issue 258 - August 1994
Difficult days for
the Party of God
Hizbollah, or the ‘Party of God’, is best known for its violent
opposition to Israel and the West. Changing realities in the
Middle East means it now faces some hard decisions
about the future. Darius Bazargan investigates.
CHRIS STOWERS / PANOS PICTURES
There is a company in Beirut which supplies J & B whisky and the American-manufactured sportswear Hanes. Last year it received an urgent order from Hizbollah for some 200,000 black T-shirts. The goods were air-freighted in directly from the US, the account was settled in dollars. Five days later the shirts were on the backs of their new owners, who were marching through West Beirut demanding the overthrow of American imperialism.
This sartorial expediency makes forpanpamusing anecdote. It also raises the possibility that Hizbollah’s political agenda is a more complex proposition than one might expect, given the militant absolutist rhetoric of the movement’s clerical leadership. Hizbollah today is led by young, apparently intelligent men who are as well acquainted with the machinations of political realism as they are with the Qu’ran.
When Israel invaded in 1982 the Shi’a were at once the largest and the most politically – and economically – marginalized community in Lebanon. Their political awakening began with the activities of the cleric Musa Sadr. The Iranian revolution also raised expectations. To some extent these were met by Amal, an organization which sought to better the Shi’a position within a multi-confessional Lebanese state. Others regarded this as a sell-out and a year later the movement split.
Simultaneously Teheran, which foresaw strategic opportunities in supporting its co-religionists, dispatched a contingent of Revolutionary Guards to Lebanon ostensibly to resist Israeli aggression. They played a major role in organizing, funding and training a plethora of disaffected Amal supporters and like-minded groups that came to be organized under an umbrella structure known as the Party of God – or Hizbollah.
However, it would be a mistake to view the organization merely as acolytes of Iranian foreign policy. Although Iran pays the lion’s share of its financial needs, Hizbollah has invariably existed on Syrian sufferance. Similarly, the various groups within Hizbollah have always had considerable autonomy in tactical, if not strategic decision-making. It may have been kick-started with foreign capital and assistance, but Hizbollah has grown Lebanese roots and seems to correspond to a genuine social need among a section of the indigenous population that see it representing some of their aspirations. Hizbollah and its main constituency, the peasantry and urban lower middle-class Shi’a, have lacked the traditional means of access to the Lebanese state – strong clan backing and relative wealth.
Throughout the 1980s Hizbollah firmly followed the Khomeini line. Its proclaimed ambition was nothing less than an Islamic republic in Lebanon and the complete physical destruction of the Israeli state. For the poor Shi’a these aims were attractive and uncontroversial. They were flags around which the nascent organization could mobilize the popular support and energy of many thousands of effectively disenfranchized people. Viewed in this light many of Hizbollah’s goals are more idealistic than real: people may sincerely desire them but few would actually expect them to come about. The rhetoric of Hizbollah has always been the language of politics, and as such one should be wary of taking it at face value.
Today, Hizbollah’s future appears uncertain; its glory days seem to be fading fast. Any peace settlement between Israel, Lebanon and Syria would spell an end to the resistance war upon which the organization’s popularity and credibility were initially built. Recent devastating Israeli attacks have underscored the fact that Hizbollah is never going to take its war of liberation to Jerusalem. Its continued existence is mainly due to the Syrians, who see it as a useful card to play as Damascus haggles over the price of peace in the region.
The only viable long-term option for the movement’s survival is to penetrate the Lebanese state machinery, a process which has already started and some would say has always been going on. Despite its rejection of the Taif accords which ended the civil war and allowed elections to take place, Hizbollah ran for Parliament on the ‘advice’ of both Iran and Syria. Not previously noted for its democratic acumen, the organization reaped the benefits of its substantial social welfare programmes. All eight of the fielded candidates gained seats.
Another result of this new course was the possibility of a schism between those who have accepted the new realities and the rejectionists. Some reports suggested that a new, more radical splinter faction called Ansarallah – Partisans of God – might form in opposition to the relatively conciliatory stance being adopted by the present leadership. This didn’t occur in the wake of the elections, but is a real possibility should Hizbollah move towards acceptance of the American-sponsored peace process.
Barring disintegration, Hizbollah has two real choices. It can, literally, stick to its guns, pray that the peace process fails and reject the outcome if it doesn’t. This would very possibly involve a direct military confrontation with Syria and result in the physical destruction of the organization as both a military and political force. Hizbollah would stand alone in such a showdown, as the Iranian government would not countenance behaviour likely to jeopardize its own protracted strategic alliance with Damascus.
Alternatively Hizbollah can continue to make inroads into mainstream Lebanese politics, which will leave it competing with Amal as the defender of social justice for the Shi’a. Neither the peace process, which is about strategic agreements between governments, nor Prime Minister Hariri’s grandiose reconstruction schemes look likely to deliver any tangible material benefits to the country’s poor in the near future; so Hizbollah is likely to continue to have a significant role to play.
Darius Bazargan is a freelance writer specializing in the Middle East.