LRB | Vol. 28 No. 16 dated 17 August 2006 | Charles Glass
In his memoir, Not So Wild a Dream, the famous CBS correspondent Eric Sevareid recalled watching the execution of six Nazi collaborators in the newly liberated city of Grenoble in 1944.
When the police van arrived and the six who were to die stepped out, a tremendous and awful cry arose from the crowd. The six young men walked firmly to the iron posts, and as their hands were tied behind the shafts they held their bare heads upright, one or two with closed eyes, the others staring over the line of the buildings and the crowd into the lowering clouds . . . There was the jarring, metallic noise of rifle bolts and then the sharp report. The six young men slid slowly to their knees, their heads falling to one side. An officer ran with frantic haste from one to the other, giving the coup de grâce with a revolver, and one of the victims was seen to work his mouth as though trying to say something to the executioner. As the last shot was fired, the terrible, savage cry rose again from the crowd. Mothers with babies rushed forward to look on the bodies at close range, and small boys ran from one to the other spitting upon the bodies. The crowd dispersed, men and women laughing and shouting at one another. Barbarous?
Such events were part of what the French described as the épuration – the purification or purging of France after four years of German occupation. The number of French men and women killed by the Resistance or kangaroo courts is usually put at ten thousand. Camus called this ‘human justice with all its defects’. The American forces that liberated France tolerated local vengeance against those who had worked for a brutal occupier. Thousands of French people, encouraged by a government in Vichy that they believed to be legitimate, had collaborated. Many, like the Milices, fascist gangs armed by Vichy, went further and killed Frenchmen. When Vichy’s foreign sponsors withdrew and its government fell, the killing began. Accounts were settled with similar violence in other provinces of the former Third Reich – countries which, along with Britain and the United States, we now think of as the civilised world.
From 1978 to 2000 Israel occupied slices of Lebanon from their common border right up to Beirut and back again. To reduce the burden on its own forces, the Israelis created a species of Milice in the form of the locally recruited South Lebanon Army – first under Major Saad Haddad, who had broken from the Lebanese army in 1976 with a few hundred men, and later under General Antoine Lahad. Both were Christians, and their troops – armed, trained, fed and clothed by Israel – were mainly Shia Muslims from the south. About a third of the force, which grew to almost 10,000, were Christians. Some joined because they resented the Palestinians’ armed presence in south Lebanon. Others enlisted because they needed the money: the region has always been Lebanon’s poorest. The SLA had a reputation for cruelty, confirmed when its torture chambers at Khiam were opened after the Israeli withdrawal in 2000, and for a high rate of desertions.
As Israel pulled back from Beirut, the high-water mark reached during its 1982 invasion, its share of Lebanon contracted further and further. Having seized 3560 square kilometres, about a third of the country, containing around 800 towns and villages, Israel found itself in 1985 with only 500 square kilometres and 61 villages, mostly deserted. Hizbullah, which led the resistance that had forced the Israelis to abandon most of their conquest, demanded the unconditional return of all Lebanese territory. Its attacks intensified, resulting in a loss of IDF soldiers that became unpalatable to most Israelis. The Israeli army placed the SLA between itself and Hizbullah so that it could pay the price that Israel had decided it could not afford. Hizbullah kidnapped SLA men, and the SLA and Israelis kidnapped Shias. The two sides killed each other, as well as many civilians, and blood feuds were born. On 17 May 1999, Israelis elected Ehud Barak on the strength of his promise to reverse Ariel Sharon’s Lebanon adventure, which had by then cost around a thousand Israeli lives.
Barak announced that Israel would pull out in an orderly fashion in July 2000, provided that Lebanon agreed to certain conditions. The Lebanese government, urged by Hizbullah, rejected these conditions and demanded full Israeli withdrawal in accordance with UN Resolutions 425 and 426 of 1978. Barak abandoned Lebanon two months ahead of schedule, suddenly and without advance warning, on 23 May 2000. His SLA clients and other Lebanese who had worked for the occupation over the previous 22 years were caught off guard. A few escaped into Israel, but most remained. UN personnel made urgent appeals for help to avert a massacre by Hizbullah. Hizbullah went in, but nothing happened.
The deputy secretary-general and co-founder of Hizbullah, Sheikh Naim Qassem, wrote a fascinating if partisan account of the creation and rise of Hizbullah. His version of the events in 2000 is, however, borne out by eyewitnesses from other Lebanese sects – including some who stood to lose their lives – and the UN. ‘It is no secret that some young combatants, as well as some of the region’s citizens, had a desire for vengeance – especially those who were aware of what collaborators and their families had inflicted on the mujahedin and their next of kin across the occupied villages,’ Qassem wrote in Hizbullah: The Story from Within. ‘Resistance leadership issued a strict warning forbidding any such action and vowing to discipline those who took it whatever the justifications.’ Hizbullah captured Israeli weapons, which it is now using against Israel, and turned over SLA militiamen to the government without murdering any of them. Barbarous?
Naim Qassem called the liberation of south Lebanon ‘the grandest and most important victory over Israel since it commenced its occupation [of Palestine] fifty years before – a liberation that was achieved at the hands of the weakest of nations, of a resistance operating through the most modest of means, not at the hands of armies with powerful military arsenals.’ But what impressed most Lebanese as much as Hizbullah’s victory over Israel was its refusal to murder collaborators – a triumph over the tribalism that has plagued and divided Lebanese society since its founding. Christians I knew in the Lebanese army admitted that their own side would have committed atrocities. Hizbullah may have been playing politics in Lebanon, but it refused to play Lebanese politics. What it sought in south Lebanon was not revenge, but votes. In the interval between its founding in 1982 and the victory of 2000, Hizbullah had become – as well as an armed force – a sophisticated and successful political party. It jettisoned its early rhetoric about making Lebanon an Islamic republic, and spoke of Christians, Muslims and Druze living in harmony. When it put up candidates for parliament, some of those on its electoral list were Christians. It won 14 seats.
Like Israel’s previous enemies, Hizbullah relies on the weapons of the weak: car bombs, ambushes, occasional flurries of small rockets and suicide bombers. The difference is that it uses them intelligently, in conjunction with an uncompromising political programme. Against Israel’s thousand dead on the Lebanese field, Hizbullah gave up 1276 ‘martyrs’. That is the closest any Arab group has ever come to parity in casualties with Israel. The PLO usually lost hundreds of dead commandos to Israel’s tens, and Hamas has seen most of its leaders assassinated and thousands of its cadres captured with little to show for it. Hizbullah’s achievement, perhaps ironically for a religious party headed by men in turbans, is that it belongs to the modern age. It videotaped its ambushes of Israeli convoys for broadcast the same evening. It captured Israeli soldiers and made Israel give up hundreds of prisoners to get them back. It used stage-set cardboard boulders that blew up when Israeli patrols passed. It flew drones over Israel to take reconnaissance photographs – just as the Israelis did in Lebanon. It had a website that was short on traditional Arab bombast and long on facts. If Israelis had faced an enemy like Hizbullah in 1948, the outcome of its War of Independence might have been different. Israel, whose military respect Hizbullah, is well aware of this.
That is why, having failed to eliminate Hizbullah while it occupied Lebanon, Israel is trying to destroy it now. Hizbullah’s unpardonable sin in Israel’s view is its military success. Israel may portray Hizbullah as the cat’s-paw of Syria and Iran, but its support base is Lebanese. Moreover, it does one thing that Syria and Iran do not: it fights for the Palestinians. On 12 July Hizbullah attacked an Israeli army unit, capturing two soldiers. It said it would negotiate indirectly to exchange them for Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners in Israel, as it has done in the past. It made clear that its attack was in support of the Palestinians under siege in Gaza after the capture of another Israeli soldier a week earlier. The whole Arab world had remained silent when Israel reoccupied the Gaza settlements and bombed the territory. Hizbullah’s response humiliated the Arab regimes, most of which condemned its actions, as much as it humiliated Israel. No one need have been surprised. Hizbullah has a long history of supporting the Palestinians. Many of its original fighters were trained by the PLO in the 1970s when the Shias had no militias of their own. Hizbullah risked the anger of Syria in 1986 when it sided against another Shia group which was attacking Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut. Hizbullah has never abandoned the Palestinian cause. Its capture last month of the two Israeli soldiers sent a message to Israel that it could not attack Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank without expecting a reaction.
On this occasion Israel, which regards its treatment of Palestinians under occupation as an internal affair in which neither the UN nor the Arab countries have any right to interfere, calibrated its response in such a way that it could not win. Instead of doing a quiet deal with Hizbullah to free its soldiers, it launched an all-out assault on Lebanon. Reports indicate that Israel has already dropped a greater tonnage of bombs on the country than it did during Sharon’s invasion in 1982. The stated purpose was to force a significant portion of the Lebanese to demand that the government disarm Hizbullah once and for all. That failed to happen. Israel’s massive destruction of Lebanon has had the effect of improving Hizbullah’s standing in the country. Its popularity had been low since last year, when it alone refused to demand the evacuation of the Syrian army after the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Hizbullah sensed that Washington was orchestrating the anti-Syrian campaign for its own – rather than Lebanon’s – benefit.
Syria had, after all, helped found Hizbullah after Israel’s invasion – and encouraged it to face down and defeat the occupation, as well as to drive the Americans from Lebanon. Syria in turn allowed Iran, whose religious leaders gave direction to Hizbullah and whose Revolutionary Guards provided valuable tactical instruction, to send weapons through its territory to Lebanon. Hizbullah’s leaders nevertheless have sufficiently strong support to assert their independence of both sponsors whenever their interests or philosophies clash. (I have first-hand, if minor, experience of this. When Hizbullah kidnapped me in full view of a Syrian army checkpoint in 1987, Syria insisted that I be released to show that Syrian control of Lebanon could not be flouted. Hizbullah, unfortunately, ignored the request.) Despite occasional Syrian pressure, Hizbullah has refused to go into combat against any other Lebanese militia. It remained aloof from the civil war and concentrated on defeating Israel and its SLA surrogates.
Hizbullah’s unspectacular showing in the first post-Syrian parliamentary elections was largely due to changes in electoral law but may also be traced in part to its perceived pro-Syrian stance. Now, Israel has rescued Hizbullah and made its secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, not only the most popular man in Lebanon – but in the whole Arab world. An opinion poll commissioned by the Beirut Centre for Research and Information found that 80 per cent of Lebanese Christians supported Hizbullah; the figure for other communities was even higher. It was not insignificant that, when false reports came in that Hizbullah had sunk a second Israeli warship, the area that fired the loudest celebratory shots in the air was Ashrafieh, the heart of Christian East Beirut. Unlike in 1982, when it could rely on some of the Christian militias, Israel now has no friends in Lebanon.
Israel misjudged Lebanon’s response to its assaults, just as Hizbullah misjudged Israeli opinion. Firing its rockets into Israel did not, as it may have planned, divide Israelis and make them call for an end to the war. Israelis, like the Lebanese, rallied to their fighters in a contest that is taking on life and death proportions for both countries. Unlike Israel, which has repeatedly played out the same failed scenario in Lebanon since its first attack on Beirut in 1968, Hizbullah has a history of learning from its mistakes. Seeing the Israeli response to his rocket bombardment of Haifa and Netanya in the north, Nasrallah has not carried out his threat to send rockets as far as Tel Aviv. He now says he will do this only if Israel targets the centre of Beirut.
If the UN had any power, or the United States exercised its power responsibly, there would have been an unconditional ceasefire weeks ago and an exchange of prisoners. The Middle East could then have awaited the next crisis. Crises will inevitably recur until the Palestine problem is solved. But Lebanon would not have been demolished, hundreds of people would not have died and the hatred between Lebanese and Israelis would not have become so bitter.
On 31 July, the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said: ‘This is a unique opportunity to change the rules in Lebanon.’ Yet Israel itself is playing by the same old unsuccessful rules. It is ordering Lebanon to disarm Hizbullah or face destruction, just as in 1975 it demanded the dismantling of the PLO. Then, many Lebanese fought the PLO and destroyed the country from within. Now, they reason, better war than another civil war: better that the Israelis kill us than that we kill ourselves. What else can Israel do to them? It has bombed comprehensively, destroyed the country’s expensively restored infrastructure, laid siege to it and sent its troops back in. Israel still insists that it will destroy Hizbullah in a few weeks, although it did not manage to do so between 1982 and 2000 when it had thousands of troops on the ground and a local proxy force to help it. What is its secret weapon this time?
Charles Glass has recently published two books on the Middle East, The Northern Front and The Tribes Triumphant, and is writing a book set in France during the German occupation.