Lebanon in Context: An Interview with Bilal El-Amine

Children in front of rubble in Marwahin after Israeli bombing, August 22, 2006. (Dina Debbas/IRIN)


This interview took place between Left Turn founding editor Bilal El-Amine and editor Sasha Wright and will be featured in the upcoming issue of Left Turn.

LT: What was the political atmosphere in Lebanon like before the latest invasion by Israel?

BE: On the Israeli/Lebanese front - even though Israel was forced to withdraw from Lebanon in May of 2000 - there were a number of issues that Israel deliberately left open that could have easily been resolved. Israel kept some Lebanese land called the Shebaa Farms. Israel would not provide maps for the mines that they had planted throughout South Lebanon that caused many injuries and deaths in the South. Israel continued its constant breaches of Lebanese airspace with almost daily incursions by Israeli warplanes over Lebanon. Israel also refused to release the Lebanese prisoners still in Israeli prisons - there were many of them at that time. The issue of the prisoners took one slight step forward in 2004, when Israel finally decided to do a prisoner exchange with Hezbollah, but even then, Israel held on to three Lebanese prisoners at the last minute before the exchange.

The long and devastating occupation by the Israelis by all accounts killed approximately 20,000 Lebanese from 1982 to 2000. Then when Israel was driven out at great sacrifice through the Islamic resistance - the military wing of Hezbollah - Israel decided to hold onto a few things to keep that front open. These are all minor issues that Israel could have completely put to an end. Instead, Israel decided to keep a few things that would be a source of friction to provide them with an excuse to go back into Lebanon at a later stage and try to rearrange the political balance inside the country in their favor, as they tried to do in 1982. Israel felt that it was humiliated by having to withdraw from Lebanon and wanted to exact revenge on Hezbollah, so they kept these files open. That is really where the story starts about who started this round of fighting.

Within Lebanon, the political atmosphere was as usual, divided - mainly because of the assassination of the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. Many people thought Syria was the culprit and the country became divided along the lines between Syria’s allies - the “loyalists” considered to be Hezbollah and a number of other groups and the “opposition” made up of Hariri supporters, the Druze, and the Christians of Lebanon. After the elections the so-called opposition came into power and they were essentially running the government. Hezbollah joined the government after winning a very solid base in the elections, but nevertheless it acted more as an opposition party to the neo-liberal Hariri block.

There was a lot of pressure on Hezbollah to disarm from the Hariri folks in cooperation with the Americans and the French based on UN Security Council Resolution 1559 that was passed after Hariri’s assassination that called for the Syrians to leave Lebanon as well as the disarming of all militias in Lebanon. In the run-up to what happened in July, there was a lot of discussion about what would it take for Hezbollah to willingly disarm and Hezbollah was quite open about discussing it. Many people thought that the fact that Syria was finally forced to leave Lebanon would have a cataclysmic impact on Hezbollah and they would collapse completely, but in fact the very opposite started happening. Hezbollah was probably at the peak of its popularity and the Hariri government - with the US behind them - was having a difficult time getting them to disarm.

LT: What have been the effects of Israel’s attacks on Lebanese civil society? What has been the response of Lebanese activists and NGOs?

BE: Israel used a shock treatment approach to Lebanon hoping that by attacking the country as a whole - the civilian infrastructure and civilians themselves - that Israel would be able to turn people against Hezbollah, which hasn’t worked. Israel thought it could destabilize the country for a long period of time by just sticking their finger on all of the wounds, and particularly, the sectarian divisions that exist here. Israel’s plan was to pulverize the country’s infrastructure and then displace a quarter of the country - mainly Shia Muslims - and force them to live in Christian, Sunni Muslim, and Druze areas - hoping that frictions would develop and the Lebanese would be at each others’ throats fairly quickly and put pressure to bear on Hezbollah and its supporters internally.

No one in Lebanon, particularly not the government, was prepared to deal with any of this, whether on the level of helping to defend the country or helping to deal with the humanitarian disaster that was created in the course of one month. The NGOs were also completely overwhelmed. Some of the NGOs were able to move quickly and do some good work, and many of them are connected to Hezbollah and other political parties here. But also, a lot of young people who are unaffiliated activists around various issues moved very quickly to address the large number of displaced people that were flooding into Beirut and other areas - living in parks and being put up in schools which are completely inadequate for living.

These young people started one relief effort in a park, trying to bring people food and help them find a place to stay, and then it developed more into more organized volunteer groups and the beginnings of NGOs or aid agencies that bring food, distribute it, and provide shelter for people. I’ve heard of several of these groups who have taken a slightly political tone as well. One of them is called Samidoun, which translates into a rather ugly word in English “steadfastness,” but it is how people characterize being in solidarity with the resistance. The refugees, and all of us, are going to have to hold fast so that the resistance can be able to do the same at the front and the two allow each other to stand up in the face of Israel. By helping the displaced and dealing with their issues, it’s a way of supporting the resistance.

That front was just as important as the front that Hezbollah was fighting on at the border with Israel. These people and organizations tried their best. But when you have a land, sea, and air blockade against you, and you have F-16’s pulverizing the country; destroying all the fuel; bombing milk factories and chicken farms; driving people from virtually all of the agricultural land in the south and east of the country; causing all sorts of mayhem; and not allowing the Red Cross or even the UN to bring in supplies and aid - no one could possibly keep up and deal with that kind of situation. But it did actually allow for a spirit of solidarity to develop that probably bridges a lot of the sectarian divides that exist in the country.

LT: How does the attack on Hezbollah fit into the US and Israeli plans for the region as a whole, with Iraq and the war on terror?

BE: There’s always been a close coincidence of interest between Israel and the US in the region. Both of them stand in opposition to everyone else in the region, although for different reasons For the US, the oil factor is obviously the key. The US wants to ensure that there is no opposition or resistance to them in the region - it does not want any nationalist movement, or any kind of movement, that could try to divert more of the region’s oil profits towards developing the region and its people or potentially use oil as a weapon against the US. Rather, the US wants to keep the region under US control and it has gotten more aggressive since George W. Bush came in with this policy of trying to literally re-shape the whole region so it is cleansed of any opposition to the US, whether it’s a movement or a regime.

Israel’s very foundation was opposed by all the Arabs, and came at the cost of the Palestinian people and also the neighboring countries. Israel has continually waged wars upon and humiliated just about every country in the region. Most of the people in the region feel that it’s an unjust situation and feel a great deal of hostility towards Israel.

So Israel and the US end up being in the same boat and obviously they support each other in advancing their interests in the region. Policy statements were written by neocons in the US for the Israeli and US governments that outlined a plan to wipe the slate clean in the Middle East - to get rid of stubborn regimes that they can’t get under their control like Syria, Iraq during Saddam’s time, Iran, as well as any movements like Hezbollah and Hamas. Neocons argued that it was in the interest of both Israel and the United States to topple or break these regimes and movements.

Both Israel and the US had been preparing to deal a blow to Hezbollah in Lebanon sooner or later, and because Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers, they decided to do it at this time. The US, as it always has, gave Israel diplomatic cover when Israel came under a lot of pressure. Then the US delayed as much as possible when Hezbollah’s resistance undermined their plans. To compensate for this, the US drew up a resolution that is heavily in favor of Israel. So where Israel actually failed on the ground, the US tried to save it diplomatically with a UN resolution.

LT: What is your analysis on the recent negotiations for a cease-fire?

BE: UN Security Council Resolution 1701 calls for a cessation of hostilities but not an immediate cease-fire. Actually, Hezbollah is called upon to stop all of its attacks but 1701 calls on Israel to only stop its offensive operations. Israel has always described its most aggressive and preemptive wars as defensive and therefore it will interpret any action it wants as being defensive and will continue attacking in this way if the international community allows it. The resolution also blames Hezbollah for this war and it does not say a single word about the month of Israeli war crimes committed against the Lebanese population - nothing about the excesses and the breaches of all sorts of conventions of war. Neither does 1701 have any word about reparations after Israel has literally destroyed the country. So UN Resolution 1701 rewards Israel in many respects, despite it waging a war of terror and committing a series of war crimes. On the question of the prisoners, which is at the heart of this whole matter, 1701 calls for the unconditional release of the Israeli prisoners but says nothing about the Lebanese prisoners. Hezbollah has accepted 1701 because of its characteristic flexibility and pragmatism. But we have yet to see how 1701 will be interpreted on the ground, especially by Israel who will read it for every advantage it can possibly get.

LT: Does UN resolution 1701 call for the disarmament of Hezbollah?

BE: No. 1701 calls for the Lebanese army to deploy south of the Litani River and to increase the number of the UN forces in South Lebanon already. 1701 does not directly call for the disarming of Hezbollah but it does say that previous resolutions must be implemented, referring to Resolution 1559, suggesting that disarming Hezbollah should be part of it.

LT: What has been Hezbollah’s role in Lebanese politics in recent years?

BE: Essentially, if it weren’t for the 1982 invasion of by the Israelis I don’t think there would have been a Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah grew out of Israel’s invasion and very long occupation. Israel very mistakenly decided to extend well beyond its immediate goals at that time which was to expel the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization, from Lebanon. In only about three months into the invasion, Israel was able to achieve that goal and the PLO was shipped out of Lebanon to various countries. However, rather than withdrawing at that point, the Israelis decided that they were going to stay and essentially impose a new order and force Lebanon to sign a peace treaty and impose themselves as a overlord of Lebanon.

The Israelis obviously are not the most delicate in the way they work in their means of occupation and were rather heavy-handed using torture, imprisonment, and collective punishment widely - all of the things that Israel does in Gaza and the West Bank. This caused people throughout the south of Lebanon and through most of Lebanon to rebel and to begin to fight back.

Hezbollah at first started as an umbrella group for many small factions that were beginning to gather around the idea of developing an effective resistance organization to the occupation. By 1985, they had declared their statement of purpose, called the “Open Letter,” where they started to formulate some of their ideas; but they didn’t really elect a leadership until the late 1980s.

Since its founding, Hezbollah has surprised people that have very negative images of Islamist activist groups. Hezbollah established itself as an Islamist group that is very open and tolerant and is not fixated on imposing an Islamic state on people that do not want one and has said so from the very beginning. When Hezbollah liberated the South of Lebanon, there was a small but substantial number of Christians in the South, many of whom collaborated with Israeli occupation quite openly and were the front line torturers and thugs for the Israelis. But when the area was liberated, there was not a single incident of sectarian revenge against collaborators, Christian or Muslim.

Hezbollah then went on to immerse itself into the political mainstream of Lebanon, trying to establish itself as a Lebanese party and participate more and more in the government. They first did this in the parliament, where Hezbollah enjoyed a lot of success and became the largest parliamentary block. In the most recent round of elections, they took it one step further and joined the cabinet of the government with two ministers. This was called the Lebanization process and some people split off from Hezbollah because of this track. Nevertheless, Hezbollah has continued to immerse itself into Lebanese politics.

Although often accused of being Syrian or Iranian agents, Hezbollah actually represents the high point for the Shia Muslims of Lebanon who have been represented in the past by people who did not have their best interests at heart. Hezbollah is very much a Lebanese party with tremendous popular support, probably more that any political party has, whether in Lebanon or elsewhere. Hezbollah can call hundreds of thousands into the streets within an hour because they are very well organized and have really delivered for these very people, whether by driving out one of the mightiest armies in the world after twenty-odd years of occupation, representing their interests in the government, or through humanitarian work improving the livelihood of the people it represents.

LT: How would you characterize the leader of Hezbollah and how is he seen in the Arab world especially after the latest confrontation with Israel?

BE: Some call him the new Saladin others call him the new Nasser (the Arab nationalist hero of the 1960s). Nasrallah’s pictures are now raised in protests across the Arab world, although he is very distinctly a Shia cleric and most Muslims in the Arab world are Sunni and in the past would have had prejudices against Shia. That has all fallen by the wayside after this outbreak of fighting. Nasrallah has really become a hero to many Arabs. He is someone who, as they say “lifts our spirits.”

Nasrallah and Hezbollah have presented an alternative to the corrupt Arab regimes - who amass great money and weapons but at the cost of their own people or to use against their own people - and also an alternative to Al Qaeda and that kind of very right-wing Islamist politics that had been presented as the opposition before.

LT: What are Iran and Syria’s real roles in the recent conflict? What influence do they have on Hezbollah?

BE: Iran is the main backer of Hezbollah - providing them with money and other kinds of support. No doubt this support was critical to the formation of Hezbollah, for sustaining it throughout this time, and its success. Nevertheless, Hezbollah was very much an organic development rooted in Lebanon. The Iranian revolutionary guards helped train the early members of Hezbollah, especially in fighting and military matters. But there has hardly been a foreign participation in Hezbollah - it has been primarily Lebanese. I would say Hezbollah is about 99% Shia Lebanese - mainly people who were affected by the occupation of Lebanon. The Iranian Revolution provided the support and the inspiration but really Hezbollah took off only after the Israeli invasion and grew because of the long occupation that followed.

Syria has mainly been a conduit for Hezbollah to get arms and also when the Syrians were in control of Lebanon before 2005 they had an agreement with Hezbollah that they would be given freedom to conduct the resistance without intervention.

No one denies that there is an alliance or relationship. The problem comes when opponents of Hezbollah present this argument that Hezbollah does not act in the interest of the people of Lebanon and that Hezbollah is a puppet or a stooge of either the Syrians or the Iranians. But, at every point, if you examine Hezbollah’s record it has always acted within the interests of at least the people it represents here in the country and it represents one third of the people. Whatever decisions that Hezbollah makes are made here in Lebanon and implemented here.

There is also an attempt to link them also for other reasons - to tie Hezbollah to the “axis of evil” making things convenient for US and Israel who want to force them into a common front so they can take them all out as they tried to do in this war and haven’t really succeeded.

LT: How will this confrontation affect Palestinians in Lebanon and Palestine?

BE: Over all, the effect on Palestinians would be that they’ve seen a resistance movement be able to fend off, and maybe more than fend off, the Israeli army and for a second time break the armor of invincibility that the Israeli army relies on to keep everyone, particularly the Palestinians, down. And maybe this has given them a boost after many years of continuous assaults by Israel. Maybe this has exposed them to a set of tactics, ways of organization, and ways of resistance.

After the liberation of Southern Lebanon in 2000 it was only few months before the second Intifada began in Palestine, and many attribute what Hezbollah was able to do to the Israeli army in Southern Lebanon as at least one cause or inspiration of that Intifada. The fate of the Lebanon and Palestine are very much tied together. Many people suggest that Hamas is now beginning to adopt more of Hezbollah’s approach to politics and how to conduct itself rather than operating like the more traditional Islamist groups that focus less on fighting occupation and US imperialism and more on Islamic morals and sectarian issues.

LT: How should the US Left view Hezbollah?

BE: This is important, especially for what I see in US left approaches to Islamic activism. Obviously there’s a very self-serving interpretation of Islamism, or what people often wrongly call Islamic fundamentalism, that the right wing uses as its new bogey-man after communism as a justification for aggression of and unilateralism. This right-wing interpretation is often a caricature of Islamists as fanatic terrorists killing people for the sake of killing that we see in the mainstream media and in Washington. This interpretation unfortunately extends into much of US Left analysis.

Many people on the left in the US make the mistake that any time they see a movement that has Islam as part of the way it expresses its politics, they immediately put it into one category that some go as far as calling Islamic fascism and others call reactionary. There’s often very little distinction made between the various trends in Islamism that exist now. These trends are so varied at certain points that Islamism almost ceases to be a useful term. For example, if you look at secular groups, it is very hard to put all secular groups in one political category. The fascists were secular and the republicans are technically a secular group; and then there are Marxists and anarchists on the left. You have to look at Islamism in the same way. There are many different groups that exist under that umbrella and they’re quite varied and have different histories. This is particularly true with Hezbollah because there is such a profound difference between Hezbollah and some of the other Islamist groups that it is very difficult to even talk about them as being part of the same movement.

There has to be a deeper understanding and we have to lift the prejudice that just because there’s religious expression in the politics it does not immediately mean that it’s a reactionary movement or a movement that we have to be wary of. Al Qaeda is a reactionary organization - it seems to simply want to enforce Islam; it probably has some very sectarian anti-Christian and anti-Jewish and even anti-Shia politics; and it uses horrific methods to achieve its goals. Hezbollah is the very opposite of that - it is a national liberation movement of a certain sector of the population here that has always been at the bottom and at the very margins. Hezbollah represents the very high point of the Lebanese Shia’s self-organization and this just happens to be the way they express themselves.

Hezbollah has been a very successful movement and it has been rather open and tolerant at many levels - it has not sought to impose Islamic morals on secular people or people of other religions and its tactics are often the same as any social movement. Hezbollah does have an armed resistance wing, but that is something that was forced upon it by the Israeli occupation and it has never used that against anyone except the Israeli occupation.

So we have to be really wary of this knee-jerk reaction to any movement that has Islamic content, as you will find most movements do here in the Middle East and increasingly so. We have to look past that and see the real content - what the movement represents, what its goals are, what its tactics are - and judge it on that basis.

LT: Among many anti-capitalist activists, the tendency has not been to compare Hezbollah to Al-Qaeda, but to compare them to the Islamists in the Iranian Revolution. Can you discuss that comparison?

BE: Hezbollah’s goal is not to create an Islamic state here. There has historically been a big difference between the Shia of Lebanon and the Shia of Iran at the ideological level because the Shia here have always been a minority and the underdog; while in Iran, Shiism has been a state religion for five hundred years or so and the clergy that led the revolution there were in a vastly different position than the ones here. Although Iran developed an opposition to American imperialism, no doubt that’s what fueled the Islamic revolution in Iran, once they were in power the nature of that regime changed profoundly. Hezbollah’s politics, even though they’ve now merged within the state, have actually gone in a more liberal, open, flexible, and pragmatic direction.

Hezbollah’s leadership has literally no resemblance to the Mullahs of Iran - nor do they take their orders from them. In terms of religious leadership, what they call a spiritual leadership, there’s a local cleric by the name of Fadlallah, who provides much of the religious guidance to Shia in Lebanon. If you read his stuff he’s extremely liberal. We shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that just because Iran financially supports Hezbollah that they’re one and the same. There are quite substantial differences.

LT: What are important things for US activists to be doing in order to support the Lebanese people? What will be the most important thing in the next stage?

BE: There are a lot of things that can be done. The most basic thing is raising funds to help re-build the country. Helping the country to re-build quickly will be a continuation of the resistance that happened and a way sending the message to Israel, “All your brutality is not going to break us and we will rebuild and be strong again.” People can also come here, as some did in Palestine, to see for themselves, take pictures and videos, and use them as a tool when they get back to relay the real story back to people in the states in effective ways.

We need to try to follow up on the war crimes that Israel committed, and there are dozens. I’ve heard of efforts even in the US to do this. By drawing up some cases and then taking them to any courts that we possibly can, whether it’s the United States or in Europe or in other international bodies, we may not get justice but at least it would a be way of making sure that Israel knows that it is going to be held accountable.

The heart of why Israel is such a source of instability and wars in the region is because its very foundation was at the cost of hundreds of thousands of people - Israel was founded on stolen land and it is in continuous confrontation with all of the people around it. We have to find a way of removing that source of friction and aggression and the only way is to address the Palestinian question and all of the outlying problems that have developed from that, including Israel’s occupation of Syrian and Lebanese land.

Bilal El-Amine, founding editor of Left Turn, moved back to his native Lebanon over a year ago. When Israel started bombing Lebanon, Bilal did what he knows best and started reporting for independent media outlets on the Israeli devastation of the country and the Lebanese resistance. He reported almost daily from South Lebanon throughout the 33-day invasion for Flashpoints on Pacifica radio network. He can be reached at zaloom33@yahoo.com. Left Turn editor, Sasha Wright, spoke with Bilal immediately after the UN “cease-fire” resolution was passed about the context of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, its impacts on Lebanese society and politics, and about the South Lebanese Resistance and Hezbollah.

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