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Hezbollah Plays the Israel Card

Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah briefly emerged from his underground lair on Friday and delivered his first public speech in years urging his enemies to stop fretting over his involvement in the Syrian war and worry instead about the Jews. “Call us terrorists, criminals, try to kill us,” he said, “we Shiites will never abandon Palestine.”

But they have abandoned Palestine—for now, anyway—and are fighting instead to save their collective backside in Syria. If Bashar al-Assad falls to the Free Syrian Army, Hezbollah will lose its weapons supply link with Iran and find itself cut off and encircles by enemies.

Hezbollah needs the Israel card now more than ever. It has worked in the past, and never before in its history has the so-called Party of God faced so much internal pressure. 

On the same day Nasrallah made his speech, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the de-facto leader of Lebanon’s Sunnis, reiterated that he’s against the formation of a government cabinet that legitimizes Hezbollah’s weapons. This by itself isn’t surprising. Hariri has always been opposed to Hezbollah. Not only are they ideological opposites, and not only have their two communities been in an on-again off-again state of war for more than 1000 years, according to a United Nations indictment, Hezbollah murdered Hariri’s own father.

But just one day earlier, President Michel Suleiman, for the first time ever, publicly announced he can no longer sanction Hezbollah’s existence as an armed militia in Lebanon. And last month, Michel Aoun—the buffoonish Maronite Christian politician who formed a hair-brained alliance with Hezbollah and the Syrian government—made a big show of visiting Saudi Arabia, a move widely interpreted to mean Lebanon’s Hezbollah-led “March 8” alliance is finally straining.

Hezbollah desperately needs the Israel card, but it won’t work this time unless Israel invades Lebanon. Yet Israel won’t invade Lebanon unless Hezbollah starts something. And Hezbollah wouldn’t dare start something now while it’s busy in Syria. The last thing it needs is open-ended conflict on two fronts at once. Hezbollah isn’t a superpower. It only has a few thousand fighters.

It’s obvious to just about everyone now that Nasrallah needs a distraction, but the truth is that his relentless war against Israel has always been partially a distraction. His hatred of Israel is real, no doubt, but it serves a dual purpose. It papers over the dangerous rift between Sunni and Shia Muslims that has led to so many wars, the majority of which the Shia lost.

Nearly all my Lebanese sources—Sunni, Shia, and Christian—insist that Hezbollah is and always has been more worried about Sunnis than Israelis and Jews. Of course that’s the case. Various Sunni-Shia wars have killed orders of magnitude more people during my lifetime—over a million—than the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Sunni-Shia conflict is more than 1300 years old, the Arab-Israeli conflict less than 100.

And the Shia only joined the Arab-Israeli conflict 34 years ago. In the 1970s, and even into the 1980s, Middle Eastern Shias were Israel’s allies. It’s a bizarre, but it’s true.

When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to evict Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization in West Beirut and along the border with Israel, Lebanon’s Shias all but unanimously hailed the Israelis as liberators from Palestinian (Sunni) oppression. Not until the Israelis overstayed their welcome, and not until Iranian Revolutionary Guard units stepped into Lebanon and created Hezbollah—which is effectively their Lebanese branch—did the attitudes of Lebanon’s Shias begin to change.

“Resistance” against Israel was the great Sunni cause at the time, and Lebanese civil war was the context. By adopting the Sunni cause as their own, Lebanon’s Shias, via Iran and Hezbollah, bought themselves protection from the Sunnis with guns and respect.

Johns Hopkins scholar Fouad Ajami hails from the part of Lebanon controlled by Hezbollah today, and he understands this somewhat counterintuitive dynamic perfectly. “The Shia of the southern hinterland,” he wrote, “had endured Palestinian power, the rise in their midst of a Palestinian state within a state. The Palestinian gunmen and pamphleteers had had the run of that part of the country. Arab nationalists in distant lands had hailed that Palestinian sanctuary; Arab oil wealth had paid for it. The Shia relief in 1982, when Israel swept into Lebanon and shattered that dominion, was to the Arab nationalists proof that the Shia stepchildren were treasonous. Then a Shia militant movement, Hezbollah, rose to challenge Israel. Its homicide bombers, its policies of 'virtue and terror,' acquitted the Lebanese Shia in Arab eyes.”

A similar dynamic is at work in Tehran, where the idea of Hezbollah was hatched in the first place.

Jews have lived among Persians for thousands of years. The two haven’t always gotten along famously, but they’ve never been at each other’s throats the way Jews and Arabs have been, especially lately. Before the 1979 revolution, Iran was Israel’s ally. It made sense for both parties. Israel needs whatever friends it can get in the region, and most Persians, like the Kurds, aren’t interested in aligning with their ancient Arab enemies against Jews or anyone else. The Arab-Israeli conflict is called the Arab-Israeli conflict for a reason. And until 1979, it was strictly a Sunni Arab-Israeli conflict.

Khomeini did his worst to change this, partly because he did really did hate Israel, but also because it served his strategic interests. Iran can’t very well become the hegemon of the Levant and the Persian Gulf regions if the entire Arab world is against it. But if the ancient ethnic and sectarian squabbles could be set aside in favor of a united front against Israel, Iran could, at least theoretically, become dominant.

In his book The Persian Night, Amir Taheri paraphrased Iran’s message to the Arab world this way: “Forget that Iran is Shiite, and remember that today it is the only power capable of realizing your most cherished dream, the destruction of Israel. The Sunni Muslim Brotherhood promised you it would throw the Jews into the sea in 1948, but failed. Pan-Arab nationalists, led by Nasser, ushered you into one of your biggest defeats in history, enabling Israel to capture Jerusalem. The Baathists under Saddam Hussein promised to 'burn Israel,' but ended up bringing the American infidels to Baghdad. Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian 'patriots' promised to crush the Jewish state, but turned into collaborators on its payroll. Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda never gave two hoots about Palestine, focusing only on spectacular operations in the West to win publicity for themselves. Sheikh Ahmad Yassin and Hamas did all they could to destroy Israel but lacked the power, like flies attacking an elephant. The only force now willing and able to help realize your dream of a burned Israel and drowning the Jews is the Islamic Republic as created by Khomeini.”

Hezbollah leaders know perfectly well that Israel is not going to randomly invade Lebanon one day just for the hell of it. They tell their constituents and say Hezbollah’s military capabilities deter the Israelis, but it’s a lie and they know it’s a lie. On the contrary, the threat from Hezbollah is a magnet for Israeli invasions.

Nasrallah is likewise pulling a fast one when he tells his fellow Lebanese to focus on Israel while he’s ignoring Israel and fighting in Syria. It’s not going to work.

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