Mass graves and martyrs in the name of God

August 22, 1997

John 2:1 relates that Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding in the village of Qana, now in south Lebanon. Blood was flowing there in April 1996: Israeli bombers killed over 100 Lebanese refugees sheltering in the UN compound from Israel's bombardment.

Israel was trying to destroy Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed "Party of God", just as Israel had earlier ousted the PLO. Hala Jaber relates the events: the shelling started without warning; a baby's legs were blown to pieces; a girl's brains fell out. Corpses were later removed in bagfuls. The funeral cortege was a traffic jam of coffins, many made of cardboard. A woman refused to leave her child's grave shouting hysterically: "Please talk to me". The mass grave at Qana is now a pilgrimage site.

Despite its title, this is not polemical journalism. Avoiding sectarian partiality, Jaber has written the best account in English of the Hezbollah dimension of Lebanese politics. She implies steadily that Israel is too ready to resort to violence. Terrorising an unarmed civilian population is hardly a necessary or justified military strategy. Jaber argues that Israeli aggression created the anger and desperation that led to the emergence of Hezbollah in Lebanon. This radical Shiite Islamic group struggles against Israeli occupation and hopes to expel Israel from its unofficial security zone, covering a tenth of Lebanese territory, She charts the rise of Hezbollah from a foreign organisation in Lebanon to an indigenous political force revered by the Lebanese and represented in their government. The Hezbollah believe that martyrdom is a viable route to political triumph. Countless teenage boys and girls volunteer for kamikaze-type missions against Israel. Martyrdom, says a Hezbollah chief, is not "seasonal work". Larger than a party but smaller than a state, Hezbollah offers social welfare for the poorest Lebanese. The Hezbollah leaders mix "without official decorations" among the masses advising them on all matters from "martyrdom to harvesting". Jaber portrays the Hezbollah as resourceful, courageous and therefore dangerous. The religious emotion is authentic: the poor have no need to play at it.

Jaber notes the lack of remorse shown by all. The Israelis are casual in their brutality; Hezbollah dehumanise Israelis as that "evil Zionist entity". Freelance kidnappers sell their victims to the highest-bidding militia. There are only open enemies and false allies. Ubiquitous are the social poisons of honour and revenge among dozens of confessional groups struggling for power. In a family feud, one interviewee laments, the Lebanese will not spare even the dog.

Says a western hostage to a Muslim who calls himself a freedom fighter: "You are a terrorist: look it up in the dictionary." If only language could be a judge in matters of power. But the "terrorists" engage in self-justification: they want to be liked by someone. Therefore, their evil shall be redeemed.

External powers are everywhere implicated. The French bombed Hezbollah positions in south Lebanon. Iran influences Hezbollah though it no more controls it than Sinn Fein controls the IRA. Israel interferes regularly without apology, feeling a false sense of security owing to unconditional US support. The politics here is simple: each man sticks to his own side, right or wrong. The political convictions here are absolute, the mandates holy - not the ingredients of humility.

The sectarianism and snobbishness of the various Christian groups, implies Jaber, partly accounts for the emergence of extremist Islamic groups in Lebanon. Arab Muslims resent Arab Christians as insinuating, meretricious and self-deluding. The Christian search for unfair privileges, via alliances with western Christian powers, is seen, justifiably, as the main cause of the Lebanese civil war. Although Lebanon was never ready for democracy, Islam's merciful despotism kept the warring factions under partial control for over a millennium.

Jaber says little about the Israeli side of the story. The security zone is an insecurity zone. There are worries about numbers; Jews are a diminishing stock worldwide. Israel has extensive frontiers with enemies though there is peace on the Egyptian and Jordanian fronts.

If the concessions to the Palestinians seem trivial in Arab eyes, Jews point to Rabin's corpse. Rachel weeps for her children too. Jaber's book ends with the election of the rightwing Likud government of Benyamin Netanyahu. It is not a note of hope.

Shabbir Akhtar was until recently teaching at the International Islamic University, Malaysia.

Hezbollah: Born with a Vengeance

Author - Hala Jaber
ISBN - 1 85702 381 1
Publisher - Fourth Estate
Price - £16.99
Pages - 240

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