Author/Faculty, Sarah Lawrence College
Tuesday, July 25, 2006; 11:00 AM
Fawaz Gerges , author of " The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global " and professor of international affairs and Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College, was online Tuesday, July 25, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss discusses the ongoing crisis in Lebanon and Israel. Gerges, who yesterday returned from Beirut, is spending 15 months in the Middle East conducting field research.
Full coverage from washingtonpost.com : Crisis in the Middle East
The transcript follows.
Redmond, Wash.: I have just finished your book, "Journey of the Jihadist" and wish to congratulate you on a simply marvelous piece of work. I am recommending it to everyone I know, and in fact, while in an airport bookstore over the weekend, insisted on writing a recommendation for it to be posted so everyone who came through could see it. I consider it essential reading for anyone and everyone.
Fawaz Gerges: Many thanks for your critical feedback on my book, Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy. It means a lot to me because it is one of the few books that tells the story of jihadists or militants in their own words. It tries to make sense of this shadowy universe that shattered Americans' peace of mind since the end of the 1990s.
Philadelphia, Pa.: I read the arguments that Hezbollah can not be defeated because it is not just a small band of fighters, but it is a state of mind that is supported by a large number of people in Lebanon and other surrounding countries. Aren't there other large scale states of mind? Aren't there also large numbers of Muslims who want peace? If so, is there voice getting weaker or might it gain strength someday soon?
Fawaz Gerges: There is a misunderstanding in Israel and the United States that Israel can defeat Hezbollah, or Party of God, on the battlefield and rid Lebanon of pro-Iranian Shiite's militancy. Here are some facts to consider.
First, Hezbollah is not just a militia; it is a social movement that is deeply rooted within the Lebanese Shiite community which represents about 38 percent of the population. Hezbollah has a large social and welfare infrastructure that provides social services to hundreds of thousands of people - schools, clinics, daycare centers, and much needed employment opportunities.
Equally important, Hezbollah provide a large segment of the Shiite community, historically disadvantaged and marginalized with a sense of identity and pride. The hammering away at Hezbollah will likely deepen the feeling of victimhood within the Shiite community and turn it against Israel and the West.
Secondly, contrary to the conventional wisdom, Hezbollah is not a like rotten tooth that can be plucked out easily. Hezbollah is one of the most pivotal political players on the Lebanese landscape. It has two ministers in the current government and a large popular base of support in the country and the region.
Thirdly, since the mid-1980s Hezbollah has proved itself on the battlefield against Israeli military might. It forced Israel to withdraw under fire from a small strip of land in southern Lebanon in 2000. No other Arab state or a group has been able to militarily defeat Israel on the battlefield. Hezbollah is the most powerful paramilitary non-state organization in the region. Its military and organizational skills dwarf those of Palestinian Hamas and other militant groups like Al Qaeda. It is a power to be reckoned with. Israeli leaders have already scaled their demands in the last few days because they have come to appreciate the costliness of aiming too high in its fight against Hezbollah.
Washington, D.C.: Fawaz, this is a former student. I hope you and your family are alright. My question is, how likely do you think it is that the Lebanese Government could potentially collapse under the weight of the ongoing military conflict?
Fawaz Gerges: Hello Graham, good to hear from you. I just arrived in the States from Beirut yesterday.
I fear that if the conflict continues and if Israel keeps targeting the civilian infrastructure and institutions, the democratically-elected Lebanese government could collapse. Israel's systemic aerial bombing and increasing civilian casualties - over 330 people have died and more a thousand injured - have already undermined the stability of the government. Small wonder that the Lebanese prime minister has made several appeals to the international community, particularly the United States, to broker a ceasefire on humanitarian grounds. He also warned U.S. and Europe that Israel's collective punishment policy of the Lebanese people and government is jeopardizing the future of Lebanon and his government.
I also fear that the emergence of a devastating sectarian strife between Shiites and Sunnis in Lebanon. This fault line could wreck Lebanon tear it to shreds. I think that Israel's punitive measures are designed to turn the Lebanese people against Hezbollah. The only problem with this equation is the potential of internal strife that will likely burn Lebanon and will have spillover effects on Israel for the foreseeable future.
Washington, D.C.: Based on what you have referenced as to the power of Hezbollah, then maybe the way to defeat it is to cut off is source of supply. Take Syria out and Iran will have trouble getting supplies into the country.
Fawaz Gerges: Another misunderstanding about Hezbollah is that it is a stooge of Iran and Syria, and that the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, takes order directly from the Iranian and Syrian leadership. Nonsense. Although armed and financed by Iran and Syrian. Hezbollah has become more autonomous since Israel's 2000 withdrawal from southern. Yes, Hezbollah is influenced by Iranian and Syrian foreign policies. But it does not take direct orders from either Tehran or Damascus.
Nasrallah possesses a domestic agenda within Lebanon; he has turned Hezbollah into the most powerful player in the country and himself as the ultimate power broker.
Nasrallah also possesses a broader regional agenda; he has transformed Hezbollah from a tiny Shiite group into what he calls the "vanguard" of armed resistance to Israel. Nasarallah is seen as the hero of Arab resistance to mighty, powerful Israel. No one else, not discredited Arab rulers, could stand up to Israel and inflict painful blows on the Jewish state. Nasrallah is the new hero of the Arabs; he has overshadowed Gamal Abdel Nasser, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. A big feat!
Arlington, Va.: What do you feel is the Lebanese government's responsibility when it comes to Hezbollah? This is a terrorist organization we are speaking of.
Fawaz Gerges: A very good question.
The Lebanese government does not control Hezbollah and cannot do so even it wants to. The political situation is very fragile. Hezbollah is more powerful than the Lebanese state. Accordingly, the Lebanese government finds itself in a bind between a rock - that is Hezbollah's unilateral actions against Israel - and a hard place - Israel holds Lebanon responsible for Hezbollah'a attacks.
What to do? 1- A ceasefire is crucial to prevent the collapse of the Lebanese government and state and the suffering of the population. 2- A serious internal dialogue about the need to disarm Hezbollah and integrate it within existing institutions. 3- Send the army to the south - the Lebanese-Israeli border - and expand the government's sovereignty all over the country. 4- Deploy an international force to assist the Lebanese government in policing the south. 5- A major international aid package to help the Lebanese people rebuild and reconstruct
But one point must made clear: An internal consensus is essential for success; otherwise, the alternative is civil war.
Cabin John, Md.: In your opinion, what would be the best way for Israel to prevent Hezbollah from attacking Israeli soldiers inside Israel and firing missiles into Israel from now on? Surely Israel has the right to try to accomplish these goals. What would be the best way for Israel to do so, in your opinion?
Fawaz Gerges: Thank you for your question.
Indeed, Israel has the right to defend its citizens and soldiers. So do the Palestinians. Hezbollah claims that it captured the two Israeli soldiers to trade them off for 9000 Arab prisoners held in Israeli jails. Hezbollah did provoke the current round of hostilities.
Unfortunately, the context is missing from the debate in the United States about the unfolding conflict.
As long as the Arab-Israeli conflict simmers, there will be instability in the region. The fundamental problem lies in the inability or unwillingness of the international community to assist and nudge the Israelis and Arabs to find a viable solution to their deadly embrace.
It is about time that the United States and the European Union dedicate themselves to dealing with the root causes of Arab-Israeli hostilities, not just the skirmishes in Gaza and southern Lebanon. Long term stability requires a viable and comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict - security for Israel and a state for the Palestinians. This is the most effective recipe for hammering a nail in the coffin of extremism in the region.
Washington, D.C.: From your earlier description of Hezbollah, it appears that they are much like the IRA. Is that a reasonable parallel, in terms of their armed and non-armed wings? We saw a division between the two factions of the IRA but is this something that is feasible with Hezbollah?
Fawaz Gerges: In a way, Hezbollah resembles the IRA in terms of structure, organization, and goals. The most important point to stress is that Hezbollah possesses a viable social constituency. What this means is that Hezbollah does not fear the drying up of recruits. Its large social base - hundreds of thousands - will enable it to endure and survive Israeli bombardment.
In fact, if Israel succeeds in killing the current generation of Hezbollah's fighters, another generation would emerge and would likely be more radical and militarized than the current one. Neither the United States nor Israel seems to pay adequate attention to this fact. The challenge is not to kill militarily Hezbollah - an impossible task - but to encircle it from within: encourage forces within the Shiite community that have a different vision and help strengthen and consolidate Lebanese institutions as an alternative to Hezbollah's social institutions.
washingtonpost.com: Fawaz Gerges : I want to thank all the participants for your critical questions. I apologize for not being able to answer all your questions. There was not enough time.
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