What is Hizbullah?
Western and Israeli pundits keep comparing Hizbullah to al-Qaeda. It is a huge conceptual error. There is a crucial difference between an international terrorist network like al-Qaeda, which can be disrupted by good old policing techniques (such as inserting an agent in the Western Union office in Karachi), and a sub-nationalist movement.
Al-Qaeda is some 5,000 multinational volunteers organized in tiny cells.
Hizbullah is a mass expression of subnationalism that has the loyalty of some 1.3 million highly connected and politically mobilized peasants and slum dwellers. Over a relatively compact area.
I take sub-nationalism as a concept from Anthony D. Smith. It would be most familiar to Western readers under the rubric of the Irish Catholics of North Ireland, or even the Scots of the UK. Subnationalism, like the larger, over-arching nationalism, is a mass movement.
Thus, a very large number of the Pushtuns in Afghanistan are sub-nationalists with a commitment to Pushtun dominance. They deeply resent the victory of the Northern Alliance (i.e. Tajiks, Hazara Shiites, and Uzbeks) in 2001-2002. A lot of what our press calls resurgent “Taliban” activity is just Pushtun irredentism. There are approximately 14 million Pushtuns in Afghanistan and another 14 million or so in Pakistan.
The Shiites of southern Lebanon are compact enough to likewise offer a subnationalism. Note that this is a new phenomenon. The Shiite masses were not socially and politically mobilized until at least the 1970s, and probably it is more accurate to say the 1980s. (“Social mobilization” refers to literacy, access to media, urbanization, industrialization and so forth; isolated small villages have difficulty organizing big movements.)
The main factor in causing these peasant sharecroppers to become politically aware and mobilized was the Arab Israeli conflict. The Israelis stole some of their land in 1948 and expelled 100,000 Palestinians north into south Lebanon, where they competed for resources with local Lebanese Shiites. In the late 1960s and early 1970s the Palestinians became politically and militarily organized by the PLO. The Shiites’ conflict with the PLO in the southern camps in the 1970s was probably a key beginning, but from 1982 it was primarily their conflict with the Israeli Occupation army that spurred them on.
Processes of integration into the world market and increased mechanization of south Lebanon agriculture, as well as urbanization (Tyre, south Beirut) provided a *social* mobilization substrate that enabled but did not cause their *political mobilization* (see A. Richard Norton’s book on early AMAL). The rise of a Shiite wealthy class, especially as a result of commerce with the Oil Gulf, added to the community’s organizational capacity and resources. Still, the Shiites of south Lebanon are generally poor and a lot of them are still rural.
The Sunni Arabs of central, west and north Iraq are now also creating a subnationalism and organizing extensive paramilitary cells with highly significant asymmetrical warfare capabilities. The entire might of the formidable US military machine has made no headway against these 5 million persons.
Where subnationalisms are organized by party-militias willing to use carbombings and other asymmetrical forms of warfare, they are extremely difficult, if not impossible to defeat militarily. It would take a World War II style crushing military defeat of these populations, with the willingness of the conqueror to suffer tens of thousands dead in troop casualties. Israel is not even in a position to risk such a thing, given its small population.
Hizbullah is not like al-Qaeda in any way, sociologically speaking, and making such an analogy is a sure way for a general or politician to trick himself into entering the fires of hell.
What the Israelis set out to do, if they intended to “destroy” or even substantially attrite Hizbullah, was completely impractical. What they have done is to convince even Lebanese formerly on the fence about the issue that Hizbullah’s leaders were correct in predicting that Lebanon would again be attacked in the most brutal and horrible way by the Israelis and that an even more powerful deterrent is needed. I.e more silkworms, not fewer. . The days when the Israelis could lord it over disconnected unmobilized Arab peasant villagers with their high tech army are coming to a close. The Arabs are still very weak, but are throwing up powerful asymmetrical challenges (e.g. party-militias with silkworm missiles!). Israeli alarm about the new connectedness of their foe explains the orgy of destruction aimed at bridges, roads, television and radio facilities and internet servers. But it is too late to disconnect the south Lebanese, who can easily and quickly rebuild all those connectors.
One hope the Israeli hawks appear to entertain is that they can permanently depopulate strips Lebanon south of the Litani river. Since most Shiites vote Hizbullah and offer political support and cover to it, fewer people means fewer assets for the party-militia. This project would require the total destruction of large numbers of villages and the permanent displacement of their inhabitants north to Beirut.
That is why the massacre at Qana occurred. The Israelis had bombed Qana 80 times. They were destroying all of its buildings. Therefore, of course, they destroyed the building where dozens of children and families were hiding. This tactic is both collective punishment and ethnic cleansing all at once. It is not only a matter, as the Israelis claim, of hitting Hizbullah rocket launchers. They are destroying all of the buildings.
The Israeli demographic project of thinning out the population of the far south of Lebanon will fail. They do not control that territory, and cannot stop people from coming back and rebuilding. The Israelis have an Orientalist myth that the Arabs are Bedouin and not attached to their ancestral villages. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon still group their neighborhoods around their camps in accordance with the geography of their former villages. The Lebanese Shiites will mostly come back.
The Israelis cannot win this struggle against a sophisticated, highly organized and well armed subnationalism.
The only practical thing to do when you can’t easily beat people into submission is to find a compromise with them that both sides can live with. It will be a hard lesson for both the Lebanese Shiites and the Israelis. But they will learn it or will go on living with a lot of death and destruction.