Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat- In a small office which also doubles as a temporary Hezbollah media center in the southern fringes of Beirut, Ali, 23, tries to explain the complexities of his relationship with Hezbollah’s weapons.
Ali has witnessed the Israeli occupation firsthand and has remained loyal to the resistance movement. He carried food to the soldiers in their trenches, and helped them move weapons from one hiding place to another.
Next to Ali sat some of his colleagues in what is known as Hezbollah’s “educational mobilization” department. There, they talked about the dual nature of Hezbollah’s youth, which is what renders them capable of adapting to so many different circumstances, unlike other youth.
This is because Hezbollah’s youth, according to these young men, are university students, employees, and professionals at the same time. All the while they are also Mujahideen [fighters for the cause of Islam] who are ever-ready to exchange their civilian clothes for a military uniform serving a greater military cause, the dimensions of which are not understood fully by everyone.
Hezbollah’s youth are men who are capable of adapting to two lives, that of the military man and that of the civilian. The educational mobilization department is just one of Hezbollah’s organizations. It is a military organization that emerged in the 1980’s during the Israeli incursion into Lebanon [summer of 1982] under the name “Islamic Amal,” [it seceded from the Amal Movement and was led by Nabih Berri].
As the organization evolved, it expanded to resemble a basic military nucleus that offers a number of social and political services. It also assumes dual tasks in that it repairs the social fabric so that it complements Hezbollah’s ideology and offers a myriad of social services, as well as assuming its military role.
However, the organization’s military role is far less important than that played by those at the top of the pyramid, i.e. the veteran frontline fighters, or Hezbollah’s Elite Fighters, as they are known. The Elite Fighters, according to consistent estimates, form a group that ranges from 2,000 to 2,500 members of highly-trained village dwellers who have no other job. These soldiers have accumulated much expertise in the field of fighting that goes back to the 1980’s, (the average age of the members is 40 years old). It is most likely that these fighters played a key role in the most recent war’s frontline, and hence made up the bulk of casualties.
Alongside the Elite Fighters, there are the men of the reserve apparatus, who are no longer active in the role of fighting. This is either due to old age or their occupation of other posts. Their previous experiences coupled with the intensified training courses that had taken part in allow these men to carryout sideline tasks in times of war. Such tasks include sending messages, weapons, and food to different units, as well as observation and communication tasks. These are significant duties that do not require physical fitness and military readiness, both of which are imperative for professional fighting.
The military dimension of Hezbollah is ever-apparent on all three levels, [the social, the military, and the Elite Fighters]. It manifests itself, however, according to the situation and how much military preparation is required.
In the small office where we met, the young men of Hezbollah’s Educational Mobilization department, who introduced themselves as Ali, Husayn, Rida, and Bashar, avoided referring to the military dimensions of their posts. Whenever one of them slipped up and began to discuss security issues, for example, the female media official interrupted to kindly remind us of our agreement, namely to restrict this interview to personal experiences and nothing more.
When asked whether they participated in the most recent war, the young men decided to answer, “When it is time for studies, we study. But we are all trained and ready to confront our enemies if and when the need arises.”
The young men continued to dodge military questions so much that it would seem that they were living by the Arabic proverb, “Every situation hath its statement, and every incident its dialogue,” which Husayn happened to repeat ardently. Instead, the young men decide to laughingly tell the story of an instance when they took their uniforms off and replaced them with that a janitors uniform. In those clothes, they say, they helped remove the rubble from the streets after the war ended. They believed that, when required, there would be no shame in carrying a broom. Still, they contended, carrying a rifle remains the “highest honor.”
After I persisted to ask them military-related questions, the young men gave me a simple explanation: Hezbollah in its entirety is a society of resistance. Hezbollah’s youth have the ability to adjust to many different circumstances. No one can match Hezbollah in this regard, they say.
“No one knows the full military structure of Hezbollah,” explained the boys, “because no one knows absolutely everything about the other. For instance, one of our colleagues was martyred during the war while we did not even know he was fighting. Each one of us has a private side that no one else knows about, even though we are very close to one another.”
The social backgrounds of these young men vary, despite the fact that share similar ages. Husayn comes from a family with close ties to the Shia political spectrum; he joined Hezbollah when he was 13-years old. His family was opposed to this and had even beaten him for his decision.
Bashar, on the other hand, did not perform his five daily prayers [Salat] until he reached the age of 17. He also claims to have been influenced, at one point in his life, by Marxist dialectics.
Rida, who despite having been brought up in Hezbollah’s Imam al Mahdi Scouts [a youth wing of Hezbollah], claims that he only recently joined Hezbollah, after becoming more religious.
Lastly, Ali, who was born in the south, grew up in a home of resistance. His parents and neighbors have all fought in the war, some of whom he has had to say goodbye to throughout the years. In his own words, Ali claims he “defied and rebelled” when he was younger, until, as years went by, this rebelliousness turned him to religion.
Bashar, who holds a senior position in the educational mobilization department and is responsible for youth activities, describes belonging to Hezbollah as, “A bare necessity to survive, like eating and drinking. Hezbollah and I are inseparable.”
This quiet young man, who barely speaks but whose colleagues never interrupt him when he does, says of his commitment to Hezbollah’s ideology that he was inspired to join it upon hearing a story that one member wrote ‘Be free, O men of Hussein,’ in his own blood, before dying on the battlefield.
“I felt that this gave new meaning to concepts such as ‘life’ and ‘freedom’. These people gave me new meaning even as they were dying,” he explained. “It was a turning point in my life; I felt that I wanted to find God.”
Ali, on the other hand, says that he experienced the suffering of occupation firsthand. His elder brothers were members of the resistance. His cousins were martyred in a battle. He passionately went on to explain that even his own mother was a mother to all members of the resistance. Ali soon became consumed by the ideology of resistance. As a young boy, he helped young soldiers move their weapons from one place to another. He waved goodbye to the soldiers as he watched them brave the battlefields, knowing that some if not many of them would never return.
Ali says that he joined the ‘Imam al Mahdi scouts’ when he was a child and grew up as part of it. “However, I reached a stage in life where I asked myself: Do I really want to join Hezbollah?” he explained. “I kept asking myself questions that challenge Hezbollah’s ideology, in order to test my faith and identity. Instead of being mired with doubt, I found that my faith was only being reaffirmed.” “Now, I thank God for an upbringing like mine, despite the fact that I was deprived of the delight of discovering Hezbollah, for the first time, like my friends,” Ali added.
“Unlike my colleagues, my relationship with the resistance is not merely that of a shared ideology. It is also a relationship of spirituality. I have experienced the suffering firsthand, and thus as a Lebanese from the south, I understand our need for resistance,” concluded Ali, a student of political science at Beirut’s Universite Libanaise.
Still I had to ask, does the phrase “Lebanese resistance” still carry the same connotation now that the south has been liberated for over 7 years, and now that we hear talk of Arab states negotiating with Israel?
“This question irritates me!” snapped Husayn bitterly. “You say that Arab states do not care about the resistance. In that case, I shall be a role model for the Arabs. As a young Arab man, I do not accept to see our mothers being humiliated and the Israelis rape and humiliate them on a daily basis. My own aunts were raped and killed by the Israelis.”
“My blood is boiling!” he continues. “I won’t take this lying down. I will fight if I have to?” At this point, Husayn’s colleagues try to calm him down, but their efforts soon prove futile.
“My problem with Israel,” says Bashar, “is not only that it marched into Lebanon uninvited and stole parts of our land but is that we cannot survive as long as Israel exists. It is a foul entity that is consistently ever-ready to attack. I believe it to be the cause of all conflict in the Middle East.”
“In fact it is because of Israel that a civil war erupted in Lebanon, and it is because of it that dictatorial regimes dominate the region. Shia-Sunni tensions are also a result of Israeli tactics. The weakness of the Arab world can thus be blamed on Israel,” he concludes.
I couldn’t help but ask, “Do you want to annihilate Israel in that case?”
Bashar quickly contains himself and says, “I may aspire to wipe Israel off the map, but I realize that this is not our responsibility. My responsibility as a young Lebanese is to liberate my land, and bring our prisoners of war back home.”
Husayn, who was keen to express his gratification for the “educated environment” within the organization, tells us that since his early years he has dreamt of dying a martyr. This is only underpinned by the fact that he is the son of a martyr from the Amal movement.
Husayn, who is a teacher by day and a salesman by night, says: “When the war broke out, my mother told me and my brothers off saying that we should be fighting. She said, ‘What are you doing at home? Go and fight, you are men!’ She kicked us out of the house.”
Rida, a law student who usually takes part in Hezbollah’s educational processes, says that he was brought up in Hezbollah schools and as such was much more familiar with Jihad rhetoric than his colleagues. “This, however, does not mean that they tell us to go kill ourselves,” he clarifies. “They only guide us to the right path.”
“Martyrdom is not the end, it only opens the gates to immortality,” he contends. “Martyrdom is but a means through which one guarantees two lives; one for himself and another for the people. This is because a martyr declares victory for the people, and salvation for himself on the Day of Judgment,” explained Rida.
Ali, on the other hand, expresses that he very much misses a friend of his who was martyred during last year’s war. “I have never before felt that I was this close to him. The experience has made me discover feelings I never knew I had. Sometimes, I feel that he is with me, and I can talk to him.” “I felt sad at first. But now I believe he should be congratulated,” Ali said.
Bashar decides to explain to me what a “loving life” should entail according to Hezbollah doctrine. “The muezzin [a person who leads the call to prayer] calls ‘Come to prayer,’ and we believe that when he does this he is calling us to live through prayers.”
With regards to other aspects of life, Bashar suggests: “Every place has its own set of circumstances. While we are at our university, we are students. While we are in jihad, we are Mujahideen.” He continued, “A brother from the Mujahideen tells us that while he was preparing ammunition once, he heard a shepherd playing his flute. Can you imagine that while he was fighting, the sound of the flute was still playing in his head?”
The young men suddenly began to contend over who gets to explain the concept of martyrdom to me, but I was interested in other issues such as the losses that this concept bears and the husbands, brothers and relatives it takes away. What about human emotions such as love, longing, and melancholy?
One of the young men offers the following: “Have you not heard the Arabic proverb: “To be the widow of a hero is better than to be the wife of a coward?” The rest nod in agreement.
The image that the people of Lebanon’s South present of Hezbollah’s youth is identical to that presented by the young men of Hezbollah’s educational mobilization department. They describe their flexibility with particular amazement, and of course, their matchless ability to adjust to all kinds of different situations, from situations of peace to that of war.
With regards to the identity of Hezbollah’s members, they all agree that their most general characteristic would be that they were born and raised in one of the villages of the region. They do not, however, take part in social gatherings and the like. In fact, their families and neighbors do not know much about their lives. In most cases they do not ask questions about it either, despite their long and questionable absences.
In many Shia villages, which in most cases are incubators of resistance movements, the people of the village say that they know that so-and-so would belong to Hezbollah, but that they do not know the exact post that they would fill. They did not know, for example, that many of their neighbors were trained soldiers until the most recent war, in which they participated.
While the people of the Shia villages talk about them with some familiarity, as they refer to them as “our young men,” Hezbollah’s youth is not granted the same ease among Christian and Sunni villages, where they almost seem more like ghosts than humans in their description.
In response to my questions about the members of Hezbollah, the people of Christian and Sunni villages say that they have seen some of them on motorcycles. They have not seen anyone carrying weapons. They also talk about chance encounters they have had with them.
One woman says that she once, during a night of shelling, heard the sound of footsteps in her garden. When she looked through the window, she saw shadows. Others say that in the few times they dared to look through their windows during shelling, they saw individuals crossing the road, or that they found remnants of food when they returned to their houses after the end of the battles.
Secrecy is a big part of Hezbollah’s identity, which at its inception was but a humble cell of fighters from an array of political parties, including individuals who seceded from the Amal Movement, members of the Palestinian Fatah Movement, individuals influenced by the Islamic revolution in Iran, and remnants of the Al Daawa Party.
At the time, Husayn al Musawi, a splinter who was the deputy leader of Amal Movement just before, played a key role in founding this cell. Al Musawi had close ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Another notable figure was Sayyid Ibrahim Amin al Sayyid, who did not carry the title of Hezbollah’s secretary general, but who was instead given the title of “official spokesperson”. In February 1985, al Sayyid read the foundation statement of Hezbollah, which was entitled “An Open Message to the People of Lebanon.”
This foundational cell is the cell that was linked to the attacks on the US Marine Corps headquarters as well as the attacks on the French forces in 1983, despite the fact that it never officially confirmed this.
The first major suicide attack claimed by the movement was the attack on an Israeli military post in Tyre in 1983. Preparations to launch the very first military cell of Hezbollah began in Lebanon’s al Biqa, particularly in Baalbak, which was a Hezbollah stronghold and was the largest source of soldiers. This was partly due to Amal’s declining influence in the region, which was once considered competition; unlike south Lebanon, where Amal held sway.
Hezbollah’s influence slowly trickled down to the southern fringes of Beirut, which was then transformed from a predominantly Christian area of multiple faiths to a shelter for the displaced people of the south. Hezbollah settled the battle against Amal and diminished its presence in the southern fringes completely by the end of 1986.
Organizations of social welfare geared to look after soldiers’ families ensued after the growth of Hezbollah’s military units. Hezbollah built new schools, as well as Husayniyas, and took control of the existing ones.
Hezbollah’s organizations started to expand and its roles grew when it publicly declared itself official in 1985. Most of these organizations are tributaries from the mother organization in Iran. One such tributary is the Jihad al-Bina foundation which is concerned with the reconstruction of towns hit by Israel. Another is the Imam Al-Mahdi School, which is considered one of the biggest educational institutes in the predominantly Shia region. Lastly, the Al Shahid Institution, which plays the most significant role among Hezbollah’s organizations, as it provides comprehensive care for the families of martyrs. Some of its services include: housing, education, health care, and monthly salaries.
The growth in Hezbollah’s social welfare organizations was followed by trade union participation, and the development of media departments. These media departments played a key role in spreading Hezbollah’s message. Some examples include: al Manar TV, the al Ahd Bulletin, and the al Nur radio station. In 1992 and 1996 Hezbollah decided to partake in the parliamentary elections, which revealed just how influential this group had become.
Perhaps the main factor that has kept this massive organization together is the special tie that binds its members, which have proven able to even transform the region’s social fabric. The region has now become, thanks to Hezbollah’s influence, a full fledged militant incubator. It has even paid the price for this: being a target of Israeli attacks.
In his book ‘The Nation of Hezbollah’ [Dawlat Hezbollah] the author, Wazzah Shararah argues that in order for Hezbollah to have achieved what it has against Israel, the soldiers, on the one hand, must have freely dispersed and taken shelter among civilians. On the other hand, they must have also moved without restraint among them as well, until they locked themselves up in hideouts and shelters.
“The soldiers must have had to rely on the people to store weapons, communication equipment, supplies and first aid materials,” says Wazzah. “They cannot spread among the people without at first appealing to them, guaranteeing their cooperation, and cementing their place there by recruiting some of them, especially the youth.”
Wazzah Shararah, a Lebanese Shia writer, and one of Hezbollah’s harshest critics, believes that Hezbollah has two inseparable faces. “In times of peace, it blends in with the people, and shares their rights. In time of war, however, it is a military force in its own right, whose members are capable of defending themselves, moving and coordinating with one another.”
For his part, Ali Fayyad, president of Hezbollah’s Consultative Center for Studies and Documentation [CCSD], believes that Hezbollah’s uniqueness “stems from the nature of the challenges witnessed by the region during the 22 years of Israeli occupation, along with the threats that came from them after that.”
“When a Lebanese man is both a soldier and a civilian at once,” explains Fayyad, “this is due to the special circumstances of his region coupled with the human need to socialize. He is a civilian by nature, but a soldier if the need for that arises.”
Fayyad says that Hezbollah’s organizations will go back to their previous ways of assuming public activities. The military organizations, however, have never gone public, as they have always been kept a secret. According to Fayyad, military organizations might even, in fact, become “more cautious” than they have been in the past.
“The nature of our organizations will not change, but we will benefit from the lessons learned from the previous war, chief among these lessons is that defeating the enemy is the easy part. What is tough is the extent to which the enemy is willing to uncontrollably destroy [us],” he explained.
Hezbollah has not made any official estimates with regards to the number of its soldiers who were killed in last summer’s war. In response to questions about this, the answer given by Hezbollah’s media official was, “There is no justification for this. We just do not give any figures. These martyrs were seen off to their final havens and that is that.”
Ibrahim Bayram, a journalist and researcher, offers an approximate number ranging from170 to 200 soldiers. This journalist, who has close ties with Hezbollah, says that the reason Hezbollah did not reveal any official figures is that it did not want to confuse those of the elite with other Hezbollah members or even mere supporters on the streets who were killed during the war.
Bayram believes that the professional rank was heavily affected due to the fact that fighting on the frontlines was restricted to these soldiers. He also contends that this great loss was also due to what he called “the independence” of the resistance body from Hezbollah’s other organizational bodies so that no one actually knows what happened to the fighting units other than these units themselves.
“In the beginning, Hezbollah announced the names of its martyrs,” says Bayram. “However, later on, it no longer had all the information required to do that, because of the independence of every group, each determining its own tactics accordingly.”
On the other hand, Wazzah Shararah rejects these figures, and believes Israeli figures to be more accurate [Israeli sources announced a figure that is close to 600 dead].
According to Shararah this is but a “minimum number” of Hezbollah’s dead; as this is based on the news circulated by the people about the death of their sons, without funerals or even proper places of burial.
Shararah also believes that the sole funeral that was held for Hezbollah’s dead gave evidence to what he believed was “Hezbollah’s great losses from the ranks of the professional soldiers,” as the funeral that was held was for seven soldiers with “great honors.”
This soon became a widely discussed media topic among news agencies. Even the Israeli officials called them “the generals” out of respect.