October 19, 2010


Why Hizbollah is more than a proxy (Mohamad Bazzi, Oct 19, 2010, The National)

There is a long tradition of the Lebanese state leaving Shiites to fend for themselves and waiting for religious or charitable groups to fill the vacuum. This happened over decades, long before Hizbollah emerged in the early 1980s. Hizbollah's "state within a state" was possible because successive governments left a void in the Shiite-dominated areas of southern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley and the southern suburbs of Beirut. Hizbollah did what any effective political movement would do: it created a dependency and social service network that guaranteed its dominance.

In the 1960s and 1970s, when Shiites were first making the migration from the rural south and Bekaa to Beirut and other cities, the central government left their fate to the clans and feudal landlords who held sway in the agricultural hinterlands. In 1970, when the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) began creating bases in southern Lebanon, the Shiites were on the front line of a conflict between the PLO and Israel. More families fled their homes in the south and joined relatives who had already settled around Beirut. Around this time, a Shiite cleric named Musa al Sadr created Amal, the first major Shiite political party, which later turned into a militia. To an extent, Amal supplanted the feudal lords as protector of the Shiites.

When Israeli troops first invaded southern Lebanon in 1978 to drive out the PLO and create a "buffer zone" to prevent attacks on northern Israel, Shiites welcomed Israeli soldiers with rice and flowers. But that honeymoon did not last long, and Shiites were soon fighting the Israelis. The Shiites turned out to be more formidable enemies of Israel than the PLO.

After the wider Israeli invasion of 1982, when Israeli forces besieged Beirut and the PLO was finally forced out of Lebanon, Hizbollah emerged to fight the subsequent Israeli occupation of the south. It was more disciplined and less corrupt than Amal, although Hizbollah was always dependent on Iranian funding and support. [...]

When Hizbollah's grinding guerrilla war forced Israel to end its occupation in May 2000, the militia was hailed throughout the Muslim world for achieving what no Arab army had done before: force Israel to relinquish land without a peace agreement. With the Israeli withdrawal, Hizbollah moved into the vacuum in southern Lebanon, opening clinics and schools, and providing small-business loans. The group also expanded its military capability. [...]

To many Shiites, Hizbollah's ascendance put them on the political map. There is a word Lebanese have sometimes used to insult Shiites: mitwali, which roughly translates into "country bumpkin". It is a term freighted with meaning - of dispossession, prejudice and deprivation. But some Shiites now use it with pride.

"During the civil war, we mitwalis were insulted and put down. Hizbollah gave us a new sense of dignity, and that's the most important right we can have," a young Shiite student once told me at a Hizbollah rally. "Hizbollah made it possible for us to stand, without fear, and shout from the rooftops that we are mitwalis."

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 19, 2010 6:23 PM
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