Authors: Nicholas Blanford
Copyright Â© 2011 by Nicholas Blanford
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Random House,
an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group,
a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Warriors of god: inside Hezbollah's thirty-year struggle against Israel /
By Nicholas Blanford.â1st ed.
1. Shi'ahâLebanonâHistory. 2. Hezbollah (Lebanon) 3. Lebanonâ
Military relationsâIsrael. 4. IsraelâMilitary relationsâLebanon. I. Title.
956.9204â²5âdc22Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 2011012620
Cover design: Carlos Beltran
CAMP SHAMROCK, Tibnine, south Lebanon
âLike a stream of red ellipses, machine gun tracer rounds arched lazily across the inky night sky. Every few moments, a vivid white flash from an exploding artillery shell revealed for a microsecond the distant ridge line and the volcano-shaped silhouette of the outpost above Haddatha village, manned by Israeli-allied Lebanese militiamen and under attack by Hezbollah.
This was my first view of the fighting in south Lebanon and I was watching it with a cup of coffee alongside several Irish United Nations peacekeepers. The location of the Irish battalion's headquarters granted it a clear southward view across a shallow stony valley to the ridge that marked the edge of Israel's occupation zone.
To me, the battle unfolding a mile and a half away was a confusing kaleidoscope of colored lights and loud bangs. To the Irish officers, however, this was purely routine, an event they had witnessed many times. They sipped coffee, nonchalantly discussed where Hezbollah's mortars were probably located, and remarked on the improving accuracy of their bombardments.
This minor attackârecorded by the UN mission, known as UNIFIL, in one of many soon-forgotten “shoot reps”âcame during a period in which Hezbollah was gradually shedding its Lebanese civil-war image as a shadowy band of kidnappers and suicide bombers, and emerging in the public eye as a resourceful guerrilla army recording a
growing number of battlefield successes against the Israeli occupiers of southern Lebanon.
Hezbollah had surfaced twelve years earlier, in the wake of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Few would have guessed at the time that this ragtag group of Shia militants, who drew guidance from Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and inspiration from the martyrdom of the sect's founders fourteen centuries earlier, would survive the civil warâlet alone become the dominant political and military force in Lebanon three decades later.
Indeed, it is extraordinary to contemplate that Lebanon, a country half the size of Connecticut, with no natural resources, fractious demographics, and an opaque sectarian political system, could give rise to an organization that has grown into the most powerful nonstate military group in the world.
In late 1996, when I began covering the conflict in south Lebanon for
The Daily Star
, Lebanon's English-language newspaper, Hezbollah's post-civil-war military evolution was fully underway. Back then, however, its weapons and tactics were comparatively rudimentary and appropriate for its guerrilla-style methods. It was a conflict largely overlooked by the rest of the world, which had lost interest in Lebanon once the last Western hostages were released in the early 1990s. But it was a fascinating conflict to observe nonetheless. I soon learned to navigate the potholed lanes winding through the steep stony hills of the frontline district, and gradually built up a network of contacts on the ground. I studied military manuals, absorbing data on the weapons systems used by both sides, and scrounged ever more detailed maps of southern Lebanon, marking with a red pen the front line and the locations of outposts manned by Israeli troops and their South Lebanon Army militia allies.
There was an element of the routine about Hezbollah's deadly roadside bomb attacks and the daily mortar barrages of Israeli and SLA outposts. Sometimes I would sit on the flat roof of the restored Crusader fortress in Tibnine and watch the puffs of smoke from mortar shells blossoming against distant SLA compounds and hear the metallic crack of exploding Israeli artillery rounds. It was easy to be lulled into a false
sense of security by these daily tit-for-tat exchanges. But the conflict also had the ability to quickly spiral out of control and then south Lebanon became a very dangerous place indeed.
By the late 1990s, it was evident that Hezbollah had all but won its campaign of resistance. The Israeli military simply could not dent Hezbollah's attacks, and the steady flow of troop casualties helped turn the Israeli public against the occupation. When Israel finally abandoned the occupation zone in three desperate days in May 2000, it was a truly historic momentâthe first time the Jewish state had been forced to yield occupied land by the force of Arab arms.
It was around that time that I began to mull a book tracing Hezbollah's military evolution from 1982 to its successful culmination in Israel's retreat from south Lebanon. Yet it soon transpired that that eighteen-year struggle was merely a precursor for what was to come next. The daily battles may have ended in May 2000 but the struggle continued, as Hezbollah in great secrecy morphed from an efficient guerrilla force using hit-and-run tactics into a crack infantry division capable of defending ground and defeating Israel's top-line battle tanks. The scale of the transformation between 2000 and the outbreak of war in 2006 dwarfed the military advances of the previous decade. That evolution continued after the 2006 war, as Hezbollah and Israel absorbed the lessons of that conflict and prepared for the next one. Some of the military hardware at Hezbollah's disposal today would not look out of place in the arsenal of a medium-sized European state.
And yet, Hezbollah's massive military expansion has inevitably brought it into conflict with non-Shia fellow Lebanese, who fear the party's ideological and material ties to Iran and its determination to keep its weapons at all costs to pursue the confrontation with Israel. Hezbollah's struggle against Israel since 2000 has been matched by an internal tussle against its domestic critics. Lebanon's complicated sectarian demographyâwith nineteen official sects squeezed into its cramped coastal cities, shadowed valleys, and soaring mountainsâand recent history of communal strife has forced the Lebanese to embrace the gospel of consensus to maintain internal stability. Lebanon is a country that has been racked by civil conflict since long before the modern
state was established in 1920. Although the Christian Maronites and the Muslim Sunnis and Shias are the three largest sects, none has sufficient weight to dominate all the others. As a result, Lebanon's feuding communal leaders traditionally look to external backing to grant them influence over their domestic rivals. By the same token, foreign powers, both regional and international, are drawn into supporting Lebanese proxies to gain greater leverage against their own rivals in a geostrategically significant slice of real estate on the eastern Mediterranean. This symbiotic relationship between domestic client and foreign patron was evident as long ago as the mid-nineteenth century when the British backed the Druze, the French sponsored the Maronites, and the Sunnis were championed by the Ottomans. The same dynamic continues to endure today with the West, chiefly the United States, France, and Saudi Arabia, backing a mainly Sunni and Christian coalition while Iran and Syria support Hezbollah and its allies.
To defend its resistance priority, Hezbollah has steadily immersed itself in Lebanon's political milieu since the end of the civil war in 1990. Each time it has faced a fresh challenge over its weapons, Hezbollah has taken another unwanted but necessary step into the unforgiving morass of Lebanese politics. Indeed, at the time of writing, Hezbollah effectively controls the levers of power in Lebanon, not only through the
of its formidable military apparatus but also by wielding paramount influence over the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati.
It is easy to imagine Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's charismatic leader, sometimes reflecting fondly on those heady days in the mid-1990s when his party had the broad backing of the Lebanese to pursue its resistance campaign and, parliamentary representation notwithstanding, did not have to sully itself too much with the sordid trade-offs and quid pro quos of daily Lebanese politics.
Instead, as I write this introduction, Hezbollah is facing some of the gravest challenges in its thirty-year existence: in June 2011, two senior Hezbollah figures were indicted by an international tribunal based in the Netherlands for their alleged involvement in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, an iconic former Lebanese prime minister. Hezbollah has
disavowed the tribunal, accusing it of being a political tool of the West and Israel to defang the “resistance.” There is some justification to such charges. The original UN investigation into Hariri's 2005 murder and the subsequent tribunal would not have existed without the support of the United States and France, both of which were at the time at odds with the Syrian regime, which was widely suspected of ordering Hariri's assassination. A UN-endorsed investigation into the murder was seen as a useful means of placing pressure on Damascus. Few doubt that if Israel had been the chief suspect, there never would have been an international investigation or tribunal. The fact that the investigation took an unexpected turn toward Hezbollah was an additional boon for the party's opponents, but it only reinforced the belief among Hezbollah's supporters that the judicial process was being manipulated by the party's Western enemies. It is most unlikely that the two Hezbollah officers will ever stand trial, yet regardless of the veracity of the charges against them, the party's carefully cultivated image as a successful resistance force against Israel has been irredeemably tarnished. Instead of lauding Hezbollah's resistance exploits, many Arab Sunnis now view the Shia party as a gang of contract killers in the pay of Syria and Iran.
Still, the impact of the Hariri investigation on Hezbollah pales in comparison to the more pressing dilemma posed by the unprecedented wave of street protests against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, which broke out in March 2011 and threatens to bring an end to forty years of Assad dynasty rule.
The so-called “Arab Spring” protests began in January in Tunisia and soon spread like a wild contagion across north Africa into the Middle East. The first victim was Tunisia's President Zine El Abedine Ben Ali, quickly followed by Hosni Mubarak, the ossified Egyptian leader and one of the Arab world's grand old men. Libya collapsed into civil war as rebel forces battled Moammar Qaddafi's loyalists for control of the country. In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh was wounded in an explosion and fled to Saudi Arabia, leaving behind him a country reeling from anti-regime demonstrations, a strengthening al-Qaeda presence, a Shia revolt in the north, and civil unrest in the south. When
demonstrations began in Bahrain, the Kingdom's desperate Sunni rulers turned to their Saudi neighbors for military assistance to put down the majority Shia protesters.