For more than three decades, the U.S. government and media have bombarded the public with stories depicting the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah as a lunatic terrorist organization and a wholly-owned “proxy” of Iran at the forefront of a global jihad against Western civilization. Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, is equated with ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi or Al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden.
It is ofttimes charged that Hezbollah is an active ally of Al Qaeda despite the fact that the two groups are blood enemies. In its 1998 indictment of bin Laden on charges of conspiracy to attack U.S. defense installations, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York claimed that Al Qaeda and Hezbollah were close partners. Following the 9/11 attacks, Bush administration counter-terrorism advisor Richard Clarke labelled Hezbollah an even greater threat to the United States than Al Qaeda and there was serious talk, in the government and media, about declaring war on the group — just as soon as the Iraqi “cakewalk” was finished.
More recently, the Treasury Department under President Donald Trump has sanctioned more than 50 individuals, businesses and organizations linked to the group. Last month, Treasury added two of its members of parliament and the group’s chief security negotiator for their alleged “corrupting influence” in Lebanon. “The U.S. will continue to use all peaceful means, everything at our disposal to choke off the financing, the smuggling the criminal network and the misuse of government positions and influence by Hezbollah,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a recent visit to the country.
Hezbollah is said to have bombed the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, which killed 241 American servicemen. It is also said to be responsible for the 1985 kidnapping of Associated Press reporter Terry Anderson and the murder of CIA station chief William Buckley. It is further alleged that Hezbollah, acting on behalf of and with Iran, bombed Israel’s embassy in Argentina in 1992, killing 29 people, and bombed a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994, killing 86 people.
But it’s not clear if Hezbollah was in fact involved in these acts. The group didn’t exist in 1983. It emerged in early 1985 and its first official proclamation that year said that its chief aim was “putting an end to any colonialist entity on our land.” While its enemies sought to portray the group as “fanatic terrorists whose sole aim is to dynamite bars and destroy slot machines,” Hezbollah rejected terrorism, which the proclamation derided as “marginal acts.”
Hezbollah has always denied it blew up the Marine barracks. Islamic Jihad, a shadowy urban guerrilla group, claimed responsibility. Some say Hezbollah was an underground organization at the time and Islamic Jihad was its front. Others argue that Islamic Jihad was a precursor to Hezbollah and other Shia groups and militias.
It’s also unclear if Islamic Jihad or Hezbollah (or another group) murdered Buckley or kidnapped Anderson, who was released in 1991. Nor has it ever been demonstrated that Hezbollah — acting with and on behalf of Iran, it is said — was responsible for the indefensible Buenos Aires bombings, which do not reflect the group’s’s modus operandi. Hezbollah has no record of launching overseas attacks on civilian targets nor does it espouse random violence, as ISIS and Al Qaeda do. Its involvement in the attacks would have been incredibly stupid as well as morally indefensible because had it been definitively proven it would have given the U.S. and Israel carte blanche to launch military action against it.
Furthermore, the alleged motive for the bombings — that Argentina had terminated a nuclear cooperation program with Iran — seems weak, especially as the program was suspended, not ended, and negotiations to revive it continued until at least 2005. The U.S. government’s insistence that Iran and Hezbollah carried out the attack on the Jewish community center was “perfectly in line with its long practice of using distorting and manufactured evidence to build a case against its geopolitical enemies,” Gareth Porter wrote in this piece for The Nation.
But even if Hezbollah took part in these actions, these events took place decades ago and during a very different time. The barracks bombing occurred a year after Israel invaded southern Lebanon. The Reagan administration had infuriated the country’s Muslim population by intervening in support of right-wing Maronite Christians allied with Israel during a brutal civil war. “When we entered Lebanon, there was no Hezbollah,” Israeli defense minister and prime minister Ehud Barak once said. “It was our presence there that created Hezbollah.”
Those propagating the most alarmist views about Hezbollah are the U.S. and Israeli governments. Media hacks who demonize Hezbollah as a terrorist group often seem unaware that ISIS and Al Qaeda are Sunni organizations while Hezbollah is Shia, that an Al Qaeda unit tried to assassinate Nasrallah in 2006, or that Hezbollah denounced the 9/11 attacks. “”What do the people who worked in those two [World Trade Center] towers, along with thousands of employees, women and men, have to do with war that is taking place in the Middle East?” Nasrallah has said. “Therefore we condemned this act — and any similar act we condemn.”
Hezbollah does have a powerful — and well regulated — militia that is Lebanon’s only real army. It drove Israel out of southern Lebanon in 2000, after an 18-year occupation, and has proven to be its most effective and fiercest military foe. Hezbollah’s military wing is “probably the most proficient guerrilla organization in the world,” Nicholas Blanford, a Christian Science Monitor reporter residing in Beirut wrote in his 2007 introduction to Voice of Hezbollah: The Statements of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. “[It is] the only Arab army to have compelled Israel to unconditionally abandon occupied territory through force of arms.”
More recently, Hezbollah’s militia played a key role, and paid a heavy price, in helping defeat ISIS, Al Qaeda and assorted jihadists seeking to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian president’s armed opponents were funded and armed by the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Those countries supported the jihadists — and allowed them to hijack what began as a popular revolt against the Syrian government — because of their shared hatred of Iran. The Western- and Saudi-backed “freedom fighters” had promised that they would march into Beirut and deal with Hezbollah after dispensing with Assad.
Under Nasrallah, Hezbollah has developed as an organic political, social and cultural organization. It is connected to Iran through religion, culture and history and its close ties to Iran are about as shocking as the intimate U.S.-British relationship, even if the relationship is not identical. It is largely subsidized by Iran but it’s not Iran’s puppet, as it is routinely portrayed. Iran’s support for Hezbollah is legitimate. Support of indigenous resistance to occupation is not a crime.
Nor does Hezbollah control Lebanon, another standard oft repeated propaganda line. “It’s] harder and harder to tell where Beirut ends and Tehran begins,” Danny Danon, Israel’s UN ambassador recently said in a typical remark.
In 2018, Hezbollah won 13 out of 128 seats in parliamentary elections and holds three cabinet posts. It is more powerful than its numbers in parliament suggest because it works in alliance with a number of Shia parties and a powerful conservative Christian party — the second biggest party in parliament — led by former general and current Lebanese President Michel Aoun. (In Lebanon the presidency is reserved to a Christian, the prime minister’s post to a Sunni and the speaker of parliament to a Shia, which reflects the latter’s traditionally weak political standing.)
I don’t like Aoun much but the fact that Hezbollah struck a deal with him more than a decade ago shows that Nasrallah is not a fanatical sectarian, but is willing to work with diverse groups in Lebanon. That Aoun has a partnership with Hezbollah speaks to how important the group is, especially as the U.S. has brought furious pressure against the Lebanese government to keep Hezbollah out and punished the country with sanctions for refusing to do so.
Dismissing Hezbollah as a “terrorist” organization is ridiculous and outdated. “A growing number of American scholars, notably Augustus Richard Norton of Boston University, Judith Harik of the American University in Beirut, and Sami Hajjar of the U.S. Army War College, argue that the party has undergone a genuine transformation, that it cannot be regarded as a terrorist group comparable to al-Qaeda, and that it would be pragmatic to engage in talks with Hezbollah and test its intentions,” Adam Shatz wrote in the New York Review of Books all the way back in 2004.
I first went to Lebanon in 2006 and was introduced to senior Hezbollah officials by a group called Conflicts Forum, whose leading members included former senior CIA and MI-6 officials. They believed Western governments should be speaking to Hezbollah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood because they represented, like it or not, significant sectors of the populations in Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt, respectively. I wrote a piece about the trip for Harper’s, which you can read here.
I’m writing this story after my most recent visit to Lebanon last month, one of about ten I’ve made to the country since 2006. I’ve become more and impressed over time with Nasrallah’s charisma and his brilliant performance as a political, social, religious and military strategist.
Before going further, let me make clear that while I admire Nasrallah and his party, I’m not a groupie. I disagree with many of Hezbollah’s positions, and I am not a fan of some of its key allies, such as Syria’s Assad or the Iranian mullahs. I have great respect for Shia people and their religion — it makes a lot more sense to me and is far more plausible and appealing than Mormonism, to cite one crackpot religion — but I’m a devout agnostic and have no intention of converting. I favor a Jewish state and have explained this to many friends in Hezbollah, as I wrote about here, but it should have been created, ideally, in Germany and Poland, not on Arab land in Palestine.
Nasrallah was born in 1960 in Bazouriyeh, a Shia town about an hour outside of Beirut. The son of a poor fruit and vegetable salesman and the eldest of nine siblings, he was raised in the slums of East Beirut. In 1975, at age 15 and when Lebanon was immersed in a civil war that forced his family to return to its home town, Nasrallah became the local head of “The Movement of the Deprived,” a Shia political and military group. It later became known as Amal and still has a strong following in Lebanon but was long ago surpassed by Hezbollah in terms of its political influence and popularity among Shias.
He joined Hezbollah after Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon and became its third secretary general a decade later when his predecessor, Abbas al-Musawi, was assassinated by Israel. Nasrallah revered Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, who had played a key role in overthrowing the Shah three years earlier, and adopted his view that Islamic clerics should be aggressively political and revolutionary. This stands in marked contrast to the role played by traditional Shia clergy, who, to paraphrase from Blanford’s book introduction, restricted themselves to settling disputes and collecting donations, and who shunned direct political involvement.
Under his leadership, Hezbollah has undergone an extraordinary evolution. It is ignorant to describe it as a terrorist organization and the group has no record of attacking Americans since the 1980s, when U.S. troops were stationed there. Hezbollah is of course vehemently anti-Israel, but that’s understandable given the latter’s grossly disproportionate use of violence against its neighbors, and its apartheid policies towards Palestinians. But Hezbollah and Israel have not been at war for thirteen years.
Nasrallah has inspired and improved the lives of the Shia of Lebanon, who are the poorest and most discriminated of the country’s major religious groups. By any reasonable standard, he is one of the great liberation theologians and revolutionary leaders of recent times, a figure on par with Che Guevara and Hugo Chavez. That is certainly the way many Shias see him.
But he is also a pragmatic leader, not an uncompromising fanatic and far more flexible in his thinking and actions than Ayatollah Khomeini. Maybe he daydreams about turning Lebanon, a highly diverse country, into an Islamic Republic but he shows no signs of seeking to implement that and has sought to bridge differences between Shias, Sunnis and Christians, the three major religious groups.
Nasrallah frequently cuts deals with his political opponents and Hezbollah has formed political coalitions with Sunnis as well as Christian parties. Earlier this year, a Hezbollah member of parliament was suspended for making inflammatory anti-Christian statements.
Nasrallah’s political statements can be inflammatory and construed as offensive, but his constituents are Lebanese and mostly Shia. “Death to America” may not hit the right chords at a political rally in Texas, but it’s not a surprising sentiment in Lebanon and much of the Middle East. I was once dining at the home of a Shia family in Lebanon after they’d returned from hearing a major speech by Nasrallah. “We shout ‘Death to America’ on the streets but you are always welcome in our home,” one of the family members assured me.
“We shouldn’t be fooled by his rhetoric,” military historian and foreign policy analyst Mark Perry told me. “What strikes me about him is that he weighs everything he says. He’s a hell of a politician, crafting what he says for each audience. Some can put this down to dishonesty, but American politicians do it all the time.”
Nasrallah is an intellectual, scholar and historian, who reads and analyzes what his enemies say about him. Within days of George W. Bush publishing his ludicrous memoir, Decision Points, which was clearly ghostwritten while the former president watched TV or played video games, Nasrallah was critiquing it in public speeches.
Nasrallah is obviously anti-Zionist and has been accused of making anti-Jewish remarks, some which have proven to be fake and some which are no doubt accurate. Maybe I’m stupid but I think he’s too smart to be a Jew-hater and that he believes Jews are People of the Book. Hezbollah militants, supporters and senior officials have treated me with enormous respect. They are especially enthusiastic to talk to me when they learn that I’m a Jewish American, because they are shocked that I want to hear their point of view and spend time with their friends and families.
Many Israeli supporters will dismiss all of this and call me a self-hating Jew. Spare me. Half my family was killed in the Holocaust and I always brag about being Jewish because while I’m not religious, I admire our humor and ability to avoid extermination. I also look forward to these people denouncing the casual, crude routine Arab-hating that’s been regularly expressed by Israeli leaders for decades.
Here’s something else to consider. There is no Jewish community left in Lebanon but there is one remaining synagogue, Maghen Abraham, which is not open for services or to the public but can be seen in Beirut’s old Jewish district of Wadi Abu Jamil. In 2006, after Israel invaded south Lebanon, Nasrallah sent Hezbollah militia to protect the synagogue amid fears it would be desecrated.
It’s impossible to dispute the justice of Hezbollah’s successful war to push the Israelis out of Lebanon. “If we are to expel the Israeli occupation from our country, how do we do this?” Nasrallah said during the time. “We noticed what happened in Palestine, in the West Bank, in the Gaza Strip, in the Golan, in the Sinai. We reached a conclusion that we cannot rely on the Arab League states, nor on the United Nations…The only way that we have is to take up arms and fight the occupation forces.”
Dennis Ross, the Middle East envoy under the first Bush and Clinton administrations, “has stated that Hezbollah’s resistance to the Israeli occupation, unlike its past activities aimed at Western targets, is not terrorism,” Shatz noted in his 2004 story in the New York Review of Books.
Nasrallah has also compromised on the foreign front. Hezbollah made clear in the mid-2000s that it would engage in conversations with the United States aimed at improving relations, but the George W. Bush administration rejected that golden opportunity. About a decade ago General David Petraeus, then head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), explored holding talks with Hezbollah but the idea never moved forward, most likely because of opposition in the United States, not from Hezbollah.
Whatever his rhetoric, clashes with Israel have been few since the two countries fought a one month war in 2006, and usually have been provoked by Israel. There is zero chance Hezbollah is going to invade Israel. That Israel will never again invade Lebanon or heavily target its civilian infrastructure, as it did during the 2006 war when it turned much of Beirut’s Shia neighborhoods into mountains of rubble, cannot be stated with the same level of certainty.
Not even Hezbollah’s worst enemies accuse Nasrallah or his organization of significant corruption, which makes it unique among Lebanon’s major groups. It has used its resources, and significant aid from Iran to provide Shias with goods and services the Lebanese government has never delivered. “We warned the U.S. government fifteen years ago that Hezbollah was winning support in Lebanon by building hospitals and schools, and running social programs,” a former CIA officer, who is sharply critical of Hezbollah, recently told me. “Here we are now and that’s exactly what happened.”
Hezbollah’s development organization, Jihad al-Binaa, which has been designated by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization since 2007, rebuilt Shia areas that were destroyed by Israeli bombing raids in the war the year before. It has constructed hospitals, paved roads, provided clean drinking water and carried out sanitation, reforestation and agricultural projects, to mention a few of its programs.
When I visited Beirut last month, I stayed at a hotel in the Dahiyeh, the predominantly Shia, largely pro-Hezbollah southern suburbs of Beirut. With money from Iran, Jihad al-Binaa has built six bridges across major roads in the area.
Like the U.S. and Israeli governments, many of Hezbollah’s domestic political opponents attack it for taking aid from Iran. “We’ll stop taking money from Iran as soon as the Lebanese government gives our communities money,” Nasrallah said in a speech he gave when I was in Lebanon. [Note: That quote is unlikely to be verbatim but it should be close and is the way it was recounted to me by someone who heard the speech.]
Nasrallah’s leadership and Hezbollah’s concrete actions have made Shias proud and improved their lives, and that is what any good political leader should strive for. “All the development in the Dahiyeh since the Israeli bombings in 2006 has been because of Hezbollah, not the government,” one of Nasrallah’s supporters told me, echoing statements I heard from many Shias I spoke with during my visit.
Nasrallah is popular with Shias in particular but enjoys support from with other Lebanese as well. He was more popular in 2000, when Hezbollah drove Israel out of the country and was widely revered, but people I talked to said he’s looked upon favorably by about half the population. That’s noteworthy since less than 30 percent of Lebanon’s people are Shia.
It’s also remarkably high given the ongoing American, Israeli and Saudi propaganda campaign to demonize Hezbollah as the face of Iran and global terror. (This dates back decades and intensified after 2003, when the American war against Iraq toppled a Sunni-dominated regime and replaced it with a Shia government allied with Iran.) Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria was also divisive in Lebanon and Western sanctions have made it harder for the group to maintain its existing social networks.
But Hezbollah is succeeding as much as it can under adverse circumstances, and that’s in large part due to their incredibly savvy, appealing leader. “Without Nasrallah, Hezbollah would never have been as influential,” a secular Syrian who spends a great deal of time in Lebanon told me, in an assessment shared by the retired CIA officer I spoke with. “Many Arab leaders are distant from their populations. Nasrallah is constantly on TV and communicating with people. It’s an intangible skill that few leaders have.”
Nasrallah has his flaws but look around the Middle East, or the world stage for that matter. He stands head and shoulders above most of the competition and is surely more intelligent and thoughtful than Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu or Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, who was so beloved by Thomas Friedman and much of the American press corps until he made the fatal mistake of signing off on the execution of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist.