Magazine article The Spectator

Hung over with the Hezbollah

Magazine article The Spectator

Hung over with the Hezbollah

Article excerpt

THE HEZBOLLAH spin doctor poked his mobile phone into my expanding gut and said in perfect clipped English, `You should play a bit more sport.'

When the Party of God gives you advice like that you have to think up a good excuse to throw them off the scent. Being hung over with the Hezbollah is an unnerving experience.

The previous night a UN officer and I had drunk a few cans in the officers' mess at the Irish battalion's peacekeeping camp in Tibnin. 'Er, actually I was unwell last year and had to put on some weight before my operation.'

Ever polite, the Hezbollah man nodded and whispered in Arabic to the phalanx of bearded security men around their military leader, Sheikh Nabi Qawook. `Then we will pray to my God that you will be better,' the Sheikh's press officer replied, and the guards with heavy metallic bulges in their cardigans nodded sternly in agreement.

Surrounded by Sheikh Qawook's security team, I suddenly remembered that the last Irish civilian who was a 'guest' of Hezbollah was Brian Keenan. Those kidnapping days, the Sheikh assured me, were long gone, although he couldn't resist reminding me that 20,000 Lebanese were seized during the civil war and little or nothing was reported about them in the Western press. He then pointed to the oranges, apples, grapes and fruit juice laid out on the table and urged me to eat.

Today Hezbollah, the movement normally associated with suicide car bombs and kidnapping Westerners, is on a sophisticated charm offensive. Just after Christmas the Islamic fundamentalist, Iranian- backed movement went on the Internet to promote their cause. They also published a freephone number asking for recruits among the non-Shia Muslim Lebanese to join their `resistance squads' in the armed struggle to flush Israel out of its self-declared security zone in south Lebanon.

Sheikh Qawook, reclining in an armchair under a blown-up picture of Sheikh Moussawi, the Hezbollah leader killed by the Israelis, seemed taken aback that the West would be surprised that his movement was opening its doors to non-Muslims. `Hezbollah was the first party to come up with the idea of national resistance squads. Our units will embrace all the Lebanese, Christians and other religious sects, in the war of liberation.'

The Sheikh was proud to announce that the first groups of secular resistance units had just completed their training in the Bekaa valley and were ready to move south to attack the belt of heavily fortified compounds established by the Israelis to protect their northern frontier.

This new, happy-clappy, all-inclusive side of Hezbollah is partly due to the fact that the Islamist party is learning to live with a multi-faith, semi-secular Lebanese state. The Hezbollah's only allies in the Beirut parliament, Sheikh Qawook pointed out, are Christian MPs.

New Hezbollah, however, retains some old revolutionary values. The other moderate Shia resistance force, Amal, says that once Israel leaves Lebanon, the war is over; there is no desire to march on to liberate Jerusalem. Sheikh Qawook refused blankly to answer that question, confirming Israeli fears that a pull-out by their forces would leave northern settlements at the mercy of Hezbollah guerrillas.

Forty-eight hours after this tense encounter in a heavily fortified flat in downtown Tyre, I went out drinking with a group of Irish UN officers on R and R in the Keller bar, a dreary basement night-club run by an English couple off Rue Hamra in west Beirut, close to the area where many of the Western hostages were seized. …

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