Why after the Israel-Lebanon 34-day war two years ago, and particularly after the Doha accord in May, which restored Hezbollah to the Lebanese government and essentially gave it the veto power it demanded, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has been the most popular figure anywhere in the Arab world?
After returning from months in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, Deborah Campbell the author of This Heated Place, a narrative exploration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia, in an interview with me spoke about the meteoric rise of Hezbollah in the aftermath of the 2006 war, the Doha agreement and the prisoner exchange with Israel.
Campbell has written for The Economist, New Scientist, Ms. magazine, the Guardian and Asia Times, and recently reported for Harper's on the two months she spent "embedded" with Iraqi refugees. Over the past seven years, she has extensively chronicled the fault lines in the Middle East from Iran to Palestine, immersing herself for extended periods in the societies she writes about.
Omid Memarian: How did the 2006 war with Israel affect Lebanese society?
Deborah Campbell: Obviously it was devastating, both in terms of the economy and the psychology of the society. That summer, Lebanon finally appeared to be recovering from the years of civil war and was anticipating a banner year for tourism. Instead, the country endured billions of dollars in infrastructure destruction and once again the tourists fled, as did Lebanese themselves. Twelve hundred Lebanese were killed, the vast majority of them civilians. And the divisions in the society returned to the forefront, with part of the population supporting Hezbollah as their defenders against Israel and another part blaming Hezbollah for provoking an Israeli attack. At the same time, the fact that Israel, with one of the world's strongest armies backed by the military and diplomatic power of the United States, was unable to defeat a small band of a few thousand Hezbollah fighters came as a shock to the entire region.
In a single month Israel managed to lose its mythical aura of invincibility, which was just as important, and perhaps more important, to its security than its nuclear arsenal. Israel has yet to recover, and now we see Olmert stepping down. I would say his resignation has just as much to do with the failures of that war, where Israeli soldiers were so unprepared that they had to raid Lebanese shops for food, as his corruption investigation. It was the soldiers themselves who led the protests against him after the war.
OM: Given that, as you say, part of the Lebanese society sees Hezbollah as the cause of the vast destruction in southern Lebanon, two years after the war and particularly after the recent prisoner exchange, how is Hezbollah perceived?
DC: There is no question that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is the most popular figure anywhere in the Arab world, and he's not even the leader of a state. For many Arabs, including Lebanese, he is the only person who has successfully stood up to Israel, starting by ending Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000, then by forcing the Israeli army to a standstill in 2006, and finally through the prisoner exchange. What did Israel get out of this deal? Two dead soldiers. When I went to the south of Lebanon in July I saw posters that read "Nasrallah is the guarantee of freedom. Olmert is the guarantee of humiliation." Another, regarding the prisoner exchange, read, "Lebanon is shedding tears of joy. Israel is shedding tears of pain." The scene in Beirut on the day of the prisoner exchange, with cars racing through the street waving flags and girls hanging out of the windows, reminded me of a country that had just won the World Cup.
But particularly among the Sunni community in Lebanon there are those who feel enormously threatened by the shifting balance of power caused by the rising esteem and influence of the Shia population. For decades the Shia were seen as the shoeshine boys and street-cleaners, and now not only have the Shia had their honor restored but they are becoming educated and rising in social status. Hezbollah provides scholarships for young Shias to the best universities in Lebanon--not so they can join the military side or even the party, but so they can return to their communities and help them develop.
All of this is challenging the social order, which is very threatening for some people, particularly Sunnis, who are traditionally second only to the Christians in this sectarian-based society. Now you are seeing a very dangerous trend where some Sunnis are developing jihadist tendencies, with the reported support of Saudi money, which is practically limitless given the price of oil. In some Sunni villages women are even veiling their faces. This is new. At the same time other Sunnis openly support America and Israel. Essentially, any ally they can find against Hezbollah.
OM: Is Hassan Nasrallah popular among Muslims or Christians?
DC: I talked to a Sunni economist, educated at the London School of Economics, who calls Nasrallah a demi-god. "The right man for the right moment" is how he characterized him. His sentiment, shared by many, is that Nasrallah never makes a promise he doesn't keep, and that he's incorruptible. This distinguishes him from the rest of the power elites in Lebanon, many of whom are ex-warlords who keep recycling back into power. These guys live like rock stars. On the Christian side you have a huge number, the supporters of Michel Aoun, who are the main allies of Hezbollah. They don't seem at all threatened by the rise in Shia influence and don't think it will mean an end to girls wearing bikinis on the beach. This is about power, not religion.
OM: What are the main foreign forces that directly or indirectly influence Lebanese politics?
DC: Lebanon is a very small country of about 4 million, the size of a middling city, and it has long been manipulated by powerful outside forces. For Lebanese politicians, it's hard to resist the temptation that if you can't win on your own you find a stronger ally who can help you win. Of course Israel is the giant next door, and the reason Hezbollah exists. Hezbollah only came into existence after Israel invaded in 1982 and starting killing the Shia in the south, who had initially welcomed them as a weapon against the unsettling Palestinian presence. Syria, which sees Lebanon as part of its traditional territory, occupied Lebanon until it was forced out after the murder of the billionaire former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Syria still plays an important role, though less so--and there is a growing rapprochement between the Lebanese and Syrian government.
The United States, as in most of the region, remains the senior western power, both as Israel's ally and by supporting, for example, people like Saad Hariri, the son of Rafiq Hariri, head of the Sunni Future Movement party. Though it should be said that US power is visibly waning throughout the region, and France seems more and more influential especially under Sarkozy. I mentioned Saudi money--Rafiq Hariri made his early fortune in Saudi Arabia before privatizing Beirut's prime real estate and transferring it into his own hands. Saudi money is everywhere in the region and one of the most under-reported phenomena, perhaps because they don't exactly give press conferences and perhaps because they are still allied with the US. For now. In affairs of power, most marriage are of convenience.
And Iran has supported Hezbollah from the beginning. You can see posters of Ayatollah Khomeini in the Dahiya, the Shia-dominated southern suburbs of Beirut. The notion that Iran is pulling the puppet strings on Hezbollah doesn't have much merit however--it's a confluence of interests, and Hezbollah runs itself with an efficiency that is absolutely without precedent in the region. As a journalist you quickly understand that you are not dealing with a bunch of rag-tag fighters. These guys are professional, disciplined, and smart. But to some extent you could view Lebanon, like Iraq, as another battleground in the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In both cases, Iran is currently winning.
OM: There have many discussions about the way Hezbollah, as a non-state actor, must be disarmed in order to bring peace to the region. Do people support this idea?
DC: Since the Doha accord in May, which restored Hezbollah to the Lebanese government and essentially gave it the veto power it demanded, nobody is talking about disarming Hezbollah. All of the politicians in Lebanon genuflected in return for photo-ops during the prisoner exchange. This exchange was an enormous publicity coup for Hezbollah, it can't be overstated. You won't find many in Lebanon who will argue that the Lebanese army could take on Israel, and that threat is omnipresent. Of course it would be helpful if all the actors in the Middle East put down their arms, but we live in reality.
OM: Can you see any situation in which Hezbollah would decide to disarm?
DC: Hassan Nasrallah mentioned in a speech recently that he would be willing to work with the Lebanese army on security. During the street-fighting in May between Hezbollah fighters and Hariri's men--who were so badly prepared that I'm still wondering who put them up to this--Hezbollah immediately transferred control of the areas they took over to the army. Perhaps, if Lebanon ever sets aside its entrenched sectarian system of governance--we can dream, right?
OM: In Western countries Hezbollah is considered a terrorist organization whereas in Arab countries it is seen as a legitimate force. How have these two polarized views prevented understanding of the realities on the ground?
DC: Well obviously Hezbollah represents a constituency that has legitimate fears and concerns, whatever we think of how they behave as a result. It is always the case that small groups use asymmetrical tactics against armies. As we know, Hezbollah built its strength on its social networks, delivering the services that the government cannot or will not provide to the impoverished Shia population. In the eyes of that population Hezbollah are their only defense against outside aggression, because no one else gives a damn. Labels are being used to dismiss the underlying concerns and until those concerns are addressed you will see non-state actors take over where government fail. At the same time, if a government did what Hezbollah has done, confronting Israel and the US, they would likely be branded as terrorists as well. Ultimately, and we should know this by now, we create peace by talking to our enemies, not our friends.
OM: You were recently in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. How do the Arab populations in these countries view Barack Obama, John McCain and US policy in general?
DC: Interestingly, when I arrived in Jordan I had dinner with a Palestinian businessman who ran security companies in Iraq. He was very pleased that McCain wanted to stay in Iraq for a hundred years--it's good for business. But the man everyone is talking about is Obama. Keep in mind that Arabs are not free of chauvinism against black people. And while some have read his books and most think he is more reasonable than McCain, they aren't expecting miracles. They were up in arms over his statements at the AIPAC conference about an undivided Jerusalem. Palestine is still the raw wound in the Middle East. The news stories of Palestinians living in the prison of Gaza, of Israeli settlers beating elderly farmers, and Israeli soldiers raiding orphanages, schools and shopping malls in the West Bank continue to incite rage at a time when the US is seen as increasingly irrelevant in the region. Meanwhile, if you go to Dubai, who do you see doing deals? The Chinese.
(An excerpt from the interview first appeared on IPS News Agency)