Creating people's geographies
Damascus, Syria — “I care about my people, my country, and defending them from the Zionist aggression,” said a Hezbollah fighter after I’d asked him why he joined the group. I found myself in downtown Beirut sitting in the backseat of his car in the liquid heat of a Lebanese summer. Sweat rolled down my nose and dripped on my notepad as I jotted furiously.
“My home in Dahaya is now pulverized,” he said while the concussions of Israeli bombs landing in his nearby neighborhood echoed across the buildings around us, “Everything in my life is destroyed now, so I will fight them. I am a Shaheed [martyr].”
He asked to remain anonymous, and that I refer to him only as Ahmed.
The late afternoon sun was behind him as he told me just how hard his life had been. When he was eleven years old, he and his youngest brother had been taken from their home by Israeli soldiers and put in prison for two years. I asked him what happened to him there, but that was a subject he wouldn’t discuss. One of his brothers was later killed by Israeli soldiers. After his release from an Israeli prison Ahmed was spending his teenage years in southern Lebanon when he was caught in crossfire between Hezbollah fighters and Israeli soldiers near his home. He was shot three times. Many years before, his father had been killed by an Israeli air strike on a refugee camp in south Beirut.
“What are we left with?” he asked, while the angle of the sun through the windshield highlighted tears welling in his eyes, “I know I will die fighting them, then I will go to my God. But I will go to my God fighting like a lion. I will not be slaughtered like a lamb.”
A Widely Misunderstood Group
Leaving on this trip to Syria, I never intended to go to Lebanon. When my plane took off from San Francisco, Lebanon was still a peaceful land; by the time my plane touched down in Damascus, however, everything had changed. That very day, I learned on landing, Hezbollah had taken two Israeli soldiers captive and killed eight others. While the mainstream media have taken it as fact that the Hezbollah raid occurred inside Israel, many Arab outlets claim the Israelis actually entered Lebanon before being attacked. The exact location of the clash remains in dispute.
Clearer, however, are the effects of the subsequent Israeli attack on Lebanon. Physically, Lebanon has been bombed if not yet back to the Stone Age, then at least to a point where much of the country now looks as it did in the worst periods of its brutal civil war, which lasted from 1975 until 1990.
According to statistics provided by the Lebanese Government on July 24th, there had already been well over $2.1 billion of damage to the civilian infrastructure of Lebanon — all three of its airports and all four of its seaports had by then been bombed, and in the weeks to follow it was only to get worse.
By estimates that go quickly out of date as the brutal bombing campaign continues, there has already been nearly $1 billion of damage done to civilian residences and businesses, with over 22 gas stations as well as fuel depots bombed and the major highways along which fuel resupply would take place badly damaged. Scores of factories, worth over $180 million, have also been damaged or destroyed.
Red Cross ambulances, governmental emergency centers, UN peacekeeping forces and observers, media outlets, and mobile phone towers have all been bombed, each a violation of international law. Mosques and churches have been hit; illegal weapons such as cluster bombs and white phosphorous used; and, as far as can be told at this early point, over 90% of the victims killed have been civilians.
As of this writing, the Lebanese government had already announced at least 900 deaths, and that number is now certainly well over 1,000. At least 60 Israelis are also dead from Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israel and fierce fighting inside Lebanon.
Tom Engelhardt recently wrote,
“As air wars go, the one in Lebanon may seem strikingly directed against the civilian infrastructure and against society; in that, however, it is historically anything but unique. It might even be said that war from the air, since first launched in Europe’s colonies early in the last century, has always been essentially directed against civilians. As in World War II, air power — no matter its stated targets — almost invariably turns out to be worst for civilians and, in the end, to be aimed at society itself. In that way, its damage is anything but ‘collateral,’ never truly ‘surgical,’ and never in its overall effect ‘precise.’ Even when it doesn’t start that way, the frustration of not working as planned, of not breaking the ‘will,’ invariably leads, as with the Israelis, to ever wider, ever fiercer versions of the same, which, if allowed to proceed to their logical conclusion, will bring down not society’s will, but society itself.”
The government of Israel stated at the outset that the goal of their massive air campaign, leveled directly at the infrastructure of Lebanese society and at its economy, was essentially psychological — meant to increase popular pressure against Hezbollah; but, as might easily have been predicted, exactly the opposite has occurred.
“I never supported Hezbollah before,” a young student at the American University of Beirut told me shortly after I arrived in the capital city. “But now they are defending us against Israel.” His view of Hezbollah is quickly becoming the norm for hundreds of thousands of previously unsympathetic Lebanese as American-made Israeli bombs and missiles continue to rain down on the country.
During my time in Lebanon I drove to Qana. On the way there, I passed one small hilltop village after another, all of them resembling bombed out ghost towns. Chunks of buildings littered the roads, which our car had to carefully negotiate. Powdered rock from shattered homes seemed to cover everything like a thin film. No one was walking the deserted streets, even in the middle of the day. The few who remained, mostly the elderly and children, hid in basements. For whole stretches, only occasional stray cats and dogs were seen, along with a flock of goats whose herder had long since fled.
The villages looked like ghost towns as the irregular thumping of bomb explosions continued in the distance. The roar of Israeli F-16’s overhead was a constant reminder that no place in the south of this country was safe. After witnessing this level of destruction, the literal tearing apart of a society, it was clear to me so many more people were supporting Hezbollah.
To grasp the unfolding events in Lebanon, you have to begin with an uncomfortable fact. Hezbollah, widely known throughout much of the West as a “terrorist organization,” is seen as anything but in Lebanon. This was obviously true of most Shiites, especially in southern Lebanon, before this round of war began. Now, even many in the conservative Christian population in parts of northern Lebanon and West Beirut have come to hold its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, in high regard. With seats in the Lebanese parliament, Hezbollah is seen as a legitimate political group.
Hezbollah first came into existence as a result of the Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon, which began on June 6, 1982. The group draws most of its popular support from southern Beirut and south Lebanon, where the majority of the country’s Shia population live. Downtrodden, impoverished, and largely overlooked by a government in Beirut in which they had inadequate representation, the Shia were primed for a leader who would promise them a better future.
The group was officially founded on February 16, 1985 when Sheik Ibrahim al-Amin proclaimed its manifesto. Hassan Nasrallah would only come to power after the Israeli military assassinated al-Amin. A charismatic leader, he promptly solidified his base and swelled Hezbollah’s ranks by working to satisfy the most essential needs of his followers. Hezbollah soon started providing the basic social-service infrastructure in the neglected Shia areas of southern Beirut and southern Lebanon — hospitals, schools, construction projects, welfare programs, and, above all, a well-trained, highly disciplined militia for protection.
After years of brutal guerrilla war against the Israeli military, which had occupied part of southern Lebanon, Hezbollah succeeded in doing what neither the Lebanese government, nor their impotent army could possibly have done. Its fighters wore down the Israeli military and finally forced it out of the country in 2000. This, not surprisingly, lent it even greater popularity.
While the coming years also brought it more significant political representation and respect, the Druze and Christian populations, continued to distance themselves from or oppose the group.
Now, the staggeringly disproportionate Israeli response to the detention of two of its soldiers and the killing of others in mid-July has changed even this. In a sense, the Israelis are accomplishing the previously inconceivable — uniting the otherwise hostile power centers of the country behind Hezbollah. Last week, the Israelis actually began bombing key bridges in the Christian part of the country for the first time — a clear statement that no Lebanese are to be spared their attentions. Most of the Druze and Christian leadership have by now condemned the Israeli response. Many have even gone so far as to state that they believe Hezbollah is working to defend the country’s sovereignty.
Thus, the Israeli response has played a huge role in strengthening the already strong hand of Hassan Nasrallah.
The View from Damascus
Hezbollah enjoys massive popular and political support in Syria. Everywhere in the ancient city of Damascus the yellow and green flags of the group hang from storefronts, flutter in the wind from television antennae, and fly from the radio antennae of cars. Portraits and photos of Nasrallah are taped to the back windows of Mercedes and BMW’s. Key chains of his bearded, smiling face, along with iconic t-shirts in which he is portrayed between the Syrian flag and that of Hezbollah are now selling like hotcakes.
“We know the Americans are trying to smash our dignity,” a man named Faez told me in the coastal Syrian city of Latakia. Inside a heavily air-conditioned European-style coffee shop, while sipping espresso, the businessman did what so many Syrians do nowadays – he used “America” and “Israel” interchangeably.
The head of the Syrian Union of Engineers, Hassan Majid, was no less frank as we sat in his plush office in downtown Damascus. “Hezbollah has our greatest respect now,” he said softly.
Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese refugees have flooded the capital. You can see them inhabiting schools and crowded into various offices for Middle East Airlines, Lebanon’s air carrier. They are always to be found at Syrian Red Crescent shelters hoping to acquire lodging, food, or other assistance. The support they receive here is of a far better kind than is available to the tens of thousands of internal refugees who have fled no farther than Beirut, where they sleep in the dirt in city parks or, if they are lucky, on thin foam mats in still empty schools; yet their accounts of suffering and loss are no less heart-wrenching. These stories ripple across Syria daily, broadcast far and wide by state television.
At the headquarters of the Syrian Red Crescent, you can still see a plaque from the Red Cross thanking them for their efforts assisting Hurricane Katrina victims. When I asked about it, one of the volunteers told me Syria had donated medical supplies to aid the desperate residents of New Orleans.
An old man named Hassan Hamdan has just arrived from southern Lebanon and is waiting for volunteers to find him somewhere to sleep. He catches the spirit of the moment when he takes my very first open-ended questions as an opportunity to vent his rage.
In a sense, it never feels as if he’s talking to me at all. As he begins, he promptly stands up. His voice rises instantly into the shouting range and he quite literally yells, “The Israelis are attacking and killing everything which moves!” I involuntarily take a step back, fearing he’s so angry he might actually assault me. “It’s total destruction! They just shredded our city!” For a moment he calms slightly and explains that he’s just left his village near the southern Lebanese city of Bint Jbail. Immediately, his voice rises and he’s off again: “Everyone is now with Hezbollah! Even Jesus is with Hezbollah! Insha’Allah [God willing], Hezbollah will smash the Israelis and kick them from Lebanon once and for all!”
I’ve seen similar rantings broadcast on Syrian state television as people crowd around to watch inside sweaty falafel restaurants and I automatically dismissed it as so much state propaganda. But here that “propaganda” is alive and unbelievably vociferous, with not a screen in sight.
In fact, it hardly matters any more what anyone says or does. Sometimes you can feel a tidal pull in events — in this case, a strong one flowing in but a single powerful direction. When one Israeli general recently aimed some pointed barbs at Syria for supporting Hezbollah, and President Bashar Assad promptly put the Syrian military on high alert, popular support for Hezbollah, further galvanized, only grew accordingly. It’s no longer hard to imagine a whole region in which the shouting might reach previously inconceivable decibels and nobody will be listening.
After visiting a hospital in Beirut where I saw dozens of horribly wounded children, women, and the elderly, their skin burnt, often from the flames of their own devastated homes, their bodies shredded, possibly by the cluster bombs the Israelis have reportedly been using, I walked outside and wept.
Shortly after, I met with Ahmed again and briefly described the experience while, once again, tearing up. “This is what I’ve been seeing my entire life,” he replied, staring into my eyes. “Nothing but pain and suffering.”
Now, this is also what so many Lebanese, sheltered these last years of reconstruction from life experiences like Ahmed’s, are seeing first-hand, and this is why Hezbollah is viewed by almost all Lebanese as a legitimate resistance movement, not a “terrorist organization.” This is what the Israelis have actually done to the Lebanese, other than dismantling their society and turning them into refugees in their own land.
When you are in Syria or, I suspect, in most Arab states today, and utter the words “terrorist organization,” it doesn’t even occur to people that Hezbollah might be the topic of conversation. They take it for granted that you’re referring either to Israel or the United States.
As Israeli pilots continue to drop American made precision-guided bombs from F-16’s and Hezbollah launches barrages of rockets ever deeper into Israel, the radicalization of both populations — and of the region — only intensifies amid the spreading devastation.
When this war finally ends, the societal, economic, and environmental destruction will undoubtedly be staggering — it already is — as well as long-lasting; but it will pale in comparison to the psychological damage which has already been done. Rather than sowing the seeds of a future peace, it’s painfully clear to an observer that the seeds of everlasting bloodshed, resentment, and resistance are now sprouting amid the ruins.
Arab leaders continue to earn the scorn of their populations for not putting their all into stopping the Israeli campaign against Lebanon. Meanwhile, Hezbollah appears committed to doing so until the very end — and, based on what I saw in my days in Lebanon, that “end” of mutual destruction seems all that is left on the minds of those involved. The Israelis, over-valuing the technology of war and, in particular, of air power (as so many have done before them), began their campaign against Lebanon by using perfectly real bombs and missiles to achieve largely psychological ends — the humiliation of Hezbollah in the eyes of the Lebanese population. As it turns out, they have indeed changed the psychology of Lebanon — and possibly of the region. Just not in ways they ever imagined.
As Tarad Hamadé, the Lebanese Minister of Labor and official representative of Hezbollah told me in Beirut recently, “We might not be as powerful as the Israeli army but we will fight until we die.”
Dahr Jamail is an independent journalist from Anchorage, Alaska who spent eight months reporting from occupied Iraq. He regularly reports for Inter Press Service, and contributes to the Independent, the Sunday Herald, and Asia Times as well as Tomdispatch.com. He maintains a website at: www.dahrjamailiraq.com/ dahrjamailiraq.com.
Copyright 2006 Dahr Jamail