His picture can be seen in demonstrations throughout most of the world. His portrait adorns cars, shops, homes and offices in many parts of the Muslim world. His plump, bearded, bespectacled face appears on billboards, posters, murals, key chains, necklaces and screen savers. Followers, devotees, supporters and admirers choose fiery quotes from his speeches as ring-tones for their mobile phones. And the best kind of palm-date in Egypt has been named after him this season. Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, secretary general of Hizbullah, has become a household name throughout the Muslim world and beyond, known as one of the most charismatic, trustworthy, upright, honest and inspiring figures in the Muslim world. But who is Hassan Nasrallah, the man who has managed to inflict on Israel one ignominious setback after another?
Hassan Abd al-Karim Nasrallah was born on August 31, 1960, in a poor neighbourhood on the eastern outskirts of Beirut, Lebanon’s capital. He is the oldest of nine children in a family from the village of al-Bazouriyyeh, near Tyre (southern Lebanon). His father, Abd al-Karim, ran a small neighbourhood grocery and stretched his little earnings to secure a decent living and good education for his children. During his spare time, the young Nasrallah used to help his father at the grocery shop. He became a voracious reader at a young age, with a particular interest in books on religion and politics, and demonstrated a keen interest in religion, frequenting mosques in the Muslim neighbourhoods of eastern Beirut.
When civil war erupted in 1975, his neighbourhood, Karantina, along with other predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods and Palestinian refugee-camps to the east of Beirut, came under attack from the Lebanese Christian Phalangists. The family was forced to leave its ancestral home in Bazouriyyeh. It was then that the young Hassan started his active involvement in politics by joining the Amal movement, a Shi’a political group established in the mid-1970s by Sayyid Musa al-Sadr in an effort to bring the Lebanese Shi’a community out of its underclass position in the country. Because of his precociousness and intelligence, he became Amal’s political delegate in his village.
During his stay in the south, Nasrallah’s interest in the deen grew. He caught the attention of Sayyid Muhammad al-Gharawi, a local ‘alim of Iraqi origin, who advised him to pursue his studies at the Shi’a hawzah (seminary) in Najaf in Iraq. So in 1976, armed with a letter of recommendation addressed to Ayatullah al-Udhma Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, he set out for Iraq. But his stay in Najaf was cut short. Najaf was then reeling under the heavy-handedness of Ba’athist repression. In 1978 the Iraqi authorities expelled hundreds of Lebanese and other non-Iraqi students at the hawzah in Najaf from Iraq. So Nasrallah was forced to return to Lebanon to evade Ba’athist persecution.
In many ways, Nasrallah’s short sojourn in Najaf left indelible marks on him. Parallel to the broad education designed to prepare students to specialize in Islamic religious and legal studies, the Najaf Hawzah provides its students with a social milieu conducive to a simple, frugal way of life, self-denial and heightened spirituality. This fitted in well with Nasrallah’s innate preference for an ascetic and spartan lifestyle. But Najaf’s influence on Nasrallah was not restricted to the realms of spirituality and religious learning. During his stay in Najaf he studied under, or came into contact with, a number of politically-minded ayatullahs, including the late Imam Ruhullah Khomeini, Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and Ayatullah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr (the father of Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr). His sojourn in Najaf also introduced him to the surge in Shi’a political activism in Iraq, which was spearheaded by the Islamic Da’awah Party and the Islamic Action Movement, and to the discussions and concerns that political activism generated among quietist and apolitical trends within the Shi’a establishment. It was there that he first met Sayyid Abbas al-Musawi, who was then close to the Da’awah Party and who later became the leader of Hizbullah.
After returning to Lebanon, Nasrallah studied and taught at a local hawzah set up by Sayyid Abbas al-Musawi in Ba’albak in the eastern Beqa’ah Valley. But his educational activities did not distract him from political activism. At the age of 19 Nasrallah was selected as Amal’s political officer in the Beqa’ah, which automatically made him a member of Amal’s central political office. Both at the hawzah and during political meetings and rallies, Nasrallah demonstrated extraordinary oratory skills. His passionate sermons and fiery political speeches gained him admiration and a following.
During the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, a wave of resignations rocked Amal in protest at the approval of the movement’s head, Nabih Berry, to join the National Salvation Committee, which was set up by the country’s then-president Ilyas Sarkis after the invasion. The breakaway group, which was led by Hussein al-Musawi, a prominent member of Amal’s Command Council, condemned Berri for joining a committee side by side with Bashir Gemayyil, the commander of the Lebanese Forces militia, which was responsible for many massacres of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians during the civil war. Nasrallah was among the many Amal activists who resigned from Amal and set out to organize an armed resistance movement against the Israeli occupation. In this effort, they got material and moral support from the Islamic Republic of Iran. During the invasion Tehran had dispatched a 1,000-strong Revolutionary Guard force to Lebanon. They set up bases in the Beqa’ah Valley and engaged in providing military training to the group that broke away from Amal.
Nasrallah rose swiftly through the ranks of Hizbullah. The first responsibility he assumed was that of mobilizing and organizing military cells to resist the occupation. He then became deputy head of the party organisation in Beirut, and later headed the organisation. In the mid-1980s he was appointed to the newly established post of al-mas’ul al-tanzimi al-a’am (“general executive officer”). In this capacity he was in charge of implementing the decisions made by Hizbullah’s shura council. As the resistance to the Israeli occupation forces developed into a full-scale guerrilla war, Nasrallah distinguished himself as a skilful and competent guerrilla commander. By his involvement in the military affairs of Hizbullah he helped oversee the party’s successful efforts to drive Amal militias from the Shi’a districts of the southern suburbs of Beirut during armed clashes in 1987.
Soon afterwards, Nasrallah’s thirst for knowledge of the deen took him to the city of Qum in Iran, where he joined its hawzah. But the increasing resistance to the Israeli occupation troops and the South Lebanon Army militia, as well as renewed clashes between Hizbullah and Amal, forced him to return to Lebanon in 1989, where he became a member of the party’s central committee. He was slightly wounded as he was leading fierce battles against Amal in Iqlim al-Tuffah in southern Lebanon. Later in the year he was sent to Tehran, where he was Hizbullah’s representative in the Islamic Republic until 1991.
Nasrallah rose to the position of secretarygeneral of Hizbullah after Israel assassinated Sayyid Abbas al-Musawi, its leader, in a helicopter-gunship attack in February 1992. Nasrallah’s leadership is credited with a phenomenal improvement in Hizbullah’s military, organizational and media capabilities, which ultimately contributed to its success in expelling Israeli occupation forces from most of southern Lebanon in May 2000.
In September 1997 his eldest son, Hadi, 18, was martyred during clashes with Israeli forces in Jabal al-Rafi’i in southern Lebanon, and his body taken by the Israelis. Upon receiving the news, Nasrallah displayed extraordinary calm and composure. Speaking at a Hizbullah rally only one day after Hadi’s death, Nasrallah told the crowds: “We in the leadership of Hizbullah do not spare our children and save them for the future. We take pride when our sons reach the frontline; and we stand, heads high, when they fall as martyrs.” Almost a year elapsed before Hadi’s body was returned, as part of an exchange in which Hizbullah delivered the body of an Israeli naval commando killed in 1997 in return for the freedom of 60 Lebanese prisoners and the remains of 39 fighters.
Israel’s withdrawal from most of southern Lebanon catapulted Nasrallah into a position of unrivalled prominence in the Arab world. Nasrallah immersed himself in dealing with some of the effects of the Israeli occupation. He continued to lead the resistance to liberate the Sheba’ah Farms, a strip of Lebanese lands that Israel had captured from Syrian troops in the war of 1967. He also promised to gain the release of Lebanese and Arab prisoners from Israeli jails. In one landmark speech on this topic, he said repeatedly: “We are a people who do not leave our captured fighters languishing in jails.” In 2004 he proved himself true to his word: he played a major role in a complex prisoner-exchange deal between Israel and Hizbullah, resulting in the release of hundreds of prisoners from Israeli jails. In the course of the negotiations, the Israelis considered releasing all the Lebanese prisoners they held in captivity. Yet internal politicking led Israel’s rulers to hold back a few prisoners, hoping to use them to pressurise Hizbullah to provide information about the whereabouts of Ron Arad, an Israeli fighter pilot who was captured by Amal fighters when his plane was shot down during an Israeli air raid in 1986 against the Ayn al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee-camp near Sidon, who later disappeared without trace. In a speech that he delivered during a ceremony to welcome the released prisoners, Nasrallah warned the Israelis that in the future they would realise that they had committed a “stupid” mistake by keeping those Lebanese prisoners. He later promised on a number of occasions that Hizbullah would do whatever it takes, including the abduction of Israeli soldiers, to gain the freedom of those prisoners.
Nasrallah has also acquired a reputation as being a man of his word. The military operation carried out by Hizbullah on July 12, which resulted in the capture of two Israeli soldiers, and ignited the recent conflict, was codenamed al-Wa’ad al-Sadiq (“the sincere promise”) to highlight the fact that it comes to realize the promise made by Nasrallah to force the Israelis to negotiate the release of the remaining prisoners.
Like the late Imam Khomeini, Nasrallah, in exercising his role as a leader, conducts himself as a revolutionary zahid (ascetic) bound by a conscious commitment to eschew worldly possessions and a strict adherence to self-imposed routines of austerity and discipline. During the recent conflict with Israel, for instance, he is reported to have led the confrontation while fasting for most of the 33 days of fighting in solidarity with the displaced. He also refused to sleep on a bed or a mattress, preferring instead to sleep on just a blanket on the floor. Such selflessness, self-control and willingness to suffer in order to empathise and be one with one’s people are as important to the making of an Islamic leader as charisma, learning, intelligence, competence and courage.