Assaf Kfoury: Whither Hezbollah

27 05 2010

This article was first published in the Weekly Worker (3 March 2010 )

Hezbollah is the guerilla force that stymied the Israeli military in southern Lebanon in the 1990’s. The Israeli occupiers and their proxies in the South Lebanon Army finally gave up and withdrew in May 2000. In a return confrontation in July-August 2006, Hezbollah again stood its ground, and the Israeli military was again stunned by a gritty enemy. This time round, it was the Bush administration’s open goading – recall Condoleezza Rice’s monstrous declarations (“the birth pangs of the new Middle East”) to justify the destruction and the killing[1] – which pressed Israel to pursue an increasingly futile and elusive finish.  In July-August 2006 just as in the 1990’s, Hezbollah did not cave in, remained defiant, wore down its more powerful opponent, and fought it to a draw.

There is much to respect and reflect on here. The business with Hezbollah is not police action against murderous criminal gangs – though this is how it often sounds in the western media – which are moreover said to be armed and abetted by one of America’s current bogeymen (Iran).  It is unfinished business with far-reaching consequences for the US, Israel, and western interests in the Middle East. Autocratic Arab regimes have fallen in line with the dictates of the American overlord, one after the other, or else faced outright destruction, as in Iraq. By contrast, Hezbollah has repeatedly played spoiler and provided inspiration to others to resist. It is the only organized Arab force that the mighty Israeli army has been unable to subdue and the only one whose declarations of steadfastness have matched its performance on the battlefield.[2] Largely thanks to Hezbollah, the plans for a “new Middle East”, at least as imagined by George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice, have collapsed.

Not without inflicting great pain, however. The cost for the Lebanese that have sheltered Hezbollah has been very steep. The wholesale devastation wrought on Lebanon by Israel over the years has been all out of proportion with what Israel has suffered in return. In July-August 2006, for example, the ratio of Lebanese civilian fatalities to Israeli civilian fatalities was more than 25 to 1, while the ratio of combatant fatalities was about 1 to 1.[3]

Hezbollah’s resilience has come at an even heavier price for the Palestinians to the south. Israel has undertaken with a vengeance to make the Palestinians under its control pay for its setbacks to the north. In recent years, commentators in the West have taken to chiding Israel’s “disproportionate” response to Palestinian acts of resistance – as if there would be nothing to denounce about Israel’s relentless decades-long dispossession of the Palestinians, had its response been “proportionate”. Such was the liberal verdict, for example, on Israel’s destruction of Gaza in January 2009. By Israeli generals’ own admission, this “disproportionate” response was deliberately designed to preempt any Palestinian urge to duplicate Hezbollah’s experience.[4]

But Hezbollah is not just an effective guerilla force resolutely opposed to US-led western domination. It is also a political party, though one that is not neatly defined by traditional categories of the left (or the right).  Since its shadowy beginnings shortly after Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Hezbollah has transformed itself from a small underground militia into a large party deeply entrenched in Lebanese politics.[5] Along the way, it has battled other parties to impose itself as the dominant powerbroker inside the Lebanese Shia community and then, without shedding its exclusive Shia identity, in Lebanon as a whole.  It has shrewdly used the prestige and notoriety that have come its way to further its own communal agenda. It has often formed contradictory or unlikely alliances with political players to its right – out of expediency or Islamist affinity, sacrificing support from potential allies to its left – both inside Lebanon and in the region at large.

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