October 2, 2010


The Hezbollah Project: A PRIVILEGE TO DIE: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel by Thanassis Cambanis (JOE KLEIN, 10/03/10, NY Times Book Review)

Created in the early 1980s, Hezbollah was a joint venture of Israel and Iran. Israel inadvertently provided the motivation with its brutal 1982 invasion of Lebanon and attempt to establish a pro-Israeli puppet government there — undoubtedly, the worst foreign policy decision the Jewish state ever made. Iran, intoxicated by the euphoria of its 1979 revolution, provided the money, military training and equipment to its fellow Shiites in south Lebanon who, up till then, had been a disdained underclass in Lebanon’s polyglot ethnic mash-up. Israel continued to provide the motivation, by occupying a sliver of southern Lebanon until 2000, and Iran — using its Syrian ally as a go-between — continued to provide money and arms. But along the way, an extraordinary thing happened: Hezbollah developed a successful formula for governing the Shiite districts in southern Lebanon. It provided security, social services and an all-encompassing sense of community, with its own schools, scout troops and television station (Al-Manar, which magically remained on the air throughout the 2006 war, even though Israel bombed its facilities 15 times).

There was a fair amount of magic in the Hezbollah project, much of it emanating from its charismatic leader, Nasrallah. Cambanis, with his concentration on the flock, seems to diminish the leader’s importance early on, claiming that it was the devotion of the followers that made Hezbollah unique. For example, he writes, “As important as Nasrallah were the anonymous musicians who churned out new propaganda songs every week.” But his own reporting gives the lie to that.

Nasrallah is an extraordinarily shrewd leader. He lives modestly and has made sacrifices for the cause; he lost his oldest son in the war. He can be funny and self-deprecating in public. He has an “almost erotic” appeal for his followers, many of whom are afflicted by an eschatological delusion (the return of the Mahdi) that is remarkably similar to the Christian Rapture myth. Nasrallah’s rhetoric is fierce and his anti-Semitism flagrant, but, Cambanis writes, he has none of the pomposity that characterizes the family dynasties in the rest of the region. He makes smart decisions — refusing to take vengeance on those who collaborated with the Israelis during their occupation; allowing a looser, more permissive form of Islam to Lebanon’s Mediterranean sunbathers and beer-drinkers than his Iranian sponsors permit. And, most important of all, he is an ingenious marketer, especially in his ability to redefine success: victory is survival.

In the 2006 war, Lebanon lost roughly 10 times as many people as Israel (1,191 deaths compared with 163), suffered huge destruction and dislocation — and yet, when peace came, Nasrallah declared “divine victory” and much of the world seemed to buy it; even Israel, accustomed to flattening its Arab foes, suffered a period of introspection afterward, initiating official studies of the war, trying to figure out why Hezbollah hadn’t been obliterated. The “loss” led eventually to the election of Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition, which suited Nasrallah just fine: the more extreme Israel is, the better (though Hezbollah did choose to stand down, after some internal debate, and refrained from joining the festivities when Hamas, in a copycat war, provoked Israel into the Gaza conflagration in 2009). With Iran’s help — $12,000 allocated to each displaced family — Hezbollah’s brilliant postwar marketing campaign was called “Better Than Before,” with special attention paid to rebuilding and expanding the communities near the Israeli border that had been flattened.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 2, 2010 7:34 AM
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