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Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel

Journalist Nicholas Blanford's comprehensive account of the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel is well-paced and gripping.

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For all the shooting and shelling, it is often hard to tell the winners from the losers in the Middle East. When its forces summarily expelled Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization from Lebanon in 1982, there didn’t appear to be a downside for Israel. Its troops were actually welcomed by southern Lebanon’s Shiite Muslims, who had grown weary of the domineering, predominantly Sunni Muslim Palestinians. But the winners lingered too long, and the local Shias, already inspired by the Islamic revolution in Iran, would soon surpass the PLO as a force to be reckoned with. Their fledgling resistance fighters called themselves Hezbollah, or Warriors of God.

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Blanford’s command of his subject is impressive. He knows the land and its people, the leading characters and the bit players, their culture and history.  He can peek beyond the façade of the warriors, on both sides, to locate the humanity within.  Yet he has no illusions.  He waded into the places where the shrapnel was flying and hatred is nourished by carnage. For example, Blanford unstintingly examines what appeared to be a deliberate Israeli shelling of a United Nations base in 1996, after a handful Hezbollah fighters apparently took refuge in the compound, where as many as 100 huddled civilians would die.  The scene was horrific. “I later noticed that I had minced human flesh wedged into the rubber treads of my boots,” he writes.

For all of Lebanon’s headline-making violence, precious few Westerners are up to speed on this long-troubled nation, which is half the size of Connecticut and has a population of just over four million people. If Rafik Hariri’s name is vaguely familiar, it is most likely that Hezbollah leaders Imad Mughniyah and Hassan Nasrallah are not. And yet, like Serbia in World War I, Lebanon could provide the spark for a much wider conflagration.  Tellingly, the author doesn’t think it’s a matter of “if” the two sides will fight a more devastating war, but “when.”

Blanford reports on numerous instances of Lebanese civilians being killed by Israeli firepower, including cases when he clearly believes the deaths were avoidable.  An estimated 1,200 Lebanese residents died in the 2006 fighting alone – almost as many as the number of Hezbollah fighters who reportedly were killed in combat between 1982 and 2000.  His reporting, however, of the impact of Hezbollah rockets fired at civilian targets inside Israel is cursory.  If one such missile had managed to blow up 1,200 Jewish civilians, there no doubt would have been great rejoicing among the devout.

Perhaps the most telling passage in the book is a quote from a Hezbollah fighter, who Blanford interviewed this year: “I have two lives in parallel. I have my studies at university and my family, but I also have the life of jihad and preparations for the coming war. I consider my jihad duties as something joyful. You cannot understand the joy of jihad unless you are in Hezbollah. The atmosphere within Hezbollah is very spiritual. Jihad is a very pleasant state of mind.”

David Holahan is a freelance book reviewer in East Haddam, Conn.

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