Magazine article The Nation

Islam's Bent Sword: Hezbollah - Sound and Futile Fury

Magazine article The Nation

Islam's Bent Sword: Hezbollah - Sound and Futile Fury

Article excerpt

No would-be savior of Lebanon has whipped up such passions of euphoria and terror, lock-step loyalty and bitter enmity, religious righteousness and religious wrath as the Islamic fundamentalist movement known as Hezbollah (Party of God). The world watched in amazement and horror as suicide car-bombers left the American and French multinational peacekeeping forces decimated under mountains of concrete in 1983; as Israel turned and fled Lebanon; and as thousands of Hezbollah militants marched in Beirut, beating themselves raw on the chest, in 1985. By early 1986, Islamic revolution seemed inevitable for at least large swaths of the country. Then mighty Hezbollah seemed to slacken, into what is now just another eddy swirling in the torrent of violence that is Lebanon.

General Michel Aoun?s Christian-dominated Lebanese Army has been engaged in intense fighting with some 30,000 Syrian soldiers on Lebanese soil. The destruction, even by Lebanese standards, is apocalyptic: By mid-August, shelling in the capital reached a thousand rounds a minute, making escape impossible for the 200,000 remaining residents of a city that only weeks before still had well over half a million inhabitants. This is the only game in town, and Hezbollah has no role to speak of

in determining its outcome

Yet, with now-familiar morbid panache, Hezbollah has again succeeded brilliantly in upstaging Lebanon's epic tragedy

with empty gestures. In a land where more than 20,000 people have been kidnapped since the civil war began fourteen years ago, Hezbollah has gotten more media mileage from a handful of Western hostages than have all the other parties combined-and this while denying ties to the tiny groups directly responsible for the kidnappings. By killing Lieut. Col. William Higgins-perhaps months ago-and threatening to kill Joseph Cicippio, the Islamic fundamentalist movement has not only managed to rivet the world's attention once again on itself but has come close to enticing the United States into another military misadventure.

Yet, while Hezbollah seems to be able to make the United States squirm at will, such is its powerlessness in Lebanon that its leaders hardly know what to do with the international leverage they now enjoy. They have no political goals that can be attained by bargaining off the hostages. Instead, they call for the release of Sheik Abdul Karim Obeid from Israeli captivity, along with several hundred Shiite and Palestinian prisoners, not because they are important in and of themselves but because they represent a humiliation by Israel. Sheik Obeids grow on trees in Lebanon, but humiliation can spark Shiite tempers to action - and, as in the past,

Israel is gifted in providing the necessary jump-start. This time, however, Hezbollah has little to gain: With or without Sheik Obeid, a few million dollars or none, Hezbollah will remain a marginal force.

This was not always the case. In the beginning Hez- bollah's Islamic revolution had much going for it, not the least being history and demography. By 1982, Lebanese Shiites numbered I million, almost a third of the country's population. Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese had been killed, wounded or impoverished by the fighting and nearly 1 million had fled their homes. The Shiites, poor and displaced in the suburbs of the cities, bore the brunt of these hardships. In addition, those in the south of the country, traditionally Shiite for centuries, endured the worst of the Israeli bombing raids, which have pounded all of Lebanon, but especially the south, since 1968. Worst of all, the leadership of the Shiite movement Amal (Hope) was fragmented and increasingly viewed as having forsaken the disinherited masses in favor of the middle class. Words like "oppressed" and "humiliated" began to fly from Shiite throats.

When Israeli forces invaded Lebanon on June 6, 1982, the radical element of the Shiite community at last found a threat that merited the extreme measures it was their wont to propose. …

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