An Encounter with a Fighter - Meeting Nasrallah
6 October 2006
A decade ago, in the wake of "Operation Grapes of Wrath," the 17-day Israeli military assault on southern Lebanon in April 1996, there was a spate of articles in the Western press on Hizbullah and its secretary-general, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah. The Israeli operation stopped under pressure from the US Government, wary of the political repercussions from the mounting toll among Lebanese civilians, including the massacre of more than 100 refugees in the village of Qana on 18 April 1996. However, humanitarian sympathy for the Lebanese victims did not translate into a less biased image of Hizbullah, typically presented in nefarious terms in the Western media, as a shadowy and rabidly anti-Western terrorist organization.
There were very few exceptions. In the British press, Robert Fisk in the Independent and David Gardner in the Financial Times wrote honest and factual articles, including interviews they conducted with Nasrallah in May 1996 (Fisk) and July 1996 (Gardner). The most remarkable article was one by Eqbal Ahmad in July 1998, entitled "Encounter with a fighter," where he gave a particularly sensitive and fair account of his meeting with Nasrallah. Although in English, Ahmad's article appeared in the Egyptian Ahram Weekly, at a relatively safe distance from the censorship (and self-censorship) of the mainstream media in the West. But these remained all too few and in sharp contrast to the relentless demonization by other journalists and political commentators.
In the US press, occasional more objective views of Hizbullah only appeared after the year 2000. This was probably elicited by several developments that occasionally drew some attention and respect in the West. In the 1990's, in addition to pursuing its guerilla activities against Israeli forces in southern Lebanon, Hizbullah gradually emerged as a powerful political and social movement, promoting dialogue with other Lebanese parties and winning seats for its candidates in the Lebanese parliament. Just as important was the surge in popular support among all Lebanese for the dominant role Hizbullah played in the successful resistance to Israeli occupation, which (mostly) came to an end in May 2000.
In July 2003, Seymour Hersh wrote an article on Syria's situation and the surrounding turmoil -- the American occupation of Iraq, the bloody Intifada in the Palestinian territories, and simmering discontent in Lebanon. Hersh's article included an account of a meeting with Nasrallah, informative and free of the deeply ingrained racism of others. There was also a review by Adam Shatz of several books on Hizbullah, for which he interviewed Nasrallah on a trip to Lebanon in October 2003. Although too prone to pass judgement reflecting his own biases, Shatz nonetheless quoted Nasrallah on several issues on which Hizbullah had been persistently misrepresented. (More below on the interviews by Hersh and Shatz.)
Of all the public statements on Nasrallah, the most startling perhaps, given who the source is, came from Edward Peck. Peck is a former American diplomat and former Deputy Director of the Reagan White House Task Force on Terrorism, and was part of an American delegation that met Nasrallah in February 2006. Peck's assessment of Nasrallah was unusually respectful from an American official, even sympathetic, also contrasting with his earlier impressions of Hamas and Fatah leaders:
"It was interesting to meet with [Nasrallah], because we had already met with leaders of Hamas and Fatah before and after the election was over in Palestine [in January 2006], and his point was a fairly simple one, I think. Talking to us, retired diplomats, Americans, his key concerns were essentially how to free his country from the domination [...] and how to go about building the nation up again, despite all of the things that had happened to it over the years.
"So it was a logical, reasonable presentation. No screaming, no shrieking. You know, just an educated intelligent man talking about serious issues that he perceived. It was interesting in the sense that the projection of people like that in [the US] is of, you know, blood-soaked wackos, and there are some of those out there on all sides, but that certainly was not the case with him."
Peck's impressions were also ours after we met Nasrallah, a logical and reflective man, not given to effusive gestures or hyperboles, perhaps at his best when explaining and defending Hizbullah's local politics and role in Lebanon.
In May 2006, we went to meet Nasrallah in a group of four -- Noam and Carol Chomsky, Irene Gendzier, and myself. We met him in his heavily guarded compound in the Dahieh, the southern suburb of Beirut, reduced to a heap of rubble by the Israeli air force a few weeks later. Security at the entrance of the building where Nasrallah's office was located, and around it, was extremely high, in sharp contrast with the lacking or half-hearted security measures in the rest of the city.
Nasrallah greeted us warmly, shaking hands with the men, nodding and smiling towards the women. He wore the usual attire of a Shia cleric, turban and tunic. Later, he pointed to the color of his turban (black), sign of someone considered a descendant of the Prophet and the role it enjoins on its wearer in Shia culture, with the smile of someone glad to introduce friendly foreigners to something they may not know.
Our meeting with Nasrallah lasted about two hours and a half. The conversation went from broad generalities at the start, sometimes trite, to specific and nuanced positions on local matters at the end. It started slowly with events in Iraq and Palestine, then covered Iran and regional events, and became more focused as it shifted to the situation in southern Lebanon and Lebanon in general.
We did not expect any criticism of Iran from Nasrallah, and we did not hear any, however veiled. On Iraq, he avoided taking sides in the rift between Shiite factions. "The difference between Ayatollah Sistani and Muqtada al-Sadr is the difference between a wise man in his seventies and an impulsive man in his thirties," he said.
But what of the prospects for secessionist movements in Khuzestan, Azerbaijan and other oil-rich areas in Iran? we asked. We mentioned that according to some reports for example, real or not, there is an "Ahwazi liberation movement" in Khuzestan. Nasrallah was dismissive of such prospects, maintaining that Ahwazis as well as other minorities in Iran are well integrated, and well represented in the army and the government.
What of the possibility of a US attack on Iran or campaign to force a regime change in Iran? Nasrallah thought it would be a grave miscalculation. "We all see the chaos and destruction created by the American invasion of Iraq, even though it was relatively easy to destroy Saddam's government. It will be far more difficult to bring down Iran's government, let alone invade Iran. Iran's situation is totally different from Iraq's. Saddam's government and army were instruments against the Iraqi people, the Islamic republic in Iran enjoys the support of the Iranian people."
Nasrallah acknowledged Hizbullah's good relations with Iran and Syria, but also insisted on Hizbullah's independence with respect to decision making. We did not press him on the degree of this independence, often questioned by outsiders because of Iran's financial support. But already in 1996, David Gardner wrote that "donations from Lebanese Shia in West Africa, from Shiites in the Gulf, and in the form of Islamic tithes have made the organization largely self-sustained." Gardner noted for example that a $100 million complex in the Dahieh with a mosque, hospitals, schools and research centres, was paid for by a wealthy Kuwaiti Shiite, while money from Iran was estimated to be $60 million per year according to Western intelligence sources and never exceeded $40 million per year according to Hizbullah insiders.
The charge of subservience to Iran persists, chiefly by US Government officials still in pursuit of reckless plans to create a 'New Middle East'. And Hizbullah's leaders keep denying the charge. A few days after our own meeting with Nasrallah, his deputy Naim Kassem restated in an interview that his group "has no decision to enter any battle [outside Lebanon] and has said repeatedly that its position is one of defence against aggression." And again: "Hizbollah is not a tool of Iran, it is a Lebanese project that implements the demands of Lebanese."
More to the point, however, long-time observers have dismissed attempts to portray Hizbullah as an Iranian proxy. According to Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a Beirut-based political scientist who has studied Hizbullah over many years, Hizbullah "has never allowed any foreign power to dictate its military strategy." Saad-Ghorayeb's assessment is supported by several specialists on Middle Eastern affairs, including long-time opponents of the Iranian government, or even by officials in Washington with a better grip on reality. The State Department's coordinator for counter-terrorism said, "Syria can stop the flow of weapons, materiel and people into Lebanon. Yes, they can take a lot of action that they haven't. In terms of them controlling Hizbollah, no, they cannot put Hizbollah out of business." The same official estimated that Iran wielded more influence, but "even there, Iran does not completely own Hizbollah."
An uncertain battle in Iran has for years pitted reformists against conservatives, with the latter now back in power. In our meeting with Nasrallah, this issue did not come up in the drift of the conversation. He referred several times to Iran the country, but did not compare specific individuals or factions in the Iranian government or its opposition. Another issue left aside in our meeting was Nasrallah's views on al-Qaeda and the Taliban. However, in an interview with David Gardner in 1998, he expressed his strong opposition to these movements and presented the Islamic republic in Iran as an alternative model that is sketching out a path for the region towards modernity and democracy. "There are a lot of models. Some of them are very dangerous like the Taliban," he said then. In an interview with David Ignatius in February 2006, Nasrallah categorically set his group apart from al-Qaeda and its action that is fanning Sunni-Shiite tensions in Iraq. "I believe the most dangerous thing we confront is the so-called Zarqawi phenomenon," he said. "This is a creed of killing without any responsibility -- to kill women, children, to attack mosques, churches, schools, restaurants." Nasrallah has often pointed out the contrast with Hizbullah's resistance to Israel, a Shiite organization's action in solidarity with Sunni Hamas and Palestinians. Thus, for example, the prisoner exchange Hizbullah negotiated with Israel in January 2004 involved both Lebanese and Palestinian detainees. And again, when its fighters attacked an Israeli army unit on 12 July 2006 and captured two soldiers, Hizbullah announced it would exchange them for both Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners in Israel.
Turning to Palestinian matters, what of the events in Gaza and the West Bank? And the standoff between Hamas and Israel? We asked. "The Palestinians' situation is intolerable, we will help inasmuch as we can, and inasmuch as the Palestinians will ask for our help," Nasrallah said, and then in no uncertain terms:
But our own battle stops at the Lebanese border. Whatever the agreement reached by our Palestinian brothers with the Israeli government, it is their responsibility and we will abide by it, even if it is not the agreement that we prefer.
This has been Hizbullah's stated position for years, both to its audience in Lebanon and to the outside world. In 2003 for example, in answer to Seymour Hersh who asked his view on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at the time, Nasrallah said, "I, like any other person, may consider what is happening to be right or wrong ... I may have a different assessment, but at the end of the road no one can go to war on behalf of the Palestinians, even if that one is not in agreement with what the Palestinians agreed on." And again in his interview with Adam Shatz, when asked whether he was prepared to live with a two-state settlement between Israel and Palestine, Nasrallah said he would not sabotage what is finally a "Palestinian matter."
Earlier on the day we met Nasrallah, we spent several hours in the Sabra-Shatila camp, on the southern outskirts of Beirut. We visited the site of the September 1982 massacre. It was difficult contemplating the dismal conditions of the camp -- poor, dusty, overcrowded -- in spite of the warm welcome from everyone we met. The contrast with the glitter and wealth in downtown Beirut was jarring. So, what about the Palestinians in Lebanon and the camps? we asked Nasrallah. "The Palestinian refugee camps are a disgrace. A Lebanese man will not even allow his dog to live in the miserable conditions of the camps," he said. "Palestinians in Lebanon should be given the same rights as other Arabs in Lebanon -- the right to work, to get social benefits, to own property." As for the option of absorbing the Palestinian refugees into Lebanese society, "Lebanon in its present [confessional] configuration cannot absorb the Palestinian refugees. They cannot be given Lebanese citizenship, and they should be allowed to retain their identity as Palestinians." So, how shall the refugees be helped until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved? "Other Arab states should help out, Lebanon cannot alone carry the burden of the Palestinian refugees."
We finally turned to internal Lebanese matters. Nasrallah described Hizbullah's political work and the support it enjoys among Lebanese in general. He mentioned "nearly three-quarters of all Lebanese, both Christians and Muslims, support us and our role in defending Lebanon," and made a point to stress that this popularity extends beyond the Shia community. (There was a surge of solidarity during the Israeli onslaught of July-August 2006. A poll conducted at the end of July 2006 reported that 87 percent of all Lebanese supported Hizbullah's resistance to Israeli aggression -- this is support for Hizbullah's resistance to external aggression, not necessarily for Hizbullah's policies on which Lebanese generally remain divided. A similar survey conducted five months earlier showed only 58 percent of all Lebanese supported Hizbullah's right to keep its arms and, hence, continue its resistance activity.) Nasrallah referred to the success of Hizbullah as an armed resistance against Israeli occupation as a byproduct of its deep roots in the local civilian population. Yitzhak Rabin and other Israeli military men, he claimed, wrote about the difficulty of controlling southern Lebanon -- "a land that can be invaded but not occupied," he said. (We did not check the authenticity of the Israeli writings Nasrallah referred to. He is said to be a voracious reader of biographies of Israeli politicians. His frequent interviews with Lebanese journalists, when discussing the conflict with Israel, are laced with references to the Israeli press.)
Though there was no explicit comparison during our conversation between Hizbullah and the PLO as popular organizations, we couldn't fail noting Nasrallah's comments were implicit criticism of past attempts to organize armed resistance along the lines of a standing army. In his interview with Robert Fisk in 1996, Nasrallah was explicit: He explained the success of Hizbullah guerillas by the fact that, "when they come back from an attack, they will not go to military bases and barracks like the Palestinians did in Lebanon; they will go back to their homes." The contrast with the PLO, which had projected a pervasive military presence in the 1970's and early 1980's in Lebanon, was also noted by Eqbal Ahmad, a man who had closely followed the development of the Palestinian movement. When he first entered the Hizbullah compound in the Dahieh, Ahmad mentioned his surprise that:
"Unlike the erstwhile PLO compounds and offices in Beirut, there were but few uniformed and armed men visibly around. The stronghold of the most effective armed organisation in the Middle East had a completely civilian look, a fact that normally implies intelligent and efficient security arrangements."
Eqbal Ahmad's impression was later echoed by Edward Said who met Nasrallah in June 2000. Said described Nasrallah as:
"A man who adopted a strategy toward Israel quite similar to that of the Vietnamese against the Americans: We cannot fight them because they have an army, a navy and a nuclear option, so the only way we can do it is to make them feel it in body bags. And that's exactly what [Nasrallah] did. In the one conversation that we had, I was impressed by the fact that among all the political leaders I met in the Middle East, he alone was precisely on time, and there were no people around him waving Kalashnikovs."
The difference with the PLO was borne out during the war on Lebanon of July-August 2006. In the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, PLO forces were routed in a few days. In 2006, Hizbullah fighters stood their ground for 34 days. In 1982 Israeli troops began their offensive on 6 June, reached the Litani river as fast as they could drive their armored vehicles, and quickly went beyond all the way to Beirut, encircling the Lebanese presidential palace in the suburb of Baabda on 20 June. In 2006 Israeli troops became bogged down against entrenched guerillas and never reached any point along the Litani river, despite a massive ground offensive of some 30,000 troops in the last two days of the war in which 33 soldiers were killed, out of a total of 119 soldiers during the whole 34-day war. (There were other forces involved in resisting the advance of Israeli troops, both in 1982 and 2006. But the PLO was the backbone of this resistance in 1982, just as Hizbullah was in 2006. In 2006, while the majority of Lebanese fighters killed in battle belonged to Hizbullah, other parties such as the Amal movement, the Lebanese Communist Party and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party participated in the combat and announced the deaths of some of their fighters.)
How do you see the internal situation evolving in Lebanon? we asked Nasrallah. In answer, he talked about reforming the electoral system and state institutions so that all Lebanese citizens, both Christians and Muslims, have their fair share in the benefits and services provided by the government. Nasrallah and others in the Hizbullah leadership have been often accused by their detractors of seeking to establish an Islamic republic in Lebanon. These accusations have been unrelenting and typically based on statements and writings from the early years of Hizbullah, in the 1980's, when it did openly embrace the goal of an Islamic republic. Since the early 1990's the Hizbullah leadership has been just as persistent in deflecting these accusations. In his 2003 interview with Adam Shatz, Nasrallah's denial could not be any more categorical:
"We believe the requirement for an Islamic state is to have an overwhelming popular desire, and we're not talking about fifty percent plus one, but a large majority. And this is not available in Lebanon and probably never will be."
Without ever shedding its Islamist character and conservative moral code, Hizbullah has in fact built alliances with other parties, secular or non-Shiite, in order to get a larger representation in the government. When it put up candidates in the last parliamentary elections, some of those on its electoral list were Christians, and it won 14 seats (out of a total of 128).
Charles Glass, another veteran observer of Middle East affairs, noted that a hallmark of Hizbullah under Nasrallah's leadership has been its flexibility to change and adapt. Glass recounted several events that have shaped Hizbullah's increased involvement in Lebanon's domestic politics. A revealing episode occurred in May 2000 after Israeli troops withdrew from Lebanon suddenly and without advance notice: Hizbullah issued a strict warning forbidding reprisals against collaborators of the South Lebanon Army, which Israel had set up as a particularly ruthless auxiliary force to enforce its occupation. Instead, Hizbullah turned over SLA militiamen to the Lebanese government without murdering any of them. Glass contrasted Hizbullah's lack of retribution to the French Resistance's lust for revenge on Nazi collaborators after WWII, often enacted in barbarous public displays. As Glass noted, "What [Hizbullah] sought in south Lebanon was not revenge, but votes."
Our last question to Nasrallah was about his party's weapons, an issue that had been debated among Lebanese for many months before, and about conditions under which Hizbullah would relinquish its arms. He immediately put the question in a context wider than that of the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms, which many of his Lebanese detractors had accused him of using as an excuse to justify Hizbullah's retaining its arms. "The bigger issue, the fundamental one, is how to defend our land against Israeli aggression," according to Nasrallah. He mentioned several issues, all reflecting Israeli aggressive policies: near-daily aerial and naval Israeli incursions into Lebanese airspace and territorial waters, assassination of Palestinian militants in Lebanon, refusal to release Lebanese detained in Israeli prisons, refusal to turn in maps of landmine locations in southern Lebanon, the continued occupation of the Shebaa Farms. "Resolving the problem of any of these issues separately will not resolve the bigger fundamental issue. And it is not a matter of defending only southern Lebanon, it concerns all of Lebanon," he maintained. He mentioned the need for a "national defense strategy" which:
"we have raised in the National Dialogue conference, and the others agree there is a need for it. Some are asking the Lebanese resistance [i.e. the military wing of Hizbullah] to dissolve itself or be merged with the Lebanese army. But the Lebanese army is small and weak, and given its present organization, from the moment the Lebanese resistance is merged into the army, everything about the resistance will be known by the American government, which means by the Israeli government too -- this will put us at the total mercy of Israeli military might."
Towards the end, we asked Nasrallah if we could quote him on things he said in the meeting. He seemed eager to have all of his views transmitted: "Yes, you can quote me on anything, absolutely." As time was running short, we asked him whether he had questions of his own for us. Yes, he had one question: "How can we have our point of view heard in the US?" he asked. Addressing himself to Noam, "You know better than us the situation in the US. If there is anything we can do, any way of explaining our situation so that we can hope for a more equitable US policy, then we need to hear it from you." Noam got to finish the conversation:
"You need to reach the American public before American politicians. The public in the US is generally ahead of the politicians. Often public opinion conflicts with policies set in Washington. US politicians are usually elected by a minority of the population and represent two parties that are virtually indistinguishable on fundamental issues. If you can inform the public and get them to understand your position, they will put pressure on the politicians and hopefully prevent them from conducting their most destructive policies. Without internal public pressure, US policy is not likely to change significantly."
Assaf Kfoury is a mathematician, computer scientist, and political activist. An Arab American who grew up in Beirut and Cairo, he is currently Professor of Computer Science at Boston University. He can be reached at email@example.com. This is a footnoted version of an article that appeared on Counterpunch.
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