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Inside the Mind of Hezbollah
"I was then 22 years old," Nasrallah told me. "We used to discuss issues among ourselves. If we are to expel the Israeli occupation from our country, how do we do this? We noticed what happened in Palestine, in the West Bank, in the Gaza Strip, in the Golan, in the Sinai. We reached a conclusion that we cannot rely on the Arab League states, nor on the United Nations," he said. "The only way that we have is to take up arms and fight the occupation forces."
With a force of between 600 and 1,000 full-time fighters, along with thousands of backups pulled from the streets willing to become human bombs, Nasrallah managed what the tens of thousands in the armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan were unable to do for a half-century -- force Israel to retreat. Today, his is the last private army left in Lebanon.
Nasrallah became the movement's secretary general in 1992, at age 32, after Israeli helicopter gunships assassinated his predecessor. His first major decision was to shift a movement best known for its terrorism spectaculars against the United States, France and Israel into politics -- and run candidates for parliament.
"They resist with their blood," declared Hezbollah campaign posters at the time, featuring suicide bombers. "Resist with your vote."
But Hezbollah's shifts under Nasrallah should not be mistaken for moderation. As with other Islamist groups in the Middle East, change was about survival of both cause and constituents. The end of Lebanon's 15-year civil war in 1990 had altered the environment. From then on, Hezbollah needed to participate in the political system -- or face loss of the weapons that gave it power.
Today, Hezbollah holds 14 seats in parliament, one of the larger blocs, and in 2005 joined the government for the first time. This year, Nasrallah even made an unlikely alliance with a right-wing Christian who was once a Lebanese army general -- while still accepting what U.S. intelligence has pegged at about $100 million annually from Iran in goods, cash and arms, including an estimated 13,000 rockets and missiles.
For six years, Hezbollah also demonstrated some military restraint. When Israel ended its 18-year occupation of Lebanon in 2000, Nasrallah declared, "We have liberated the south. Next we'll liberate Jerusalem." Yet until last week, Hezbollah's increasingly infrequent offensives were largely limited to the disputed border town at Shebaa Farms.
But the transition is far from complete; Nasrallah still wants it both ways. A few weeks before I saw him, he gave a speech about the publication in a Danish newspaper of cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad, which triggered rioting worldwide and more than 100 deaths. Nasrallah condemned "those fools that did wrong to our prophet," but he also criticized the attack on the Danish Embassy in Beirut. "Let us stop this nonsense," he said. "As Muslims and Christians, we should continue to cooperate and unite in order to reject the offense to our prophets and our holy belongings."
Yet Hezbollah still has refused to comply with U.N. Resolution 1559, which calls for the dismantling and disarming of Hezbollah's militia. "The Israeli Air Force could destroy the Lebanese army within hours, or within days, but it cannot do this with us," Nasrallah told me. "We exercise guerrilla warfare. . . . Lebanon still needs the formula of popular resistance."
Whenever Nasrallah talks about the terrorist tactics with which Hezbollah has become synonymous, the message is still tortuously two-faced. Our exchange about al-Qaeda and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was typical:
"What do the people who worked in those two [World Trade Center] towers, along with thousands of employees, women and men, have to do with war that is taking place in the Middle East? Or the war that Mr. George Bush may wage on people in the Islamic world?" he asked me. "Therefore we condemned this act -- and any similar act we condemn."
But the Pentagon?
"I said nothing about the Pentagon, meaning we remain silent. We neither favored nor opposed that act," he replied. "Well, of course, the method of Osama bin Laden, and the fashion of bin Laden, we do not endorse them. And many of the operations that they have carried out, we condemned them very clearly."
The use of terrorism is a difficult subject for the head of a group that succeeded in redefining extremist tactics. Hezbollah deployed the first Islamic suicide bombers in modern times. It was also the first to carry out multiple attacks simultaneously. Al-Qaeda and Hamas and Iraq's insurgents -- all Sunni movements -- have copied these tactics.
Nevertheless, Nasrallah has only disdain for bin Laden and the Taliban. In April, an al-Qaeda cell in Lebanon tried to assassinate him. And the late al-Qaeda chief in Iraq this spring condemned the Shiite movement as an "enemy of the Sunnis" -- ironically, in hindsight -- for protecting Israel by preventing Palestinian attacks from Lebanon. "The worst, the most dangerous thing that this Islamic revival has encountered . . . was the Taliban," Nasrallah told me. "The Taliban state presented a very hideous example of an Islamic state."
Yet Hezbollah has not abandoned its extremist origins, even as it tries to establish conventional political legitimacy.
"It is unacceptable, it is forbidden, to harm the innocent," he told me, reflecting on Iraq. "To have Iraqis confronting the occupation army, this is natural. But if there are American tourists, or intellectuals, doctors, or professors who have nothing to do with this war, they are innocent, even though they are Americans, and it is forbidden. It is not acceptable to harm them."
In 2004, Hezbollah issued a communique condemning the beheading of American contractor Nicholas Berg by al-Qaeda in Iraq as a "despicable act" that did "grave damage to Islam and the Muslims." But the day before we talked, a suicide bomber had detonated a bomb at a Tel Aviv restaurant during the busy lunch hour, killing 11 and wounding more than 60 civilians. The bomb was laced with nails and other projectiles; the injuries were particularly gruesome. Islamic Jihad, another Iranian-backed group, claimed credit.
I asked Nasrallah how he applied his metric on civilians to Israelis. He described the issue of what he calls "occupied Palestine" as "complicated."
"It is our opinion that in Palestine, women and children need to be avoided in any case," he responded. "But it came after more than two months of daily Israeli killing of Palestinians, and the destruction of houses and schools, and the siege that is imposed on the Palestinians. There is no other means for the Palestinians to defend themselves. That is why I cannot condemn this type of operation in occupied Palestine."
Robin Wright, Washington Post diplomatic correspondent, interviewed Nasrallah for her upcoming book, "Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East" (Penguin Press).