There has been a lot of talk about Hizbollah lately, starting with Nasrallah’s latest speech last week, in which he accused Israel of being behind the political assassinations which are routinely blamed on Syria, at least by the March 14 forces and most western press outlets. Not an unreasonable theory, since Israel has as much interest in destabilizing Lebanon as Lebanon’s other neighbour, and it has just as much of a history of playing dirty tricks on Lebanon as Syria has, if not more so, and no documented qualms about assassinating elected or unelected Arab politicians either – just ask Hamas. Moreover, by the classic cui bono reasoning of the crime detective leads you to suspectIsrael more than Syria, which has not been profiting much. But frankly, nobody has been able yet to convince me of any theory concerning the culprits behind the murders. It could be some jihadist group, the CIA, the Mossad, the Syrian mukhabarat, or for all we know even some faction in the March 14 forces themselves (I have heard this theory defended several times now in Lebanon).
Today, Hizbollah and Israel exchanged corpses and a prisoner over the border – 2 Hizbollah fighters killed in the July war and one captured alive for one Israeli (of Ethiopian descent) who reportedly had ‘drowned in the Mediterranean Sea’, as well as ‘information about an Israeli soldier held by Hizbollah’ – possibly navigator Ron Arad, who has been missing since his military plane crashed in 1986, during the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon. This could be a prelude to the exchange of the 2 Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hizbollah in July last year – the event that gave Israel the excuse to carry out its long-planned attack on Hizbollah and Lebanon. Rumours are floating about the two having been transported to Iran and handed over to the Revolutionary Guards in preparation for their return to Israel, probably in exchange for a huge number of Lebanese, Palestinian and other Arab prisoners held by Israel. Seems like even Olmert has realised that diplomacy does work better than ‘the military option’ after all.
Meanwhile, on 10 October, the NGO (it’s actually more of an inter-governmental than a non-governmental organization) International Crisis Group, living up to its usual high research standards, has released an excellent analysis of Hizbollah’s recent history and its current political position and strategy in Lebanon, based on dozens of interviews with ordinary members and non-members as well as leading figures within and without the party, plus a number of researchers. You can read ‘Middle East Report nr. 69: Hizbollah and the Lebanese crisis’ online here and I recommend you do so, especially if you’re tired of the ‘terrorist! terrorist!’-screaming simplifications of the neocons of this world, who like to throw every group in the Middle East and far beyond opposing their policies together into one big basket of ‘muslim terrorist enemies’. The ICG report offers a rational, nuanced and objective scientific analysis of the position Hizbollah has found itself in after the July war and throughout the political deadlock it and Amal have created by leaving the government. The report documents the changes the organization is going through both as a resistance army and as a political movement participating in Lebanese politics (against its will really, as it prefers to retain its image of a clean, uncorrupted mass movement of resistance representing the ordinary people, without getting involved in the clientelism and corrupt dealmaking of Lebanese politics). Also discussed, and presented in a realistic fashion, is the jabhat al-mumana’a (the Resistance Front), i.e. the ever-fluctuating relationship between Hizbollah and its Syrian and Iranian allies, which is far from being the one-way servant-master relationship to which many of its opponents are trying to reduce it. Its alliance with Aoun and its relation with Sunni islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas are also looked at, as is its handling of the areas under Hizbollah control. This is a question which has long interested me, and one that many people in Europe ask (or don’t ask and assume to know the answer to): do they establish an Iran-like religious dictatorship wherever they are in power, forcing women to veil, forbidding alcohol and cultural events not conform to their vision of islam, and the like? From my own experience, and from talking to shiite friends living in Dahiyyeh and elsewhere, I can confirm what ICG reports, namely that Hizbollah in general has quietly shelved its original intention (stated in the ‘Open Letter’ dating from 1985 and heavily influenced by the then-fresh islamic revolution of Khomeini) to found an islamist state. Dahiyyeh in particular is a part of the ‘big city’ and as such – and as is the case everywhere else in the world – it has a considerably more progressive population than smaller towns and villages in the countryside. I have seen or heard no evidence whatsoever of veils being enforced (although veils are much more prevalent in Dahiyyeh than in the rest of Beirut or in Saida), rock concerts and the like being forbidden, music shops and internet cafés bing shut down. Several shiite men and women I know have told me they don’t experience any pressure from Hizbollah officials, whether formally of informally, to conform to any religious standards. And this includes one person who openly calls herself an atheist (which is actually rare in any sect or part of Lebanon: no matter what their religion of origin is, people usually call themselves secular rather than atheist – even if they very obviously are atheist or at least totally unreligious) and another who lives – and dresses – in a decidedly unreligious way. Any such pressure they do experience is from individuals with traditional ways, who are found among the shiites as much as among the maronites, sunnites, orthodox and druze alike throughout what is, under its glamorous and modernized surface, actually still a pretty traditional country. Local situations in villages and towns in the south and the Bekaa, ICG reports, may vary according to the religious zeal (or absence thereof) of the local leadership, and in function of the homogeneity of the population (i.e. is the village completely or predominantly shiite, or is it mixed). In any case, although Hizbollah has yet to officially change its 1985 statement, they are a thoroughly pragmatic bunch who realize very clearly that there is no general popular support for the idea of a islamist state in Lebanon, even among the shiites, and reportedly the leadership has actually intervened in situations where an overly zealous local leader was trying to enforce religous rules unacceptable to the local population.