"This decision was a declaration of war and the start of war on the resistance and its weapons. Our response to this decision is that whoever declares or starts a war, be it a brother or a father, then it is our right to defend ourselves and our existence."
-Hassan Nasralla, Leader of Hezbollah, from his televised address on May 8, 2008
The Saudi- and Western-backed Lebanese government decided on Tuesday, May 6 to shut down the private telecom network operated by Hezbollah. The government also accused Hezbollah of placing cameras outside the Beirut airport to monitor government officials. These actions coincided with labor leaders' declaration of a general strike, demanding higher wages and protesting economic policies.
Nasrallah's words, "whoever starts a war, be it a brother or a father..." should not be taken lightly. The diverse religious make up of Lebanon has been relatively peaceful for many years. Indeed, many Lebanese Christians supported Hezbollah.
Immediately after Nasrallah's televised address on Thursday, May 8, Hezbollah followers took to the streets in Beirut with barricades and gun fights to enforce the general strike and forcibly oppose governmental actions that Nasrallah declared an act of war. For the past week, militants have occupied Mulsim neighborhoods in Western Beirut, and cut off access to various transportation roots out of the city. Their military prowess and the events are chronicled today in an article from BBC.
[Barricade to the Beirut airport, Lebanon. Photo: NYTimes][Shiite Militants on the streets of Beirut, Lebanon. Photo: NYTimes]
The pictures really are beautiful: sexy young Lebanese militants, wearing bandannas and kefias, taking arms against their government, stopping the flow of capital with barricades of burning tires.
In a poetic tit for tat, militants set fire to the studios of Future TV (founded by assassinated former prime minister Rafik Hariri) and a newspaper owned by government officials. The Future TV studio was home to program, SuperStar, a licensed subsidiary of American Idol. The government tried to shut down Hezbollah's communication network, so the group responded by burn the government's television station.
Below is a clip of sexy runner-up, Saad Almojarad from season 4 of SuperStar!
Are you in love with him yet? Because I melt when I watch him sing. Also note, the Lebanese subsidiary is so much classier than American Idol; full orchestra, backup singers, semi-formal dress, good music. But I digress...
A New York Review of Books piece from 2004 has a nice summary of Hezbollah's current structure and history, so I won't go into it all here. By way of summary: Hezbollah is classified as a terrorist group by Israel, the US, the UK and three other "allies in the war on terror." The EU has never listed them as a terrorist group. The Arab world respects them. They are Shi'ite. The group formed in 1982 in resistance to an Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon, and they have largely fought to reclaim those occupied territories ever since. Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, and Hezbollah has largely kept the promise it made (after the civil war of 1975-1990) to refrain from using its arms against the Lebanese people. They are now a legitimate party in the Lebanese Parliament and won nearly 20% of seats in Parliament in the May 2006 elections. Several UN reports praise the group's many Humanitarian efforts.
An excerpt from one such report:
"The group currently operates at least four hospitals, 12 clinics, 12 schools and two agricultural centres that provide farmers with technical assistance and training. It also has an environmental department and an extensive social assistance programme. Medical care is also cheaper than in most of the country's private hospitals and free for Hezbollah members.
Most of these institutions are located in the country's more marginalised areas, such as Beirut's southern suburbs, in South Lebanon and in the Bekaa Valley. 'We have special sections all over the country that provide financial and food assistance to the poor,' said Hezbollah spokesman Hussein Nabulsi. 'We also run an emergency fund for instant care in case of immediate hospitalisation.'"
What is really fascinating about Hezbollah is they have largely functioned as a government within a government. Indeed, that appears to be the terms of the struggle that have played out over the past week. On Wednesday the government rescinded the two decisions to shut down the group's communication and intelligence networks. By Thursday the Arab League began brokering talks between them.
Of chief concern in these talks was Hezbollah's arms, which it was previously permitted to keep after the civil war to continue it's fight against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. According to the BBC article cited earlier, the Arab League diplomats asked that Hezbollah, "pledge to refrain from resorting or returning to violence in pursuit of political gains." They also asked for the initiation of talks "on spreading state sovereignty throughout the country, and defining the state's relationship with 'all organisations'".
It's a total crisis of state sovereignty. Of course, in light of contemporary chatter about "globalization" and the "receding concept of state sovereignty," I should refine my point. Hezbollah demonstrated, during the last week, that it was the most capable military force operating in Lebanon. Of course, they demonstrated that fact in 2000 when they pushed the Israeli occupation out. The militant group forced the sovereign state to paradoxically acknowledge their right to own and operate telecomunications equipment that they undoubtedly used against that same state in last week's crisis. Hezbollah allegedly operates surveillance cameras at the Beirut airport to spy on officials; but the Lebanese government reassigned the airport's chief of security, who had called for the destruction of the cameras.
I wouldn't want to argue that the conflict of the past week is some kind of traditional revolutionary moment. Hezbollah might, in fact, represent some kind of alter-sovereign--a constituting power that has yet to be fully constituted. It remains in a position of alterity in relation to the "sovereign state" of Lebanon, yet it exercises many of the powers of a sovereign.
If they win more concessions (like a veto power) in future negotiations, will Hezbollah adhere to a normalized Parliamentary path? If it is demanded of them that they disarm, would they do it to gain prominence as a political party? My guess is that Nasrallah knows he has semi-sovereign power in Lebanon; why would he ever give that up? They are in a unique position as "resistance," which is, in this case, a position of strength. It will be interesting to see what they do with it.
The story reminds me of the Goya painting Kronos Eating His Children. The Lebanese state declared war on it's own resistance fighters--those who fought Israel for so long. It's like chopping off the arm that defends you. The really difficult question: why on earth did the state do it? Didn't they know it would provoke such a reaction from Hezbollah? Were they counting on it? Perhaps they're trying to draw the U.S. into a conflict with Iran and the Shi'a. The negotiations that unfold in the next few weeks may provide answers to these questions.