Nasrallah’s reasons


Nasrallah’s reasons Hizbullah and the conflict in Lebanon

Nicholas noe‘t

errorist organizations like Hizbullah … cannot be deterred’, wrote prominent right-winger and former Israeli foreign minister Moshe Arens in a recent piece for Haaretz. ‘There is only one option here: these organizations must be defeated.’ Unfortunately, Arens’s logic now appears to be the dominant one when it comes to Lebanon’s militant Shiite party Hizbullah, certainly among US and Israeli policymakers but also, increasingly, among EU member states and various pro-Western Arab regimes. As a result, most political elements in Lebanon, including those ostensibly trying to cut a deal for a new president in time to meet a 23 November deadline, seem only to be pushing paper or holding photo-op consultations – waiting, in reality, for the ‘next round’ of what might be a full-scale, regional conflict expansive enough to ‘reshuffle’ all the cards, including those currently held by Hizbullah.

This was not always the case, however. Until quite recently, in fact, and especially since the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon in May 2000 (after twenty-two years of occupation), a number of state actors as well as international policymakers and analysts promoted the idea that Hizbullah had essentially become a pragmatic political movement whose weapons, independent of the Lebanese government, could be peacefully dealt with over time – although ideally within the framework of a regional peace accord. Even the United States, immediately following the Israeli withdrawal, and then again after the events of 11 September 2001, reportedly reached out to Hizbullah, offering an all-or-nothing arrangement: give up your arms and assistance to Palestinian militants, and the USA will bring you swiftly back into the international fold. The maximalist bargaining technique went nowhere, however, at least in part because little or no trust had been established over two decades of occasionally bloody enmity.

In contrast to the ‘with us or against us’ approach, the Europeans, led by France, recognized that the Israeli withdrawal in 2000 had largely removed the main domestic rationale for Hizbullah to remain armed – and that this represented a fruitful basis for conflict mitigation even if the continuing Syrian occupation of Lebanon made any immediate disarmament highly unlikely short of a peace deal between Damascus and Jerusalem. The only other way to prevent Hizbullah from acting violently, the Europeans calculated, was by slowly and steadily undermining its domestic case for militancy; eroding, in effect, precisely that public support for potential violence which the party had long recognized as essential to its primary mission of ‘resistance’ to Israel.

With this in mind, delegations from various EU member states initiated a series of engagement sessions with key Hizbullah leaders in the wake of the Israeli withdrawal, and began the slow but steady process of tying Hizbullah’s internal calculations to EU interests and aims. By the time Lebanon’s powerful ex-premier Rafik Hariri was assassinated in February 2005, the EU approach could be said to have paid off handsomely, greasing the wheels of what the US State Department hastily claimed as its own ‘Cedar Revolution’. France, in particular, played the crucial role in easing Syria’s 30,000 occupying troops out of Lebanon, while at the same time reassuring Hizbullah that a Syrian withdrawal did not mean that an attempt to disarm the party forcefully was imminent (as called for by UN Security Resolution 1559 of 2004). Hizbullah remained off the EU terror list (and remains so to this day), while top party officials initiated a vigorous public relations campaign in the European media to argue that US designs in Lebanon and the region were inimical to both European and Lebanese interests.

The centre collapses

The 2006 war between Hizbullah and Israel, however, quickly changed the understandings that had developed since the Hariri assassination. For some, including several formerly supportive Arab regimes, a number of European states and indeed many Lebanese themselves, the war seemed to confirm that the ‘axis of evil’, recast as a ‘Shiite crescent’ led by Hizbullah’s long-time mentor and ally Iran, had firmly extended its destabilizing, religiously directed mission all the way from Tehran to South Lebanon. The ‘Party of God’, it was increasingly argued, was not a rationally calculating national liberation movement that could be contained over time; instead it was a radically religious cult obedient to external dictates and irrational aims.

More than a year after the war ended, then, amid an ongoing Hizbullah-led boycott of the government, as well as total paralysis in the parliament, Lebanon finds itself with fewer and fewer actors willing to occupy any sort of a middle ground. The domestic atmosphere has become so polarized – and frozen – that the pro-government, pro-US side of the year-old stand-off, the ‘March 14 forces’ (named after the million-plus demonstrators on 14 March 2005 who demanded Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon) apparently now view Hizbullah much as Arens does: as an ‘existential’ threat to be declawed decisively, and in short order if possible.

Although they uniformly stress that internal violence should be avoided, key March 14 leaders insist that direct counter-pressure should be ratcheted up on Hizbullah at all possible points. Not to do so – to engage instead in substantive negotiations over ‘core principles’ such as recent UN resolutions covering Lebanon or, for that matter, the installation of a pro-March 14 president – would only weaken the effort to disarm the party. Most importantly, however, these same March 14 leaders insist, mostly in private, that negotiations and mediation are pointless in any case because the regional balance of power needs to shift decisively before any real progress can be made. Until then – meaning until either a grand rapprochement or a grand war between Syria, Iran, the USA and Israel – the best that can be done is for March 14 to stick to their rhetorical guns.

In contrast, the leader of Hizbullah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, has gone to great lengths over the past months to position the opposition, which he leads, as the side invested in dialogue and compromise. March 14, he argues, has consistently obstructed reasonable solutions for a range of issues since they are ‘wagering’ that the USA, Israel and its allies in the region will soon break the ‘axis of evil’ and successfully achieve a key March 14 objective: the removal of Hizbullah’s arms. ‘I can assure you that they are wagering on this’, Nasrallah said in one recent address. ‘They are wasting your time and that of the country.’ What is perhaps most striking about Nasrallah’s recent pronouncements is the emphasis he puts on an emphatically rational self-interest – an emphasis that, I believe, needs to be both acknowledged and then directly addressed by those actors concerned with Lebanon’s future, since doing so may just represent one of the few avenues left for a peaceful resolution of the country’s increasingly intractable conflict.The USA and Israel have, of course, long scoffed at this notion, even as Nasrallah moved decisively in recent years (especially following the 2005 withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon) to root his party in the power and appeal of rationality, over and above faith, emotion and a jingoism which in times past had crossed over into outright racism towards Jews. But given the combined tragedy/debacle of the Iraq war, and in light of Israel’s own failure to ‘crush Hizbullah’ during the last open war in 2006, it certainly seems worth asking now, at the height of regional tension, how Nasrallah’s reliance on rational self-interest might be used to promote peace. Or, more specifically, how the European effort to undermine Nasrallah’s own public rationale for continuing to bear (and occasionally use) arms might be revived, albeit in a far more decisive and potent form.

Without going back over the entire trajectory of Hizbullah’s 25-year process of ‘Lebanonization’ – a simultaneous process of rationalization and nationalization – we can trace compelling answers to these questions back only a few years to the first moment when Hizbullah was truly forced to contemplate the end of its role as the only armed political party in the country: that is, during the 1999–2000 peace negotiations between Syria and Israel. As Hizbullah acknowledged at the time, Syria’s 24-year-long occupation of Lebanon meant that any peace agreement between Israel and Syria would necessarily bind both Hizbullah and Lebanon (as Syria also made clear through its own public statements as well via its overwhelming troop presence in the country). A few weeks before a deal was to be closed, in February 2000, Nasrallah accordingly told the Egyptian government mouthpiece al-Ahram, ‘We actually estimate that a peaceful resolution is a victory for the resistance and its logic’, since both Lebanon and Hizbullah’s minimal national objectives had been essentially met. Although the party would continue to eschew ‘normalization’ with Israel, Nasrallah argued that a peace guaranteed by the power of Syria, as well as the performance of Hizbullah in the field, was adequate for protecting the country from any future Israeli aggression.

Several weeks later, however, the Syrian track fell apart in bitter acrimony – largely as a result of US president Bill Clinton’s deceitful negotiations with the dying Syrian president, Hafez Assad (Clinton had told his aides to ‘fudge it’ when it came to Assad’s core demand on regaining all of the occupied Golan Heights) and an Israeli refusal to return Syrian territory to the waterline of Lake Tiberius. So when in May 2000 the IDF ignominiously withdrew from Lebanon after more than two decades of occupation, it left without a peace agreement with either Lebanon or Syria.

Hizbullah, for its part, was duly hailed as the first Arab ‘army’ to have pushed Israel out of occupied land by force of arms alone.

The four ‘bleeding wounds’

Israel’s withdrawal presented Nasrallah with a new matrix of threats and challenges underlined by the question: in particular, why should Hizbullah retain its independent armed presence given the apparent absence of occupation? In an effort to convince as many Lebanese as possible that an armed Hizbullah was still in the broader national interest (and not just a negotiating card for Syria), Nasrallah focused on the four ‘bleeding wounds’ that Israel had left open and that only Hizbullah, he argued, could hope to close: Israel’s refusal to hand over maps of Israeli-planted landmines in south Lebanon (and now, additionally, the targeting coordinates for the cluster bombs fired indiscriminately by Israel during last summer’s war); its refusal to return all Lebanese prisoners who remain in jail (there are three named as such, as well as more than a dozen prisoners of dual nationality); its refusal to end military over-flights of Lebanon that are illegal under international law; and, finally, its refusal to relinquish the water-rich Shebaa Farms area (in addition to several other disputed parcels of land), which, according to recent reports, the United Nations may soon declare as Lebanese. ‘These fools do not learn from their past mistakes’, Nasrallah remarked in January 2004 during a ‘welcome home’ ceremony for dozens of Lebanese and Arab detainees released by Israel as part of yet another German-brokered swap. ‘When they withdrew from Lebanon, they continued to occupy the Shebaa Farms and kept our brothers in custody. Had they released them when they left Lebanon, there would not now be a ‘prisoner issue’ between Lebanon and the enemy. They opened the door for us.’In 2005, however, that door began to close swiftly following the assassination of Hariri and the ascendancy of a proWestern government in Beirut, free from Syrian control. As a result, Nasrallah was forced to extend Hizbullah’s popular support and participation in the Lebanese body politic in order to recalibrate the relationship between the party’s two legs – direct resistance to perceived Israeli aggression, and public support for this resistance. For without the ability to stand squarely on both legs at the same time (as the Europeans had earlier recognized),

Hizbullah and its core constituency of Lebanese Shia would find it next to impossible to function in Lebanon’s unique (and, it should be said, grossly inequitable) system of confessional checks and balances.

The lesson from the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Nasrallah had said in an earlier address, was that the army and security services can protect any oppressive regime, but that the army and security services of any oppressive regime will not be able to protect it if confronted by a stronger military force. What can really protect a regime are its own people and its own citizens, if they are well treated by it; if it oppresses them, none of its rallying speeches will do it any good.

It was on the basis of this thinking that Hizbullah moved rapidly in the wake of the Syrian pull-out to bolster its credentials as a trusted national partner rather than an oppressive outsider, first breaking its long-standing self-imposed prohibition against joining the government in the summer of 2005. (To do so, it also broke with party practice and sought a Lebanese, and not Iranian, fatwa, further adding to its nationalist credentials.) At the same time, the party negotiated a series of electoral alliances with its main pro-Western opponents, thereby delivering Shiite votes that arguably gave the current government its majority in parliament. It also ‘allowed’ its affiliated labour minister to meet Bush administration officials in Washington, in the hope of devising some kind of a working relationship. And, of even greater significance, in February 2006 the Party of God signed an agreement with the most popular Christian leader, General Michel Aoun – an agreement that, for the first time, articulated a theoretical end-point for Hizbullah’s arms.

The Atlas Group, No, Illness is Neither Here Nor There (detail)

Defending lebanon

Amid hints from Israel and Washington that the four ‘bleeding wounds’ might soon be removed as a way of gradually disarming Hizbullah through internal pressure rather than through direct force, Nasrallah’s rhetorical emphasis again shifted to the long-standing – but for the most part secondary – Hizbullah theme of Lebanon’s national defence. Indeed, the need for a credible national defence strategy, distinct from resistance activities against perceived Israeli aggression, was at the heart of the Aoun–Nasrallah agreement and was the main issue on the table of a ‘National Dialogue’ conference before the July–August 2006 war.

Nasrallah’s argument coalesced around three core threats to Lebanon’s national interest said to be emanating from Israel – all of which were greatly reinforced by Israel’s disproportionate and ill-considered reaction to the 12 July abduction of two IDF soldiers and the killing of eight others by Hizbullah that ostensibly sparked the 34-day conflict.

First: the issue of water. As Nasrallah constantly reminds his audiences, Lebanon is a water-rich country compared to Israel (which has a poor track record of fair water use, especially in the occupied territories). Some 20 per cent of the River Jordan’s headwaters – Israel’s main freshwater source – stem from south Lebanon’s Wazzani and Hasbani rivers alone. Underscoring Nasrallah’s main point on the subject – that Israel is a bellicose neighbour unrestrained by international laws and norms – in 2002, Israeli premier Ariel Sharon went so far as to declare, unambiguously, that a small pipe installed on the Wazzani for Lebanese use had become a casus belli for Israel.

Second: ‘who will deter Israel?’, Nasrallah asks, if al-Qaeda or some other nonLebanese or religious fanatics fire rockets or conduct operations across Lebanon’s border with Israel? Since 2005, there have indeed been several rockets launched at Israel which were clearly not tied to Hizbullah, but which could provide Israel with a pretext for an attack against Lebanon. Remember Shlomo Argov, Nasrallah tells his audience. If few Americans and Europeans remember him, most Lebanese do: in June 1982 an assassination attempt on the Israeli ambassador to London provided premier Menachem Begin with the pretext he needed to occupy Lebanon all the way to Beirut; even though the attack was perpetrated by a bitter rival of Yasser Arafat and the PLO (then ensconced in Lebanon), and in spite of the fact that the PLO had gone to great pains to keep the border region quiet for several months.

Finally: Nasrallah asks, ‘what about the Palestinians?’ Not only the 400,000 Palestinian refugees still living in misery, for the most part, in Lebanon, but what of the Palestinians both inside Israel proper and those in the occupied territories? Although the ‘transfer debate’ in Israel – the proposal to expel Palestinians and/or Arab Israelis from Israel and the Occupied Territories – may not figure prominently in the foreign media, for Nasrallah (an avid reader of the Hebrew press and the history of Zionism) the debate carries clear implications, as it most surely does for his new-found Christian allies: a Palestinian–Israeli peace deal will prove impossible to reach, and at some point Israel will be forced to confront its demographic and security ‘time-bomb’ by expelling the Palestinians. At that point, Lebanon – rather than Jordan or Egypt with their peace agreements, or Syria with its strong deterrent capabilities – will be the final stop for most of the new refugees. For many Lebanese Nasrallah’s reasoning is powerful, and all the more so given comments by top Israeli leaders over the years in support of some kind of a transfer or outright expulsion policy.‘I do not agree that we are a state within a state’, Nasrallah said earlier this year. ‘However, if I agree with you on this, the solution will be easy like the solution to the resistance issue … go and establish a strong and powerful state capable of protecting Lebanon, the land of Lebanon, and the water of Lebanon.’ But as the recent threemonth clash between the Lebanese army and Fatah al-Islam in the Nahr al-Barid refugee camp proved, Lebanon still does not have a credible, state-led defence or deterrent strategy to answer the threats identified by Nasrallah – certainly not one convincing enough to replace the ‘balance of fear’ which he argues is still the only way to protect Lebanon. In fact, two and a half years after Syria’s departure and the ascendancy of a pro-US government, Washington still refuses to provide the Lebanese army with the sort of resources and weapons required to combat terrorism or promote national defence. On an even more basic level, it also apparently refuses to help remove the four ‘bleeding wounds’ which remain open to this day – despite European and March 14 exhortations over the years to remove them.

Avoiding the logic of war

Properly equipping the Lebanese army and removing the ‘bleeding wounds’ would of course greatly reinforce the Lebanese state while simultaneously undermining public support for Hizbullah to bear arms independent of the government. In fact, had these steps been taken immediately after the Syrian withdrawal in April 2005 (undoubtedly only at the behest of intense US pressure on Israel), it is quite likely that the 12 July 2006 border incident which sparked the ‘open war’ would never have even taken place.

After all, there would have been no prisoners to swap, no occupied land in dispute and therefore no justification – no Lebanese interest – that could have marshalled the requisite public support for such an operation.

But to be truly convincing – to hasten, in other words, the consummation of the Aoun–Nasrallah agreement – the USA and the EU in particular would have to start substantively addressing the main long-term threats identified by Nasrallah. In the absence of a Lebanese–Israeli peace agreement, this would mean creating strong institutional and international frameworks for conflict mitigation, rather than merely ‘beefed-up’, buffer forces, as is the case now with the 13,000-strong United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). One immediate step along these lines would be to re-establish the Monitoring Group, set up in the wake of the April 1996 Israeli–Hizbullah war and designed to prevent small incidents from blowing up into a war. Before the Israeli withdrawal in May 2000, the Monitoring Group operated as an innovative and largely effective conflict resolution body. Each time there was a border incident, the Group – comprising Israel, the US, Lebanon, Syria and France – would convene at the Lebanon–Israel border in order to determine what happened, decide who was responsible and prescribe steps that should be taken to calm the situation. After the Israeli pullout, however, the Monitoring Group was quickly disbanded, leaving no formal mechanism for any kind of transparent, balanced mediation, despite the continued presence of UNIFIL troops.

Also left by the wayside, perhaps even more dangerously, have been international efforts in the region to reduce the threat of violence over water – an issue that cuts across all confessional divides in Lebanon. To give just one example, even though an ad hoc arrangement led by the USA in 2002 helped to avoid war over the Wazzani, nothing institutional or permanent came of the effort, despite the fact that stopgap mediation had narrowly saved the day. ‘After some years’, Nasrallah said recently, ‘and I think you have heard the news about the ozone [layer] … a tragedy will befall the whole world. A large percentage of plants and animals will vanish. There will be a water problem, and we have water, and their argument is very strong … that our water goes to the sea [i.e. is essentially wasted].’ ‘Will we’, Nasrallah asks his audience, ‘have a state that can protect Lebanon’s waters at the coming stage at a time when it cannot protect the Al-Wazzani spring? This is a big question.’ While little has been done by international institutions on the issue of water, still less has been said on the issue of population transfers from either the occupied territories or Israel proper. At the simplest level, Washington, as Israel’s most powerful ally, could at least make it clear that extremist solutions put forward by some elements of the Israeli government and body politic are not only unacceptable as a matter of principle, but would entail harsh, targeted sanctions by the USA. Instead, although President Bush recently signed an Orwellian executive order broadly sanctioning anyone who threatens the ‘stability’ of the current pro-Western Lebanese government, administration officials regularly meet with Israelis, such as cabinet minister Avigdor Lieberman, who endorse transfer policies that undermine the prospects of a Lebanese consensus and that give fodder to Hizbullah.

Of course, even if the USA and its allies mustered the will and foresight to take these and other conflict mitigation steps, the more powerful dynamics of any Arab–Israeli and/or US–Iranian conflict would probably overwhelm the entire enterprise – just as peace on either of these fronts would also probably overwhelm Nasrallah’s public rationale for maintaining Hizbullah’s arms. This fact should not, however, freeze domestic efforts to build sensible barriers to violence in the long run, as is the case now. Although the effort to undermine Nasrallah’s rationale head-on is certainly a task that faces many hurdles, it has a reasonable chance of succeeding if pursued vigorously and intelligently by some of the very states now directly involved on the front lines of Lebanon’s future. If this path is not taken, however, then only Arens’s logic of war will be left to guide the impending period, and the costs of that will be terrible for all sides concerned.

Terror, reconciliation, redemption The politics of memory in Argentina

Guillermina seri

After its definitive transference to civilian hands, the Argentinian state has decided that ESMA, the infamous Buenos Aires Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada, or Navy School of Mechanics, will from now on serve as a major memorial site. This site is to comprise a Museum of Memory, an archive, and various services and activities devoted to the study of state terror in Argentina. Overlooking Libertador Avenue in Núñez, an elegant porteño neighbourhood, and frequently referred to as ‘the Argentinian Auschwitz’, back in the 1970s the site served as a major clandestine death camp where about 5,000 people were secretly held and only a couple of hundred survived. In the memories of millions of Argentines, ESMA is a synonym of state terror. It evokes individuals kidnapped from their beds at night by paramilitary squads to be brutally beaten up and tortured, kept in captivity in filthy, terrible conditions just to be shot or thrown alive from planes into the sea. It echoes the image of pregnant women forced to give birth clandestinely only for their newborns to be illegally appropriated and the mother murdered. Scenes of family members, including small babies, being tortured in the presence of a prisoner as well as imaginative uses of water, rape, rods, and rats in the production of unspeakable pain and death are among