In “Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel,’’ author Nicholas Blanford provides a meticulous yet largely one-dimensional examination of the on-again, off-again confrontation between Lebanon and Israel, a bloody encounter that has over the years detached itself from the larger Arab-Israeli conflict and assumed a dynamic all its own. Blanford’s book is essentially a military history of the wars between the militant Islamic group Hezbollah and Israel, the most recent of which occurred in 2006.
Blanford, author of “Killing Mr. Lebanon,’’ an account of the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, is a Briton who has lived in Lebanon since the mid-1990s, reporting first for the local Daily Star and later for the Christian Science Monitor, the Times (of London), and Time magazine. His access to Hezbollah is unparalleled among Western journalists. But much of “Warriors of God’’ reads like a book-length report by Jane’s Defence Weekly (another publication to which Blanford contributes articles), with detailed descriptions of military strategy and the various frighteningly lethal weapons in Hezbollah and Israel’s arsenals. Political analysis generally receives short shrift, except for the final chapter, and there is little discussion of the ideology and psychology of Hezbollah fighters and supporters.
Hezbollah, which means “Party of God’’ in Arabic, was created by Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Lebanese Shi’ites in 1982, the same year Israel invaded Lebanon. In 2000, Israel withdrew from the country. Over the years, Hezbollah has grown into a formidable and influential political and military force.
For a while, it looked as if the Israeli withdrawal would occur within the framework of a peace agreement between Israel and Syria, which controlled Lebanon at the time. That did not happen. Blanford, whose successful forays into political analysis leave one wondering why they are so few, views this as a missed opportunity. “If a peace deal had been concluded in the spring of 2000,’’ he observes almost wistfully, “Israel, Lebanon, and Syria probably would have enjoyed calm and stability along their respective borders for the past decade. Lebanon would have followed Syria’s lead and signed a deal with Israel, Hezbollah would have been disarmed under Syrian fiat, and quiet would have prevailed along Israel’s northern border.’’
When it became clear that there would be no deal, Hezbollah doubtless breathed a sigh of relief. But the party still had a major problem. As Blanford puts it, “Hezbollah faced the quandary of justifying the resistance when there was nothing left to justifiably resist.’’ Political chicanery, however, was the answer; Hezbollah seized upon a plot of land called the Shebaa Farms, which Lebanon claims, but the United Nations considers Syrian territory, as its excuse not to disarm.
More excuses followed, including the issue of Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails. They were eventually released in an exchange following the 2006 war. But Hezbollah continues to cite the threat of Israeli invasions as a reason to retain its arms and nurture a “culture of resistance.’’
Where does this leave Lebanon? Spanish-American philosopher and man-of-letters George Santayana defined fanaticism as “redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.’’ Those convinced that the reason behind the emergence of Hezbollah in 1982 was its members’ desire to fight Israel’s occupation of Lebanon might consider Santayana’s aphorism to be an accurate description of the party today. To others who ascribe greater importance to Hezbollah’s stated commitment to the liberation of Jerusalem, the party would be viewed as a group of ideological extremists simply opposed to Israel’s existence.
Either way, further conflict appears likely. Indeed, Blanford seems to think that another war is inevitable. Nevertheless, there remain two factors restraining Hezbollah from pursuit of its jingoistic dream: The knowledge that Israel’s response to any provocation would be devastating, and the fear that the party’s rivals on the Lebanese political scene would seize any opportunity to weaken its domestic position.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf, a writer and book critic in Beirut, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.