam Musa al-Sadr’s contribution in mobilising the Shiis of Lebanon.
In Lebanon’s confessional arrangement, the Shiis were at the bottom of the heap. Despite being the country’s majority, they have been mistreated, denied their fair share and bypassed for resources. The NLR was the first sign of stirrings among Lebanon’s Shiis.
The Hizbullah emerged later in the form of al-Muqawama al-Islamiyah (the Islamic Resistance). It is the Muqawama that has carried the brunt of resistance to zionist occupation and, as Jaber shows, it was the Hizbullah fighters whose sacrificing spirit forced the Israelis to retreat from most of Lebanon and seek sanctuary in the so-called ‘security zone’ in the South in February 1985. The zionist occupiers are now seeking ways to flee from there as well, as recent reports from Tel Aviv indicate.
Jaber details resistance by the Hizbullah and how Israeli reprisals escalated the spiral of violence. The zionists were the ultimate losers. Their tactics, according to the author, were clear: come down hard on the civilian population by disrupting their economic activity in the hope of turning them against the resistance. This included eliminating its leadership - Shaikh Ragheb Harb, Shaikh Seyyed Abbas Musawi, for instance - and kidnapping others. Shaikh Abdul Karim Obaid and Mustafa al-Dirani fall in this latter category.
Such brutal tactics backfired. Far from the people turning against them, Hizbullah ranks swelled because they were (and are) performing a sacred duty of self-defence. But resistance to the zionists is only one part of their activities; they have also set up extensive social and other service networks to serve the local communities.
It is here that Jaber excels other western journalists and observers, in presenting a more balanced picture of the contribution of the Hizbullah. Without such work and attending to the needs of families in distress, building schools and opening clinics, the Hizbullah could not have generated the kind of support it has in Lebanon. Its support of women has been especially impressive. Given the deeply traditional and conservative societies found in much of the Muslim world, this is remarkable indeed. Jaber also notes - again, unusually for a western journalist - that the Hizbullah’s support base has expanded to include not only non-Shii Muslims but also non-Muslims. She admits that the Hizbullah ‘has gained itself a reputation in Lebanon as a champion of the poor. Its work has made a significant impact on the Lebanese public’ (p.168).
She devotes a full chapter to the ‘Grapes of Wrath’ operation, the Israeli attack on South Lebanon, especially the town of Qana, in April 1996 (pp.169-204). Jaber gives a gripping account of how the Israelis deliberately targeted the UN compound and slaughtered 109 women and children, who had sought refuge there. The youngest to die in the Israeli bombardment was a four-day old baby. The cemetery in Qana where the martyrs are buried, has become a pilgrimage site, according to the author. Again, the Israeli tactics of terrorising the civilian population in hopes of turning it against the Islamic Resistance, backfired.
Jaber’s book breaks fresh ground in that it lays out the crimes the Israelis have committed in Lebanon and how their American patrons have tried to protect them. With the exception of Robert Fisk, Jaber is the first western journalist to have presented an account that is somewhat balanced and gives the picture from the other side rather than ranting on about the plight of western hostages and how they were ‘mistreated’ in captivity. While the book is interesting and moves easily retaining the reader’s attention, it suffers from the same weaknesses that many other books by western writers on Lebanon do. At times, it indulges in speculation. For instance, Jaber repeats the allegation that the Hizbullah was involved in hostage-taking (p. 99). There is no proof of this. There were all kinds of groups involved in this murky business.
Secondly, she alleges that the Hizbullah has links with the ‘South African Muslim vigilante group PAGAD’ (p.213). This is based on a boast by some members of PAGAD in Cape Town. This was mere bluster by some amateurish members of PAGAD but there is no substance to the claim. Jaber should have checked her facts more carefully.
These minor reservations notwithstanding, her book offers some useful insights about an organisation that has been much maligned in the western press. It will serve as a useful introduction to the group’s activities and why it has attracted so much support in a faction-ridden society like Lebanon. Her conclusion merits repetition: ‘So long as the West and Israel continue to regard the problem as a crusade against terrorism, they are in effect denying their own responsibility in fostering the conditions which gave rise to Hizbullah,’ (p.214). She ends by stating that ‘as long as Israel continues to defy the international decree which calls for the end of its presence in South Lebanon, there is little hope that the circle of violence will end.’