Karl Sharro







Hezbollah: A Short History
Augustus Richard Norton


In this small but thorough book, AR Norton succeeds in writing a comprehensive history of the Lebanese Shi’i party Hezbollah and the key stages in its development from a marginal group to the large political party it has now become.

Critically, the book covers the aftermath of the July 2006 war that Israel launched against Lebanon, and is perhaps the first reasoned and informed analysis of that particular episode. Norton’s objective account refutes some of the sinister accusations that the American administration and Israel aimed at Hezbollah, but soberly avoids the infatuation that some on the Left developed towards the party of God during that conflict.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Hezbollah acquired a mythological status throughout and after the end of last summer’s conflict. The 14 August UN-brokered ceasefire with Israel failing to recover its abducted soldiers, the incident that sparked the conflict in the first place, was seen by many in Lebanon and other Arab countries as a victory against Israel. The myth that Hezbollah had defeated Israel persisted regardless of the magnitude of the devastation that Lebanon suffered. As a Lebanese commentator pointed out, this was a victory that Lebanon could not afford, and certainly one that cannot be repeated at such a costly price.

Against this somewhat quixotic backdrop, and in contrast with the media’s hyperactivity and short attention span, Norton’s book comes as a timely and sensible contribution that builds a comprehensive account of Hezbollah and reminds us of the need for exhaustive research and analysis as opposed to the impulsive proclamations that followed that war. More importantly, Norton illustrates that it is indeed possible to know a subject thoroughly; he has been in touch with Hezbollah cadres for years, while maintaining the sense of detachment. In this way, Norton has succeeded in demystifying Hezbollah without underplaying its important position in Lebanese and regional politics.

Norton insightfully traces the beginnings of Hezbollah to the period in which the failures of the Left were becoming apparent. That was true of the Lebanese Left which had become mired in an increasingly sectarian conflict and was also true of the Left elsewhere which by the early 1980s was losing its sense of purpose and coherence elsewhere in the world. Norton quotes the Hezbollah programmatic document of 1985, an open letter addressed to the ‘Downtrodden in Lebanon and in the World’:

It is time to realize that all the Western ideas concerning man’s origin and nature cannot respond to man’s aspirations or rescue him from the darkness of mis-guidedness and ignorance. (p36)

Norton uses this highly polemical document as a benchmark by which to measure Hezbollah’s transformation from an ideologically consistent and ‘revolutionary’ party to a pragmatic organisation concerned with maintaining its position within the Lebanese political structure and whatever role its regional ‘sponsors’ allowed it. The main sponsor was of course Iran, whose own political transformations have influenced Hezbollah’s choices over the last two decades.

Hezbollah’s 1985 document echoed the sentiments of the Khomeini’s Islamic revolution in Iran, eager at the time to export its brand of the revolution to the rest of the world. But as Norton points out, Khomeini was succeeded by men with more modest aspirations, who were more concerned with rebuilding their own country than embarking on revolutionary adventures elsewhere in the world. Hezbollah, relying as it was on direct support from Iran, has ever since been attuned to these shifts in revolutionary appetite in Tehran.

In parallel, Hezbollah’s rise in the mid 1980s coincided with the ascendancy of Syria and its control over Lebanon, culminating in its invasion of the last areas outside its control in 1990, which began a decade and half of Syrian domination of political life in Lebanon – supported by a large military presence in the country. More out of necessity than out of conviction, Hezbollah developed strong ties with the Syrian regime, which allowed it to continue its military action against Israel in the south of Lebanon while strengthening its political presence in the Shi’i dominated areas across the country.

By the early 1990s, this relationship resulted in Hezbollah being granted a ‘monopoly’ by Syria on military resistance against Israel, a situation that was achieved by Syrian pressure on the other Lebanese groups involved in this resistance, and Hezbollah’s brutal pursuit of any fighters from these groups who managed to come close to the Israeli occupied areas. Not for the first time, members of the various leftist factions found themselves being persecuted by Hezbollah and prevented from carrying operations against Israeli soldiers. As Norton describes:

Hezbollah proved to be especially intolerant of the Communist Party. Dozens, if not hundreds, of party members were killed in a brutal, bloody campaign of suppression and assassination in 1984 and 1985. (p37)

Norton sees Hezbollah’s regional alliances and the particular circumstances in which they developed as contributing to the way that the party redefined itself throughout the 1990s. Crucially, this came at the expense of its adherence to its ideological programme as described in the 1985 document. Exporting the Islamic revolution was not a priority for Iran anymore, and Syria’s framing of the terms of resistance against Israel was part of its negotiation strategy with both Israel and the United States. With that, the explicit aim of ‘liberating all of Palestine’ remained as a purely rhetorical Hezbollah notion; in fact it had limited itself through a series of UN backed agreements to carrying resistance operations against Israeli soldiers only within occupied Lebanese territories.

By 1998, Hezbollah leadership would see no problem in declaring that

the open letter belonged to a certain historical moment that had passed… Still, the bald fact is that the 1985 program has not been explicitly replaced. The result is that sceptics and opponents of the party are left with a picture of ambivalence and, perhaps, dissimulation, which have only been sharpened by Hezbollah’s behaviour in the early twenty-first century. (p46)

What Norton is drawing our attention to is that by shedding its broader ideological aims and entering into compromising alliances, Hezbollah has prescribed clear political limits for itself. This means that it has now been subsumed by the Lebanese political structure or ‘formula’, the constant tug of war between the different confessional groups and the jostling for seats around the tables of powers. Regardless of how abrasive this position may appear to outsiders, there is nothing unusual about it. Since the formation of modern Lebanon in the 1920s, politics there has been characterised by periodic explosions of violence whenever this or that group tries to claim a better position for itself.

Yet, Norton is careful not to accept this as a natural limitation to Lebanese politics, even if Hezbollah itself has done so. He points out the inaccuracy of such conclusive proclamations:

Lebanon is a complex country that observers all too quickly try to reduce to Christian-Muslim or sectarian labels, as though Lebanese fit into neat cultural boxes. Indeed, even officials who should know better are sometimes seduced by this sort of confessional typecasting, as though people’s behaviour is predetermined by a cultural nugget that is magically transmitted from one generation to the next. This is lazy thinking. If confession did determine behaviour, the idea of a Lebanese nationality would be an illusion, civil war would be the norm, not the aberration, and Lebanon would be divided into a messy collection of emirates and enclaves. (p163)

Norton’s optimism and challenge to determinism is admirable, a way of thinking that is lost on many Lebanese sometimes. It might be more difficult today to share that optimism, however, at a time when the politics of identity have come to take central stage and multicultural models prevail. Norton carefully records how Hezbollah has come to accept the limitations of the politics of identity, and to celebrate them, discarding in the process any threat it might have paused to the Lebanese ‘system’ for which it once had so much disdain. What is ironic is that many Lebanese communists who dreamt of a different type of politics and believed in their ability to determine their own future ended up either as victims of Hezbollah’s rise to power, or are now cheering it on, having returned to the fold of their clan.

Norton covers several other aspects of Hezbollah’s history and the way it has become a ‘janus-faced’ organisation, which I will leave for the curious reader to discover, but suffice to say that he does so incisively without fawning over Hezbollah as Chomsky and other western ‘Leftists’ have been doing recently. It is obvious that Norton has a lot of respect for many in the party, particularly when it comes to their organisation skills, but he does not let that blind him to the fact that their political ideals are not a match to their discipline and organisation. Others should take note of that.

Karl Sharro 2007

First published at Culture Wars: http://www.culturewars.org.uk/2007-08/norton.htm