In a way, I wish I had their level of faith. I stared hard at the young man in front in me. As he spoke, he edged forward on his chair and his brown eyes looked deeply into mine.
‘We don’t want to die for the sake of dying,’ he said. ‘It’s not like that.’
He wanted me to understand. And I was trying hard.
‘Our land and homes were occupied,’ he said. ‘You have to fight to get them back. And if you die for a good cause like that then you become a martyr. And to become a martyr is the greatest honour anyone could have.’
My new friend would only give his name as Abu Ali – his nom de guerre. At 34, he was among the veteran fighters of Lebanon’s Hizbullah, the Party of God, having first taken up arms against Israeli troops in 1982 when Israel launched its invasion of Lebanon.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, Abu Ali had conducted countless military operations against the Israeli Army which occupied a swathe of south Lebanon until it withdrew in May 2000.
The walls in Abu Ali’s office were decorated with the yellow flags of Hizbullah and pictures of the Shi’a Muslim sheikhs who comprise the organization’s leadership.
‘Everything we do, everything, is based on our faith,’ he said. ‘You reach a level so deep and so strong, that dying for a just cause and becoming a martyr becomes a fervent wish.’
The Shi’a brand of Islam holds the cult of martyrdom very dear. Muslims believe that when killed in a Holy war or Jihad, the soul goes straight to paradise. It is this strong belief which has frightened many of Hizbullah’s enemies. ‘We go on military operations wanting to become martyrs,’ said Abu Ali. ‘But our enemies don’t want to die. This is our greatest advantage.’
Hizbullah’s social wing provides the families of martyrs with free education and healthcare for the rest of their lives. Abu Ali himself was almost killed in the 1980s (he won’t state the year lest his identity be traced by his Israeli enemies) when he led a military operation against an Israeli position in occupied south Lebanon. Of the group, only Abu Ali survived. Wounded and bleeding profusely, he crawled for two days among the mountains before he reached safety. ‘For some reason, God didn’t want me to become a martyr,’ he recalled.
He was silent for a few seconds. I prodded him to continue.
‘I was thinking of my friends who were martyred that day,’ he said. ‘Before we went off, like always, we sat together in a circle and talked. Our feelings were intense and we felt so close to each other. We asked each other to send greetings to loved ones in paradise if they ended up being martyred that night.’
Abu Ali wouldn’t tell me any more. Secrecy is of the utmost importance to Hizbullah. Only his family knows that he is a fighter. I continued to stare in fascination at Abu Ali. I remembered as a child hearing of a small group of disgruntled farmers gathering and declaring to the world that they would take back their homes – no matter what it took.
Little did anyone know 19 years ago that this group of farmers would rise and wage a bloody – but successful – war of liberation against Israeli troops occupying predominantly Shi’a Muslim south Lebanon.
Hizbullah appeared in the wake of the 1982 Israeli invasion. For the next 18 years, the Israeli troops fronting the hilltop outposts in south Lebanon were subjected to increasingly sophisticated and effective guerrilla assaults by Hizbullah fighters. Their efforts paid off. In May 2000, then Israeli Premier Ehud Barak ordered a unilateral troop withdrawal from the south of Lebanon.
But Hizbullah’s fight continues. A narrow strip of territory running along Lebanon’s southeast border – known as the Shebaa Farms – remains occupied. The Lebanese Government claims that it is Lebanese land and demands that Israel withdraw. The Jewish state, on the other hand, insists that it is Syrian territory which Israel occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
In the aftermath of Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon last year, the United Nations ruled that the land was Syrian and that Israel was not obliged to withdraw from the Shebaa Farms to satisfy UN resolutions calling for a withdrawal from Lebanon.
Unwilling to leave an inch of land under Israeli occupation, Hizbullah has embarked upon a new campaign against the Israeli troops in the Shebaa Farms.
‘It’s not over,’ said Abu Ali. ‘We saw what the Israelis did to the Palestinians. We saw them taking their homes and kicking them out of their own land. This will not happen to us. We will keep on fighting until every inch of Lebanese territory has been liberated. And Israel knows that.’