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A Privilege to Die

Twenty-eight years after its inception, why is Hezbollah the Middle East’s most formidable extra-state actor?

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The linchpin in this equation – at least for the time being – would appear to be Hassan Nasrallah, who has led Hezbollah since 1992. It isn’t just the man’s charisma, sense of humor, or the fact that his son died fighting the Israeli occupation that draws people to him, but his flexibility regarding social mores. For example, when he took power, Nasrallah wisely pulled back the reins on Hezbollah’s unpopular public enforcement of Islamic morality. “Like a smart CEO determined to regain market share,” explains Cambanis of Nasrallah, “he scaled back Hezbollah’s activities to focus on its most popular product: armed resistance.”

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In 2006, Hezbollah launched an unprovoked attack on Israel, which retaliated massively. This war and its aftermath set the stage for the author’s searching probe into the hearts and minds of Hezbollah’s rank and file. In prose that is often eloquent yet earthy, indicative of scholarly erudition as well as a storyteller’s flair for capturing the complexities of human psychology, Cambanis describes the seemingly contradictory impulses he discovers. Consider the case of 20-something Aya Haidar, who longs for martyrdom – preferably in the throes of the soon-to-return Mahdi’s (Messiah’s) war against infidels – but simultaneously wants to marry the man she loves and start a family. Observes Cambanis: “She was a Mahdist, a Hezbollah cadre, a schoolteacher fresh out of college, and a young girl in love, rolled into one bristling ball of energy.”

The only major weakness in this otherwise excellent book is the alarmist tone that creeps into the final two chapters. Because he underestimates Shiite dissatisfaction with Hezbollah’s adventurism in July 2006 – a phenomenon that won’t be so muted in the event of another Hezbollah-provoked conflict with Israel – and Sunni fury following Hezbollah’s brief but violent takeover of western Beirut in May 2008, Cambanis fails to gauge the size of the domestic chink in the party’s armor. He predicts that Hezbollah will grow stronger with time, and that, because “without fighting it loses its identity,” the party will continue launching attacks against its southern neighbor. Cambanis even goes so far as to imply that Hezbollah poses an existential threat to Israel.

In reality, Hezbollah probably has only one war left in it, if not simply because any future Israeli military campaign against the party, whether offensive or defensive, would be devastating. Hezbollah might survive such an outcome and, with characteristic bluster, even claim victory. But having incurred extensive human and material losses, trying to fend off Lebanese political opponents determined to capitalize on its vulnerability, and scrambling to contain frustration among its Shiite support base, the much-vaunted Party of God would most likely emerge from such a crucible an eviscerated and spent force.

Rayyan al-Shawaf is a writer and freelance reviewer based in Beirut, Lebanon.

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