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'Party of God'
With David Lewis
Reporter, FRONTLINE/World

Friday, May 23, 2003; 11 a.m. ET

In Lebanon, Hezbollah has become an accepted part of mainstream society -- complete with its own uniformed army, political party, schools, a satellite TV network, and souvenirs: everything from Hezbollah key chains to postcards and perfume. Founded in 1982 in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the "Party of God" based its ideology on the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the teachings of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

FRONTLINE/World's "Party of God," airing Thursday, May 22, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings) explores Hezbollah's mission and function today. Armed and sponsored by Iran in coordination with Syria, the countries have been charged with providing the group with rockets used to attack Israel. Producer David Lewis was online to talk about it on Friday, May 23, at 11 a.m. ET.

Lewis has two decades of experience as an investigative reporter, correspondent and producer of broadcast news. He worked for 11 years as a reporter/producer of magazine and documentary pieces at CNN and before that in documentaries and the investigative unit at ABC News. His production company, David Lewis Productions, launched in 2001. A Harvard graduate, Lewis was a 1994 Nieman Fellow. His work has received numerous journalism awards, including CableACE, Emmy awards and the Joan Shorenstein-Barone award. The Miramax feature film "In Too Deep" is based on one of Lewis’s stories.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

College Park, Md.: Can you explain a bit more of the history of Hezbollah? Specifically, where did the start-up money and impetus came from to begin a new group at a time that the PLO was still very strong?

David Lewis: They were inspired by the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and their initial military and terrorist training came from Iran, and financing still comes from Iran, though less now than in the early days.

Houston, Tex.: Your subtitled translation from Arabic to English was not done properly. It is not even close to what the speakers were saying. Don't you think that a person with more knowledge of the language would have been better used in this case? A review of the translation needs to be done to maintain the integrity and honesty of your segment.

David Lewis: Couldn't agree with you more; if there were mistakes, I apologize. But whatever we translated in that interview, we may have gotten a moment that was a little different than what was on screen at that exact time. But I think journalism would be in a sorry state if only Arabic speakers did stories in Arabic-speaking countries, and only English speakers did stories in English-speaking countries.

Madrid, Spain: Is it true that Hezbollah has killed off and driven out the Christian Maronites of Lebanon? Why is there no mention of the Christian minorities who continue to be the targets of Islamic terrorists?

David Lewis: Well, the program did mention that Lebanon has a heavy Christian population. No they haven't been driven out. The population is roughly one-third Christian. Their constitutional role is still protected in the government. But many Christians are leaving because they don't see a great future for their kids. Since the Muslim population is growing so much faster, and Muslim parties have so much power because of backing from Syria, they don't see a great future. But no, they haven't been driven out.

Glenmont, Md.: Since Israel pulled out of South Lebanon three years ago, why hasn't the Lebanese government moved to disarm Hezbollah? Wasn't that an agreement with the UN that this would happen after the Israeli withdrawal?

David Lewis: I'm not sure about the UN agreement, but frankly, the Lebanese army doesn't have a chance of disarming Hezbollah, since Hezbollah is a much more disciplined, much more motivated force than the Lebanese army. Also, Syria would never let it happen, since Hezbollah is a useful proxy for them.

Tucson, Ariz.: I always find it interesting how information can be presented in such a way to make a case for or against any cause. I can't help but wonder if there is any correlation between the invasion of Iraq and the possible invasions of other countries such as Syria and your show. Who are you working for? I can't help but wonder why you don't show the basis for these extremists actions. You mentioned in your program "Israel's sometimes brutal occupation" Why don't you mention how many innocent Palestinians have been killed, rounded up in camps, without food or water, tortured and more. The ratio between Palestinian and Israeli dead is staggering. Why don't you mention that. Is it perhaps because the truth has nothing to do with news anymore. The crisis in the middle east will not be solved until the Palestinians have freedom, peace and their own land. Why don't you mention that? Though I do not agree with extremists actions, I do understand that people who have been subjected to invasion, lack of basic human rights, murder, no rights,etc, can react extremely. One thing I do agree with, which you call rhetoric is that the U.S. intends to take over the area, You can't hide the truth. It has already begun.

Shame on you, calling yourself reporters, you represent the intentions of this government and you know it.

David Lewis: You raise some interesting points. However, this program was about Hezbollah and Lebanon, not Palestinians and Israel. That's another film. And if you think that the U.S. government will be pleased with a documentary that says Hezbollah is not the terrorist group as the U.S. government has portrayed it, you're wrong. Trust me, this is not a film that the U.S. government is pleased about.

Wellington, NZ: Hezbollah has admitted that they will never stop attacking Israel. Why doesn't the UN accept Israel's right to defend itself and stop condemning their actions?

David Lewis: That seems like a question for the UN, not me. However, I think one of the things that many people forget, and that I was surprised to discover when I went to Lebanon, was that Israel's 22-year occupation cannot be minimized. Roughly 20,000 people were killed, and the occupation was sometimes brutal. And the Lebanese have a tremendous anger toward Israel that Israel would have if they had been occupied for 22 years and had been treated in bad ways. And so that's something that people in the UN are aware of, I imagine, and we are not.

Caracas, Venezuela: I've seen pictures of the flag of Hezbollah flying along side of the UN flag at the UNIFIL base. Doesn't this prove the UN is actually aiding Hezbollah?

David Lewis: No. The UN troops are the meat between the sandwich. They have Israelis on one side, Hezbollah on the other. Israeli flags, Hezbollah flags on the other. I would not want to be in their shoes.

Fairfax County, Va.: Were there Americans in the film crew that went to Lebanon? Were they well treated or were they harassed?

David Lewis: Both myself and my (two separate) cameramen, on two trips, are American. We were almost always treated well, though there was understandably some great suspicion. Hezbollah grilled us on many occasions before granting us any access, asking very personal questions about our backgrounds and beliefs. In Ballbek, in the Bekaab Valley, one pleasant young man came up to me and asked where I was from. When I told him the United States, he replied with a grin, "I hope all Americans die."

On our first trip, my cameraman was filming in a Shiite neighborhood that turned out to be a little too close to Hezbollah offices. And he was detained at gunpoint and driven away. But they just merely looked at the videotape he'd been shooting and made him erase the scene of them taking him away.

Milan, Italy: Is it safe to assume Hezbollah's wide support in the Middle East is a direct reflection of the Arab's continued hatred for Jews, Israel and the West?

David Lewis: Yes. Since Hezbollah are credited, rightfully or wrongfully, with being the military force that pushed Israel out of Lebanon after their long occupation, they are also thought of as the only Arab force to defeat Israel, which makes them popular as well.

Quebec, Canada: Prior to 9/11, Hezbollah had killed more Americans than any other terrorist group. Why doesn't the U.S. do to Hezbollah what it did to al Qaeda?

David Lewis: Good question. Long answer.

Although al Qaeda and Hezbollah have done similar, appalling, evil things, al Qaeda was essentially a bunch of foreigners operating out of Afghanistan. When the U.S. attacked them and their sponsors the Taliban, no Afghans were particularly upset. Also, al Qaeda had done essentially nothing for the Afghan people except bring trouble.

Hezbollah, however, are Lebanese people operating in Lebanon. Their political party, for example, has the largest number of MPs, democratically elected, in the Lebanese parliament. They deliver social services and welfare, and have helped the Shiite people of Lebanon have things that they didn't have before. thus they are very popular and cannot be cut out of Lebanon like some kind of terrorist tumor. Simply put, they are completely woven into the fabric of that society in a way that al Qaeda never was in Afghanistan.

Annandale, Va.: Are the Hezbollah mostly Sunni or Shiite? It seems strange that Sunni Syria cooperates with Shiite Iran in supporting Hezbollah even if they have a common enemy in Israel.

David Lewis: Hezbollah is almost entirely a Shiite organization. It may seem strange, but I think you said it right: there's a common enemy. And Hezbollah is very useful to Syria.

Pittsford, N.Y.: Thank you very much for being with us today. I read in an interview which you gave in which you mentioned that CNN was one of the worst news agencies you have ever worked for. You cited their strong pro-Palestinian bias and said they were worse than Al Jazeera. Is this why you stopped working for them after 11 years?

David Lewis: Goodness. I have no idea where you saw that, since I never said any such thing. I loved working at CNN, and left because I like doing long-form programming, and CNN got almost entirely out of that business. However, it's an organization that I respect and love, and I expect to work for again someday.

And the comments that you mention are ones I never made, and I sure would love to know where you saw them, because somebody obviously made them up.

Falls Church, Va.: In a recent interview with the Post, the Syrian President said that Hezbollah should not be considered a terrorist group because they are only attacking Israeli positions around the Shebaa Farms which they claim should be part of Lebanon. Based on what you've seen, do you agree with that assessment?

David Lewis: As for Shebaa Farms, that's a fig leaf Hezbollah uses to justify their ongoing military activities. The UN has determined that that's Syrian land, not Lebanese, and Syria continues to argue that it's Lebanese land, which doesn't make a lot of sense. So it's just a very useful way for them to make trouble for Israel. Who knows what excuse they'd have to maintain their military role if Israel gave back this tiny sliver of land?

Maryland: Your response to the NZ question above hinged on the unfortunate wording of his question as "why doesn't the UN do" something. Please, then address the first sentence about Hezbollah stating it would never stop attacking Israel. Do you think that is acceptable behavior in the international community?

David Lewis: Of course it isn't acceptable. I am no Hezbollah sympathizer, just a reporter trying to tell their story. It is interesting to note, however, that there's a gap between what Hezbollah says in their very public rhetoric at rallies and marches and so on, where they rail against the Israelis and U.S., as compared to more private moments. In interviews that I got with some of their leaders, there was more compromise in the air, and they did not rule out the possibility of peace, though clearly it's nowhere near.

Boston, Mass.: Is Hezbollah's mission still the destruction of Israel? If not, why do they continue to fire rockets into Northern Israel?

David Lewis: Hezbollah has several missions. Clearly, fighting Israel in one way or another is one of those missions. If the story today about the Israelis catching a Hezbollah member on board a boat filled with bomb technology turns out to be true, that's a clear example of Hezbollah aiding the Palestinians' attack against Israel. But their other mission is to deliver social services and welfare services to the Lebanese Shiites in a political role.

Undisclosed location: Hezbollah has their own perfume and key chains? Do you also have their own Web site and do they take Visa? Do they ship into the United States, and dare a customer open the package? Isn't it unusual for terrorist groups to engage in commercialization?

David Lewis: Hezbollah has their own (mediocre) Web site, www.hizbollah.org. There are many Hezbollah souvenirs. I'm not sure if those are produced by Hezbollah or if it's independent businessmen making this happen. They do sell some very tacky goods made by their former fighters, such as carvings of Arabic sayings, baskets made by former fighters, etc. And the sermons and speeches of leaders are certainly sold in many forms. No idea about the Visa card. But Visa is more accepted in Lebanon than Amex.

Since I left Lebanon, Hezbollah has put out a video game where players get to target Israeli soldiers and shoot them. Lovely.

Arlington, Va.: What will it take for this organization to weaken and crumble? Also, does Iranian reformist president Khatami openly support this organization? Has he ever referred to them publicly?


David Lewis: Khatami has just made a three-day visit to Lebanon, where he was met at the airport by the president and prime minister of Lebanon, and Hezbollah leaders. He also spent a lot of time with the Hezbollah leadership while he was in Lebanon.

Certainly, in the unlikely event that there is peace in the Mideast between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel and its neighbors, that would remove Hezbollah's military raison d'etre. I believe, however, that their social institutions are likely to continue to exist even if their military side somehow disappears.

Montreal, Quebec, Canada: Hello David. First off, I would like to congratulate on wonderful reporting. However, I am curious to know why you chose to concentrate on one facet of Lebanese society. I was hoping to see different perspectives from different regions such as East Beirut.

David Lewis: I did spend a lot of time in East Beirut, with the Maronites, and find their story fascinating. However, I was commissioned to do a film about Hezbollah. I am hoping to use a lot of additional material that I filmed in a longer version of this film, should I be able to find an appropriate outlet. That film would include some of the material I shot with the Maronites, which includes the visit of the relic of St. Theresa to Lebanon.

Silver Spring, Md.: Gee, the way Hezbollah is painted, I just want to rush over to Southern Lebanon on my next vacation -- can't wait to buy their souvenirs! Especially the postcards. Such a nice group of people.

Let's get real. They are TERRORISTS that teach HATRED in their schools.

David Lewis: That's what makes this group so complicated. They are terrorists with a terrorist history, but you also can't avoid the reality that for the Lebanese they are something else. If you want to go on vacation, if I were you, I'd head for other parts of Lebanon, which are spectacular. Where else can you be swimming in the Mediterranean, then snow skiing 45 minutes later?

Fair Oaks, Va.: I don't at all understand how Hezbollah can be part of mainstream life. They engaged in acts of terrible, murderous brutality in the 1980s, which I cannot forget. They butchered people I knew.

I fully understand the need for people to have political parties, but why accept one which is so evil? Why isn't there widespread revulsion towards them, especially among Moslems? A group which invokes Allah's name while kidnapping, bombing airports, torturing diplomats and other to death? It truly makes me wonder what Moslems are actually worshipping.

David Lewis: Couldn't agree with you more. However, for Shiites in Lebanon who remember being shelled by American ships such as the New Jersey, and who were occupied by Israelis for 22 years, and who saw their family members imprisoned for many years, or die as roughly 20,000 did during Israel's 1982 invasion, they're quite likely to see it differently. Also, in the Lebanese political context, the other Shiite political party, Amal, who have a slightly less bloody history, are today essentially nothing more than a bunch of thugs. Hezbollah, in a country famous for political graft and corruption, are regarded as the most honest politicians. Simply put, they're serving their people better than others. Thus, they get their support. Like it or not.

Arlington, Va.: I'm sorry to admit that I missed the program. I wanted to ask if you addressed the irony of Syria's backing of a fundamentalist Muslim militia despite that fundamentalists are repressed within Syria?

David Lewis: The program certainly discusses Syria's relationship with Hezbollah, though it does not get into Syria's internal and bloody history of treatment of its own fundamentalists.

Washington, D.C.: Mr. Lewis, the preface to this chat says you had a story called "In Too Deep." I think you were in way too deep with this film. You have had the wool pulled over your eyes by a terror group that has become all too media savvy. The well-documented history of Hezbollah's brutal activities, their murdering of innocent people, is unquestionable. I can only hope that media watch groups will dissect and discredit each and every frame of your propaganda piece.

David Lewis: Telling stories about unpopular groups isn't going to make me popular; that's only fair. However, even though some organizations are unpopular and have done evil things doesn't mean that we shouldn't look at them. If American lives are going to be spent attacking this organization, as the administration has indicated, then I believe it is the job of journalists to tell that story. Whether it makes us popular or not. I believe I laid out very clearly Hezbollah's bloody past in the film. That does not mean, however, that I'm not going to also see what is going on inside Lebanon today. I believe Hezbollah is a dangerous and scary organization. However, they also mean something else to the Lebanese people, whether you or I like that fact or not.

Birmingham, Ala.: Why does mainstream media talk about the terror carried out by the Arab groups in the region, and talk little about what the IDF does in the West Bank and other areas, especially after a terror attack on Israeli soil.

David Lewis: Again, this is a film about Lebanon and Hezbollah, not about other places. One can only do so much in 20 minutes.

Oslo, Norway: Why does the international community not react to the terrorist acts of Hezbollah but is quick to criticize Israel when responding to this terrorist group?

David Lewis: There is no question that Israel is treated with a double standard by much of the international press. As a great sympathizer with the state of Israel, I see that very clearly, and had to hold my tongue in Lebanon virtually all the time, for reasons of personal security as well as wanting to be able to tell the story of people whose views I do not endorse. The Lebanese, however, view this very differently, and think the American press is entirely pro-Israel.

Virginia: Thanks for this. What is your next project?

David Lewis: Depends where an independent filmmaker can get funds. I have a range of things that I'm trying to do, from films about jazz, to films about the Middle East, to films that will make me popular again with my friends in the national security and intelligence establishment community who hate this film. In addition to doing this independently, I'm also doing work with one of the network broadcast news magazines.


That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

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