Hezbollah: A Short History
By Augustus Richard Norton
Princeton University Press, 216 pages, $12.95.
Voice of Hezbollah: The Statements of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah
Edited by Nicholas Noe, translated by Ellen Khouri
Verso, 420 pages, $19.95.
Hezbollah: The Story of the Party of God
By Eitan Azani
Palgrave Macmillan, 308 pages, $89.95.
With the elections in Lebanon coming up within a few short days, Hezbollah may be on the verge of gaining even further political power. But regardless of the outcome of the voting, the current focus on the Lebanese elections is a sharp reminder that Israel’s war with Hezbollah in the summer of 2006 was an utter catastrophe.
For the duration of its three-week showdown with the radical Shi’ite militia, the Israel Defense Forces was completely unable to prevent Hezbollah from launching its rockets at cities and villages throughout northern Israel. And for the first time since the Jewish state’s War of Independence in 1948, Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city, was hit by enemy rocket fire.
The aftermath of Israel’s war with Hezbollah has been nearly as troubling as the war itself. Since the cease-fire in August 2006, not only has Hezbollah not been disarmed (as has been called for by two United Nations resolutions), but it also has quadrupled its arsenal so that it now has somewhere in the neighborhood of 40,000 rockets. Even more disturbing is that, by almost all accounts, thousands of Hezbollah’s rockets are now capable of reaching every major population center in Israel.
When, about a year ago, I came across a book titled “Hezbollah: A Short History” (first published in 2007 by Princeton University Press, but recently reissued in paperback), I quickly grabbed it to get a better understanding of Hezbollah’s “game plan” for Israel. After all, unlike Hamas’s short-range and “homemade” Qassams that mostly landed in open fields (while terrorizing tens of thousands of Israelis), Hezbollah’s arsenal of Katyusha, Fajar and Zelzal rockets (supplied by both Iran and Syria) represented a threat of an entirely different order of magnitude. A few weeks later, I spotted the ideal complement: a book that seemed to be the Hezbollah equivalent of “The Sayings of Chairman Mao.” Only this book — all 400 pages of it — was titled “Voice of Hezbollah: The Statements of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.”
Eitan Azani’s “Hezbollah: The Story of the Party of God,” is an excellent supplement to the two aforementioned books. Reading all three books together serves, among other things, to highlight the lessons that Israel should have learned from its war with Hezbollah.However, if these lessons aren’t fully digested by the Israeli leadership, the threat that Israel will face from Hamas in the South may, at some point in the not so distant future, equal the truly strategic threat it now faces from Hezbollah along its northern border.
“Hezbollah: A Short History” is by Augustus Richard Norton, a professor of international relations and anthropology at Boston University who, in the early 1980s, served as a U.N. military observer along the border between Israel and Lebanon. In fewer than 200 text pages, he gives readers a detailed account of Hezbollah’s origins (which, of course, can be traced directly to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982), its combustible mix of religious and political extremism, its role within the highly fractured Lebanese political system, the strategies and tactics it employed during its war with Israel and its future plans and prospects.
Norton’s book is highly informative, yet it’s also surprisingly incomplete. That’s because Norton never adequately addresses one of the key questions raised by his book, namely, what are Hezbollah’s long-term goals? Or, to put it another way, what does Nasrallah intend to do with those 40,000 rockets?
Perhaps even more importantly, Norton’s political views reveal a disturbingly amoral perspective. For example, he continually refers to Hezbollah as “the resistance” — sometimes with quotation marks and sometimes without. His sympathetic understanding of Hezbollah’s point of view is such that, in the end, the reader is left with the impression that Norton sees some sort of a rough moral equivalence between Israel’s bloody history in Lebanon and Hezbollah’s fanatical commitment to destroy the Jewish state.
On the other hand, in “Voice of Hezbollah,” Nasrallah’s own words reveal a great deal of his thinking about Hezbollah’s ultimate intentions toward Israel. For example, in a televised speech he gave at a rally in Beirut on May 7, 1998, Nasrallah stated: “Very regrettably, the 10th of Muharram this year coincides with the… establishment of the state of the Zionist Jews, the descendants of apes and pigs.” Then, in an interview he gave in 1999, Nasrallah was equally vehement about Israel’s founding ideology, arguing that “Israel is an illegal and usurper entity built on false pretenses… on delusions, and therefore has no chance for survival.” Strangely, however, when Nasrallah was asked if he could see the possibility of a future settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, he noted: “[T]he door could be open…. We do take into consideration international efforts to find a solution in the region and determine our plans and movements with this possibility in mind.”
But Nasrallah concluded by saying, “In the Quran, God promises the mujahidin victory if they do jihad and go to war… we rely on the fact that God will grant us victory if we obey him… although we have no missiles or aircraft to shell Tel Aviv with, the Israelis live in constant fear of our operations. You want to know the future… Israel does not have the means of survival in this region for more than a few decades, and those who live long enough will be witness to that.”
A sobering thought, given that Hezbollah is now in possession of a large number of rockets that are fully capable of “shelling Tel Aviv.”
Lest anyone be fooled into thinking that Hezbollah’s decision to sit out the recent war in Gaza might represent a newly found moderation, it’s worth noting what Nasrallah said in a speech he delivered in mid-March: “We are strong and we are capable. If we will stand on our feet, we can destroy this entity… As long as this rapacious entity exists, then resistance is our honor and our lives.” According to Haaretz, Nasrallah then went on to “implore all Arabs and Muslims to adhere to the same path.”
Azani is the deputy executive director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrrorism at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center in Herzilya. His “Hezbollah: The Story of the Party of God” is a heavily footnoted study that contains a wealth of valuable information and insight. But the reader will need a lot of patience to get through it, because Azani’s English writing skills are, unfortunately, rather limited. Furthermore, beyond the consistently poor English and constant repetition, the book also suffers from a chronic case of chronological disorganization.
Nonetheless, when it comes to the actual topic at hand, Azani brings a lot to the table. The book’s greatest strength is its analysis of an enormous range of primary sources, including newspaper articles and radio broadcasts from Lebanon, Syria, Iran and several other nations “in the neighborhood.” Azani’s detailed discussion of the extraordinarily complex relationship between Iran, Hezbollah and Syria is fascinating and provides solid reasons to hope that Syria, if offered enough carrots (starting with the return of the Golan Heights), just might be convinced to sever its close relationships with Iran and Hezbollah — and Hamas, for that matter.
Now putting aside either the wisdom or the necessity of Israel’s two most recent wars, let’s take a look at how Israel should apply some of the lessons from its 2006 war with Hezbollah to its conflict with Hamas.
For starters, it’s painfully clear that one lesson Israel didn’t learn from the Second Lebanon War is that it needs to fundamentally alter its targeting policies so that it doesn’t kill or wound so many civilians. Tragically, civilian casualties are almost inevitable in any war, but killing such a large number of innocents in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza a few months ago was both morally indefensible and extremely harmful to Israel’s already battered image throughout the world.
Next, from the standpoint of defending the Israeli homeland, the IDF simply cannot afford to let Hamas accumulate the kind of arsenal in Gaza that it allowed Hezbollah to acquire in Lebanon. As obvious a point as this may appear to be, the Israeli government’s statements during its offensive in Gaza were not exactly reassuring: They vacillated between mission statements that stressed the urgency of stopping Hamas’s constant barrage of rockets; implied that the real goal was removing Hamas from power; highlighted the need to restore Israel’s deterrent and, at times, almost like an afterthought, pointed to the need to prevent any further smuggling of weapons — especially rockets capable of reaching Tel Aviv and other strategic targets.
Fortunately, there are now signs that Israel and the United States, along with Egypt and a number of other key countries, appear to be finally pulling out all the stops in order to halt the flow of weapons to Hamas (unlike what occurred in the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War). But unless this effort can actually succeed, Israel is likely to face a threat from Hamas that will be all too similar to the threat it already faces from Hezbollah. And while such a two-pronged threat to Israel’s largest cities would be dangerous enough, it would, of course, be totally unacceptable should it be combined with a nuclear-armed Iran.
Ken Brociner’s essays, columns and reviews have appeared in Dissent, InTheseTimes.com, Israel Horizons and the Boston Phoenix.