If you have trouble keeping Hezbollah (Lebanon) and Hamas (Gaza Strip) straight and are not sure where Lebanon fits into the fractious geopolitics of the Middle East, Nicholas Blanford can lead you through the minefields – ideological, ethnic, and religious – to the Promised Land. He has lived in, and reported on Lebanon for various media, including this newspaper, for one third of his life, since 1994.
As the author thoroughly documents in Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel, the militant group has become the most powerful non-state army in the world, and the dominant political and military force within a deeply divided Lebanon. It reached this point thanks to heavy subsidies from Syria and Iran. In a previous book, Blanford wrote about the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, whose murder has been linked to four members of Hezbollah – presumably acting on behalf of Syria.
For Damascus, Hezbollah is a bargaining chip in its efforts to get the Golan Heights back from Israel, while Tehran views the group, in part, as a deterrent against a possible Israeli or American attack on its nuclear facilities. If Iran is attacked, the rockets will fly from Lebanon into Israel and the Lebanese people again will be caught in the ensuing crossfire. While it bills itself as the great defender of Lebanon (even after Israeli forces withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000), Hezbollah has a challenge in serving so many masters patriotically.
Blanford has covered three major battles between Hezbollah and Israel – in 1996, 2000 and 2006 – and countless raids and skirmishes. He has watched the weapons, tactics, and strategies evolve, if that is the right word for an ever more deadly progression. He documents this in great, sometimes numbing detail: the reader will learn about many marvelous new weapons systems, such as the SA-24 Grinch missile, an alleged improvement on the SA-18 Grouse.
Mostly, however, Blanford’s narrative is well-paced and gripping. He has dodged bullets and rockets, viewed the gruesome result for those who weren’t so lucky, been interrogated and jailed, and sipped tea with men responsible for hundreds of merciless killings. He has done all of this to report on a conflict that exhibits no hope of a peaceful resolution. The cessation of hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel is as likely as the demise of hurricanes.
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.
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.