On Political Books

January/February 2012 Party of God Knows What

Will Hezbollah remain a movement devoted to war with Israel or a pragmatic political player in Lebanon? That choice could determine the future of the Middle East.

By Joshua Hammer

Warriors of God: The Inside Story of Hezbollah’s Relentless War Against Israel
by Nicholas Blanford
Random House, 544 pp.


Two days after the last Israeli soldier had withdrawn from southern Lebanon in July 2000, Hezbollah—the highly disciplined guerrilla army that had carried out a twodecade war of attrition against the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF)—held a celebration in the southern Lebanese village of Bint Jbeil. One hundred thousand people descended on the border hamlet to hear Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s charismatic leader, deliver a victory speech. Nasrallah’s Shiite warriors had just accomplished the unthinkable, driving out one of the world’s best-equipped armies with little more than martyrs’ zeal, hit-and-run tactics, and an arsenal of M16s and rocket-propelled grenades. But Nasrallah, who has staked Hezbollah’s existence on a permanent state of conflict, vowed that the war against Israel was not over. Directing his speech as much to the seething population across the border in the West Bank and Gaza as to the Lebanese, he declared, “You do not need tanks, strategic balance, rockets, or cannons to liberate your land; all you need are the martyrs who shook and struck fear into this angry Zionist entity.… The choice is yours.”

Two months later, the Al Aqsa intifada broke out in the occupied territories, unleashing four years of tit-for-tat carnage that killed an estimated 5,500 Israelis and Palestinians and hardened attitudes on both sides of the Middle East conflict. It was just one measure of the powerful—and, in the eyes of many, malign—influence and reach of Hezbollah, a point meticulously and persuasively documented in Warriors of God: The Inside Story of Hezbollah’s Relentless War Against Israel, by Nicholas Blanford, the Beirutbased correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and the London Times as well as the author of Killing Mr. Lebanon: The Assassination of Rafik Hariri and Its Impact on the Middle East. A resident of Lebanon since 1994, Blanford has observed Nasrallah’s Islamic warriors up close for nearly two decades. He’s broken bread with operatives in southern Lebanese villages and in Beirut’s Shiite suburbs, interviewed the elusive Nasrallah, talked to Israeli commanders who waged war against Hezbollah, and come close to being blown apart by rocket fire during Israel’s bloody offensives in 1996 and 2006. Blanford has gone farther than just about any other Western journalist in penetrating the armed wing of this opaque organization—mixing grudging admiration for Hezbollah’s endurance with deep misgivings about its ultimate mission.

Hezbollah was born in the 1970s, amid the regional disarray that followed the Six-Day War. Taking advantage of the weak Lebanese state, Palestinian militants set up guerilla bases in southern Lebanon, unleashing cross-border attacks on Israel that brought a terrible retaliation. Angry about the Lebanese government’s failure to protect the Shi’as, who dominate the south, the Iranianborn cleric Sayed Musa Sadr issued a call to arms. Sadr became the spiritual father of Shi’a armed resistance that coalesced first around the Amal movement and later, during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, around a more militant offshoot led by Nasrallah. Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Bekaa Valley armed and trained the initial recruits, developing their expertise in everything from bomb building to hand-tohand combat.

Nasrallah, both a military tactician and a religious scholar who had studied in the Shi’as’ holy city of Najaf, instilled in them a steely discipline, a capacity to endure physical punishment, and a willingness to suffer death for the cause. Their mantra was summed up by one commander whom Blanford met in southern Lebanon at the height of a stealth campaign that was claiming the lives of dozens of Israeli soldiers every year in roadside bombings and ambushes. “When I kill an Israeli, I think of what they have done, the shelling, destroying villages,” the commander told the author. “I kill them to stop them [from] doing more of the same. Killing is a duty, not a joy.”

By the late 1990s, Hezbollah’s war of attrition had created a backlash within Israeli society. With dozens of soldiers dying every year in surprise attacks, the Lebanese engagement had breathed new life into Israel’s peace movement, causing even many soldiers to question the occupation’s morality; Lebanon was becoming Israel’s Vietnam. “The time has come to stop mincing words,” wrote a senior army officer in an opinion piece titled “Let’s Go” that appeared in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz in 1997, shortly after one of Israel’s top generals in Lebanon was killed by a massive roadside bomb.

Have you been to south Lebanon recently? Have you seen what kind of outposts we’ve built there in the last year? We are sitting in these huge armored fortresses, which of course invite enemy shelling, and we make convoys leading to them into easy targets. Little by little we’re becoming crusaders, who primarily guard only ourselves.

In March 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak announced a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon. Thousands of Christian militiamen from the Southern Lebanese Army, who had collaborated with Israel and feared revenge attacks by Hezbollah, fled as well. The hasty retreat gave Hezbollah a gigantic propaganda victory and inspired the militant Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad to wage a similar campaign in the West Bank and Gaza—one that would ultimately fail.

Yet Blanford makes a compelling case that Nasrallah and his fighters outstepped their bounds in the wake of their victory. Desperate not to lose their raison d’ĂȘtre—resistance to Israeli occupation— Hezbollah glommed on to the Shebaa Farms, a disputed, near-worthless tract of land along the border, occupied by a handful of Israeli troops, that even most Lebanese assumed was Syrian territory. (Hafez al-Assad, the Syrian leader, and his son and successor, Bashar, regarded Hezbollah as a useful tool to exert pressure and pain on Israel, and didn’t challenge the flimsy claim to sovereignty.) Demands for an Israeli “withdrawal” culminated in the kidnapping and killing of several Israeli soldiers in 2006. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his generals, eager to deal Hezbollah a mortal blow, responded with tank and infantry assaults on Hezbollah’s strongholds and devastating bombings of the southern suburbs of Beirut. Hezbollah again proved a worthy adversary— Israel suffered the loss of 119 soldiers, and a commission rebuked Olmert and the IDF command for poor decision making— but the war created a backlash against Hezbollah in Lebanon. “The war inflicted devastating punishment on Hezbollah’s core Shi’a support base,” writes Blanford. “Iran had channeled millions of dollars into upgrading Hezbollah’s military capabilities in 2000, which were squandered in a war that should never have been started in the first place.” Small wonder, he adds, that “Nasrallah admitted that Hezbollah would not have ordered the kidnappings if the leadership had known what the consequences would be.” Never again would Hezbollah command the same degree of support that it enjoyed in 2000.

Joshua Hammer is a freelance foreign corespondent based in Berlin, now working on a book about German colonialism in Africa.