When westerners, particularly Anglophones,
imagine the membership of Hezbollah two tired stereo types are likely to jump to
mind. One is of the mad mullah, spitting venom at the west from his podium in
the mosque’s main hall or maliciously plotting in a dark room somewhere in its
back chambers. The other is the desperate young man from the village or the slum
with nothing to loose who, one day, upon hearing the demagogic preaching of such
a mad mullah slings a Kalashnikov over his shoulder and decides to take his
frustration, building through a lifetime void of opportunities and direct it at
the world wide Capitalist Jewish Conspiracy.

I am about to meet
one of its members, and a very active one at that. I am waiting for him at
Starbucks, his suggestion. The young man I am waiting to meet, Mahdi Berjaoui,
is not only a member of Hezbollah – he is the leader of their group on campus at
the Lebanese American University. He arrives and approaches me with a confident
stride, an easy smile, and a firm manly handshake. He is wearing a fashionable
orange polo shirt, blue jeans, trendy sneakers and a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses.
He hasn’t shaven for the last few days but he certainly does not have a beard.
We take a table and he suggests an iced mocha as it is far too hot for a latte,
and then insists, in the great Lebanese tradition of hospitality, on paying for
it.

Upon prompting Mahdi rattles off some of the achievements of
Hezbollah at LAU. They campaigned successfully, with the other political groups
on campus, to lower tuition fees, hosted a photographic exhibition on the
history of their of their organisation, and a (peaceful) protest against the
Iraq war organised to coincide with a visit to the campus by the US Ambassador
to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman.

Mahdi, though cheerful, is old
beyond his nineteen years. He was born during the eighteen year Israeli
occupation of Lebanon and members of his family had died at their hands. He
talks about the humiliation that comes from living in an occupied land – the
check points, the arbitrary raids, searches and curfews the sense of
powerlessness. It was Hezbollah who changed all that. It was Hezbollah who
liberated Lebanon from the Israeli occupation.

In the two week
onslaught that has begun his family’s weekend and summer house in a village in
the southern mountains has been destroyed, as has their main residence in the
southern Beirut suburb of Dahieh, where as the new local joke has it, the
Israelis are digging for oil, bombing the same area repeatedly reducing it to
rubble. According to the Israelis this is to destroy the network of tunnels and
bunkers that Hezbollah has build between and under its buildings in the area in
preparation for such a strike (this is not the first time since their withdrawal
in 2000 that the Israelis have bombed Lebanon). According to many others however
this is a ploy to scatter the intense of support Hezbollah enjoyed in this
densely populated and predominantly Shi’a suburb where their head quarters were
located by destroying the homes of their supporters. These objectives however,
are far from mutually exclusive.

Mahdi’s two houses were not
bombed because he is a member of Hezbollah, he and his family were simply
unlucky. Like hundreds of thousands of Lebanese have been made homeless in the
last two weeks.

Still, however, he is neither desperate nor
fanatical. He’s just staying with relatives for the moment. What’s more, with a
degree in economics and international relations to finish, a girlfriend called
Samar and a healthy social life, demonstrated by the scores of people who
interrupt our interview to shake his hand, ask after his family and insist he
call them so they can go for a beer soon, he still has everything to loose. He
talks about the current situation in purely political and strategic terms. I ask
him what the goals of Hezbollah will be after this war ends, he replies “the
same as they have always been: to protect our people and our land” and then adds
quickly, “and of course, now, to repair the new damage that has been done”.

He, like most Lebanese, holds no one but Israel responsible for
the destruction wrought on their country, since the kidnapping of two Israeli
soldiers two weeks ago by Hezbollah. The operation was justified, according to
Mahdi by the hope of a prisoner swap which would return three Lebanese nationals
held in Israeli prisons. None of whom, Mahdi is quick to point out are from
Hezbollah, or even Shi’a. Such prisoner swaps have happened before and much
larger numbers of prisoners, and have included Hezbollah guerrilla leaders among
those released. Indeed one of the men released in such a prisoner swap has a son
who studies with Mahdi at LAU.

The hostage taking, according to
him, and most Lebanese, is just an excuse for the Israelis to pursue goals held
previously – to keep Lebanon weak when it was for the first time in decades on
the path to prosperity.

His calmness, however, does not mean he
is dispassionate, he has both friends and family fighting at the front and, he
makes clear several times during the interview that if it comes to the point
where it is necessary, which would be when Hezbollah feels its well armed and
well trained guerrilla units are stretched thin, he is prepared to fight and die
there himself. Like young men world wide, he is prepared to die for his country
if he feels it under threat. For the moment he is happy to spend his days
volunteering at what was until recently one of Beirut’s best law schools, but
which is now the temporary home of around a thousand refugees.

A
Google search for news articles containing the words “terrorist group Hezbollah”
produces three hundred and twenty one stories printed since the beginning of
June, and indeed Hezbollah is listed as an official terrorist organisation by
America, Australia, the Canada, and Israel. The United Kingdom and Netherlands
make a distinction between Hezbollah proper, which they do not consider a
terrorist organisation and its armed wing, the External Security Organization,
which they do. The United Nations, the European Union and every other nation in
the world however, are yet to accept this definition for either the group as a
whole or its armed wing. However, t he European Union has gone so far as to
identify Imad Mugniyah , Hezbollah’s senior Intelligence officer, as a terrorist
individually.

To the Lebanese however, to use such a term to
describe the Hezbollah is an insult. Not just to the group itself or its widely
respected leader Sheik Hassan Nesrallah, but to the Lebanese people as a whole.
It was this group that fought and died to liberate their land from a despised
occupier. To use such terms regarding those responsible for their freedom is to
denigrate their freedom itself. They are Al-Muqawama, “The Resistance”, or if
you feel like being formal, Al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya, “The Islamic Resistance”.
These are the words used in reference to Hezbollah in the Arabic press if they
are not identified by name. They are never called terrorists.

The reason for this broad based support, extending well beyond
(and not universal among) their coreligionist Shi’a, is not as simple as a
hatred of Israel or a love of Islam. Hezbollah have not only been a military
organisation. They have built and now maintain schools and medical clinics
across the country, they have specific branches of their organisation
responsible for the widows and orphans of those who have died in battle, they
organise emergency food and shelter for the poor even in times of peace, and
they have a specific organisation for the reconstruction of buildings and
infrastructure destroyed by shelling and bombing. They even give university
scholar ships to promising Shi’a students from poor backgrounds.

The religious aspect of Hezbollah is a much less prominent
section of their platform than one might suspect. Hezbollah has openly and
officially stated that the goal of an Islamic republic is unsuited to Lebanon’s
religiously diverse population. They are not the Lebanese version of Al-Qaeda,
they are a much more garden variety political organisation who have survived and
grown due to their ability to meet the needs of their constituents. Even now, in
the middle of the conflict they are, in concert with a plethora of other
organisations and the Lebanese population at large providing emergency shelter,
food and medical supplies to those who were displaced by the war and have no
where else to go. That is not to say they are altruistic, or “good” a term I
would be loath to use for any politician. They know that providing these
services will bolster their support in the future.

Whether you call them terrorists or a
legitimate resistance movement, whatever the New Middle East looks like,
Hezbollah and groups like it are likely to be a major feature for the
foreseeable future.

Get more Crikey, for less

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

Join us this week for 50% off a year of Crikey.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
50% off