The Party of God
Hizbullah ( the name means ‘Party of God’) is the successor movement to the Harakat al-Mahrumin of the 1960s and 70s led by Imam Musa Sadr. The Harakat al-Mahrumin (’The Movement of The Dispossessed) which was itself succeeded in 1975 by its armed wing Afwaj al-Muqawama al-Lubnaniyya (’The Battalions of the Lebanese Resistance’) – Amal.
I need hardly point out to those of us here today the significance of the names, the narrative is clear is it not? Al-Sadr’s attempts to halt the slide into violence failed and the Harakat were fully subsumed into Nabih Berri’s Amal. (I will remind you in passing that both Amal and Berri are still around and still very much in business – Berri is the Speaker of the Parliament.) Ariel Sharon’s invasion in 1982 speeded up and intensified this narrative of:
Increasing activism ? Increasing militancy ? Highly motivated and determined religious radicalism.
The invasion and the brutality with which the invaders and their local allies the SLA behaved confirmed the classic Shi`i view of history, that it has taken a wrong turn and must be set right. The result was Hizbullah’s founding and their long war of attrition against the invaders. A war they ultimately won.
Hizbullah however is not only a military organisation and to see them as such is an error of profound magnitude leading to deeply flawed policies and executive actions. Like the Tablighi, the Ikhwanis, Hamas, or any other successful movement you care to mention it is a grassroots community movement and those roots, as the previous speaker has shown, are both deep and ineradicable. The Hizb run schools, hospitals, clinics, co-ops, businesses, they provide welfare, run a very successful political party, enforce social order, and run a small very disciplined and very efficient fighting force.
The 2005 parliamentary election clearly demonstrated the Hizb’s success and the emerging Shi’ite ascendancy. Briefly; of 128 seats 29 are occupied by the Shi´i 14 of whom are clearly identified with Hizbullah, of the the 25 ministers 5 are Shi´i of whom two are Hizbullah and a third is a Hizbullah affiliate. Two accomplish these results in a voting system so clearly weighted against you is no small feat and indicates an ineradicable support for the movement in the community it serves, defends, and represents..
None of these realities are reflected in the Israeli conceptualisation of the Hizb.
The Israeli Conceptualisation of Hizbullah
For the Israelis generals and diplomats alike, Hizbullah is a “cancer” in the Lebanese body politic to be excised as soon as possible and by whatever means necessary. There is not now and never has been even the slightest acknowledgement that the Hizbullah are a lot more than “just” a strong and well-trained militia. I have yet to encounter a single Israeli officer or official prepared to admit that it is also a political party possessed of democratic legitimacy and a highly ramified social organisation. Significantly they also refuse to even try estimate the number of fighters in the militia and deny that they have ever tried determine the relationship between the political-parliamentary and military levels and the working chain of command. I doubt that I am alone in this room in found the wildly varying statements coming out of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem about what proportion of the Hizb’s fighters and military infrastructure has been successfully destroyed darkly hilarious. The pattern of ingrained failure is clear, just as they nurtured, (and indeed initially funded) Hamas, the Israelis have generously provided the culture medium in which Hizbullah and Hamas thrive. Both are grass-roots movements and both are far more than, and I quote; “A pack of cowardly Arab fanatics who need to be taught a lesson.” Looking round I can see that all you have heard similar sentiments from similar sources.
The prevalence of such sentiment driven “analysis” makes one wonder whether there is even the faintest conception amongst Israeli policy makers that any reduction, let alone neutralisation, of Hizbullah’s military capacity is never going to be anything more than a partial and very temporary success. Whether the Israelis like it or not the Shi’a are going to get an increasing share in Lebanese governance. They are going to get an increasing share in all Lebanese state agencies and that includes the army, the security services, and the police. This is inevitable and the Israelis should as the Americans say “get used to it.” What of the hope expressed by a previous speaker that as their community develops economically and stands to lose more and more from punitive military action that “moderates” will get the “upper hand”? My reply to that is two-fold:
- The Israelis have just destroyed most of the economic infrastructure.
- It is perfectly clear that the Israelis always intended to destroy most of the economic infrastructure and thereby eliminate an increasingly successful rival to Haifa.
This isn’t how you win friends and influence people. Somebody tell Dan and Ehud. But this isn’t the only conceptual failure. It’s not even the worst such failure.
Conceptualising Hizbullah As A Cat’s Paw
The complaint that Hizbullah is nothing more than an Iranian cat’s paw is often expressed both in Israel and in America. What is the truth of the matter?
The Jabl Amal have always had close family and social relations with their Shia brethren both in Iran and in Iraq. The links are those of centuries of trade, intermarriage, and long periods of study in the intellectually and academically rigorous educational institutions of Karbala, Najaf, and Qum. To give a few topical examples:
- Imam Musa Sadr’s family came from Lebanon he himself was born, raised, and studied in Iran.
- Hassan Nasrallah studied in both Najaf and Qum.
- Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr (Muqtada al-Sadr’s grandfather) was Musa al-Sadr’s cousin.
- Imam Musa Sadr’s niece is married to Mohammad Khatami, President of Iran from August 2, 1997 to August 2, 2005.
These networked bonds are far more important that any Syrian connection and (short of slaughtering every Shia in the Middle East) are ineradicable. It is not even slightly surprising that Iran helped found and arm Hizbullah quite apart from the highly significant political and ideological considerations they’re all part of the same group of families. Did the planners in America and Israel seriously expect that they would not defend each other? If there are Revolutionary Guards or Iranian advisers in Lebanon that is hardly surprising. What is surprising is that if they are there that there aren’t more of them.
A Pattern of Flawed Military Conceptualisation(s)
Sharon’s military defeat should have, but didn’t, taught an important lesson. The failure to learn the lesson that a political solution was needed is common to all wings of Israeli strategic thought. Instead of seeking a mediated or even directly negotiated settlement voice after voice warned that the withdrawal from Lebanon had weakened the deterrent effect of Israeli military might and that this must be reestablished. “Why?” these voices chorused “do we not do something about Hizbullah?” “Why” they now chorus “Did we let them get so powerful?” “Could we not have prevented their ascendancy?”
The reasons why are not hard to discern:
Sharon’s invasion and occupation led to the IDF being defeated and withdrawn. The defeat left Likud in general and Sharon in particular as hostages to their own failed past. His military defeat having created a hostage to fortune Sharon did not (and could not) even contemplate a further entanglement. All he could do was instruct the intelligence arm to gather information and conduct disruptive operations and instruct the military to engage in constant cross-border harrying operations.
This left Hizbullah free to arm itself and it did. Nasrallah openly boasted of his 12,000 missiles (an understatement of the true size of the arsenal) engaged in weapons research, and saw to it that his men received intensive and professional training. While all this was going on Hizbullah engaged in the construction of defensive positions upon which they could fall back. The fact that Israel has had to ask the Americans to rush them a large amount of “bunker busters” by air indicates not only the success of this program but the abject failure of the Israelis to realise what was going on. The Israeli general staff weren’t the only ones making plans.
Another part of this pattern of failure of conceptualisation lay in the open contempt of the Israelis for the calibre of Hizbullah’s weaponry. They thought and seemingly still do think purely in terms of air superiority and of “fly swatting.” Air forces are like that and the Israeli failure is a direct function of the long ago commented upon deterioration of their ground forces and the overwhelming ascendancy of their air wing within their military apparatus.
Used correctly the katyusha is a formidable weapon. It, and the car bomb, are rightly referred to as “the poor man’s air force.” The katyusha is cheap, mobile, and as accurate as it needs to be. It’s designed to be fired in large numbers. Fired in sufficient quantity it is more than capable of generating lots of “shock and awe” at a fraction of the cost of a conventional bombing campaign and with a lot more flexibility. Their “low tech” nature makes them difficult to detect and they are very difficult to shoot down. They’re the perfect guerrilla weapon – and the Hizb have used them with verve and skill. Ask the residents of Haifa how disrupted their lives have become. From the anguished news reports it appears that the Home Front Command, the branch of the Israeli armed forces charged with defending Israeli towns, cities, and villages, never even considered that they would have to cope with rocket barrages of the current scale let alone their consequences. It appears further that they still do not believe that the scope of the attacks can and will be expanded.
The same is true of other missile capabilities – I doubt that any future Israeli naval commander will assume his ship can’t be misled and not bother to turn on his radar systems.
Similarly Israeli ground troops speak with shock, and reluctant respect, of Hizb fighter capabilities. That Hizb fighters are sufficiently capable to even try to capture more IDF personnel must be causing many a sleepless night amongst Israeli politicians and generals alike. I think it entirely probable that sooner or later they’ll succeed. All it takes is a stun grenade or two and those are easily obtainable on the open market. Why do you think there are so many complaints in the press about their “cowardly” way of fighting? I don’t know of any military organisation that stands still in a clear line of fire waving a water pistol and waving a sign saying “come and get me” do you? [laughter from audience]
A Continuing Pattern of Conceptual Failure
Where do the roots of these failures lie? They lie in a myth. They lie in the idea that only the Israelis are adaptable, that only the Israelis think things through:
Much of the blame can be laid at the feet of the war of 1967. Israel won. It’s a truism that generals re-fight the last war but one might have thought that the Israeli military planners would at least have considered a change of tactics. The war of attrition, the failures and losses of 1982, two intifadas (the root word means the shrugging off of a burden) all signposted that the next war wasn’t going to be a short one. This never seems to been considered instead Israel enshrined the tactics of 1967 as a strategic doctrine.
The Hizb appear to have realised this – to have ‘got inside their heads’ and to have adapted accordingly. Their tactics depend upon disrupting the North and they’ve worked. Ask the residents of Kiryat Shimona and Haifa how long their economic survival can be guaranteed in the wake of no tourists, sharply reduced production, large-scale (and long term) work disruption etc. No civil society can put up with those for long.
From a professional point of view the Hizb’s strategic thinking, their planning, and their creation of a fluid fighting force has been little short of masterful. It was also to a large degree known the Israelis have lots of “lawn mowers” and use them with abandon. The astonishing thing is that none of what was known and none of what could be reasonably deduced was met with even remotely adequately counter-strategies. Obsessed by the deterrent effect of Syrian long-range rocketry obsessed to an even greater degree by its new-found closeness to Iran had a paralysing effect and not just deterrent one. Israel could and should have actively tried to change this, for instance by pursuing some sort of dialogue with Syria – no such luck, the politicians and the diplomats were shouted down by the generals and now all must pay the price. The Syrians are not a charity. The price will be high.
You And Which Army Habibi?
Is there any realistic prospect of disarming Hizbullah? In a word “No.” I’m not interested in either listening to or refuting those critics of past inaction who say that this could have been done long ago. It couldn’t. Nor am I interested in getting into a sterile debate about how far their capacity has to be reduced. All they have to do is survive and they’re managing that quite handily thank you very much. Destroy 9,000 rockets and you still have to find the other three thousand. You have to fight people who know the terrain intimately. Who’ve prepared it to their advantage and can melt away when circumstances require it. You’ll have to search every single village and hamlet in Southern Lebanon and we all know how well that’s ever worked the Egyptians tried it in the 1830s the Ottoman reformers tried in the mid 1800s, the French tried it (repeatedly) and decided the game wasn’t worth the candle, the Israelis tried it without success, there’s a lesson there. Did I mention the new bright and shiny problem? Let me conclude today’s remarks with the new bright and shiny problem.
Tyre has 150,000 inhabitants. It’s predominantly Shi’a. It’s now overwhelmingly pro-Hizb. And in the course of making it overwhelmingly pro-Hizb. The Israeli air force have obligingly converted a reasonably well-built and difficult to defend city into a warren of death traps for anybody coming in with hostile intent. Mission accomplished, they’re shocked, they’re infuriated, they’re not even slightly awed, and they’re very willing to give any searchers a searingly warm “welcome” – well done.
(Part 3 1559, Palestine, and Militarism) will be published tomorrow) This is the only posting tonight.