by Dan Lieberman
They speak English, carry I-pods and listen to Santana and Guns and Roses. They don’t approach with anger and don’t behave overbearing. They seem well-educated, mostly from Beirut’s American University, and are alert to world happenings. They impress as being more secular than pious. They are spokespersons for Hezbollah – the Party of God. Maybe they are a selected group of well-trained talkers for foreigners; a subtle means to convince the unwary that Hezbollah’s followers are just every-day guys and gals. Maybe, but observations and events were inconsistent with the media’s drastic descriptions of the militant Lebanese Shiite movement.
The Party of God has insufficient support for exercising political control of Lebanon and knows it doesn’t have the numbers or the strength to turn the Levant into an Islamic Republic. Hezbollah’s clerics don’t indicate they intend to force Shari’a upon their constituencies. More an amalgam of differing viewpoints - religious, social, political and militant – Hezbollah is solidified by a common struggle for the dispossessed and a battle against corruption. Meetings with Hezbollah and Lebanese officials together with a trip to southern Lebanon, as a member of a Council for National Interest peace delegation, revealed much about the nature of the Party of God.
The voyage started in Beirut. The tenement building in Beirut is indistinguishable from the adjoining buildings in a Shiite district of Beirut. Hezbollah followers crowd the sidewalk to greet and lead to a simple apartment on an upper floor. Sayyid Nawaf Al-Musawi, the head of Hezbollah’s International Relations, is dressed in conventional clothes. The only indication of religious fervor is the beads he rotates in his right hand. He sits relaxed but talks seriously and with conviction. The female translator’s minor errors and dubious translations of colloquial expressions are politely excused. The head of Hezbollah’s International Relations has a lot to say - about everything.
“In Iraq there is a severe humane problem – same as in Palestine. The West Bank is now a prison. The US gives no importance to the Iraqi people. US policy is based on Israeli safety and Middle East oil.” “America is creating chaos and the region is under its hegemony. The regime is increasing the problems rather than resolving them. Now they are talking about a new war in Iran. Iraq was weak, but Iran is strong and it will be a much harder war. A barrel of oil and a barrel of gunfire will create a catastrophe that is beyond comprehension. A disaster is happening and Americans are giving a story that is false. They were lying about WMDs in Iraq and now they are lying about nuclear issues in Iran. They told the people that the Iraqis would welcome them as liberators. This is an example of a delusion to the citizens of the US. American citizens deserve to know the truth. Colin Powell gave false information to the UN but he thought it was the truth. When someone tries to find the truth he is called a terrorist. America operates on misleading evidence.”
“Hezbollah will never recognize Israel. Israel (Palestine?) should be a democratic nation where all religions exist together and have equal freedom. In the 1919 Paris meeting, the Zionists presented a document which coveted South Lebanon and delineated four river basins they wanted to own.” Sayyid Nawaf Al-Musawi ended his conversation with prophetic expressions.
“We don’t judge you on the basis of your stand on Israel. Do not judge us on that issue.”“There are natural ties between Shia Lebanon and Iran. They have the same source. The fifteenth century Iranian studies came from Lebanon”. “The geography of Lebanon enabled the Shia to stay. It is tough to conquer Southern Lebanon because of its geography.”
Leaving Beirut for the South of Lebanon is similar to leaving any metropolis – traffic jams, new expressways, roadways that cut through residential areas. The Paris of the Middle East has lost much of its charm. It is heavy until the view of the blue green Mediterranean waters calm the atmosphere. Banana groves, similar to those that camouflaged the Hezbollah rocket carriers during the 2006 summer war, are prominent. Also prominent are posters of Rafiq Hariri, the assassinated and previous Prime Minister. After the Sunni city of Sidon, a peaceful countryside of groves and orchards, with newly repaired bridges that cross ready-to-be-paved roads, leads to Tyre.
The Shiite city has freshly sanded beaches and a picturesque seaside promenade. The posters have changed – they now feature Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s political leader, Tyre is the home of Sheik Nabil Kaook, Hezbollah commander of South Lebanon. The Sheik narrowly escaped death when Israeli warplanes bombed his home in 2006 war. In his presence, women are not greeted with handshakes, but with hands respectfully placed over the heart. The women sit veiled and separate from the men. The cleric is well groomed and well tailored – his white turban shows his status and his brown cloak matches the brown chair on which he sits, Words are spoken politely and softly.
Nevertheless, the message, interspersed with feelings for the dispossessed, is harsh and accusatory: The Hezbollah Sheik has one succinct message: “The United States took the decision to go to war and to continue the war. It treats Lebanon as just another occupation.” Tyre is also identified with the Al-Sadr foundation, which manages an orphanage under control of Rabab al-Sadr, sister of disappeared Shiite cleric Sayyid Musa al-Sadr. Shi‘a clerics who have the title of sayyid claim descent from Muhammad. Sayyid Musa al-Sadr is more famous than his designation. His life, a story of dedication, success and an eventual mystery, reveals strong links between Shiites from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.
While successfully improving economic and social conditions for a disenfranchised Shiite population, he made enemies of landlords, corrupt officials, political establishment and members of the Palestinian Liberation Oganization. In 1978, while attending a conference in Libya, Musa al-Sadr mysteriously vanished. No clue to his disappearance has ever surfaced. Musa al-Sadr‘s eventual disassociation with, what was then, a corrupt Amal, created other groups, some of whom later coalesced into Hezbollah. On February 16, 1985, an “Open Letter to the Downtrodden in Lebanon and the World,” alerted the world to Hezbollah’s formal existence.
Elegant chalets grace the barren hills of southern Lebanon. Many of them are homes of expatriate Lebanese, who have always been principal contributors to Lebanon’s economy. The expatriates from Sierra Leone, Gulf States and many from Dearborn, Michigan and other U.S. cities, send funds to their Lebanese relatives and purchase properties throughout Lebanon. Southern Lebanon has many retired Dearborns who have returned to their families and to a land they always cherished. But that’s not all, informed persons claim Southern Lebanon has diamond and drug smuggling that help finance Hezbollah and local communities. For expediency and revenue, the Party of God can depart from being a religious movement.