- Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel
Nicholas Blanford has spent decades covering Lebanese affairs for the Lebanese Daily Star and other media outlets, and this book boosts his reputation as a skilled reporter of Lebanese affairs and of Hizbullah in particular. While there are numerous other books on Hizbullah, Blanford gained access to both Hizbullah areas and members that few can match. He demonstrates a clear understanding of the origins and Shi‘a roots of Hizbullah, nesting it in the lore of the minority Muslim faith, the historical fates of Lebanon’s own Shi‘a, and the legacy of Israeli policy.
Blanford’s story opens with the historical marginalization of Lebanese Shi‘a, the violent Israeli incursions into Lebanon, and the perceived weakness of Amal, the “other” Shi‘a organization, to counter increasingly violent Israeli military operations in Lebanon. Blanford emphasizes the pivotal role of Imad Mughniyah, both in pushing Hizbullah towards armed resistance and in eliciting Iranian support, making him more significant in Hizbullah’s evolution than Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, who helped shape Hezbollah’s religious identity. Blanford also emphasizes the part that Israeli violence played in the legitimization of Hizbullah in the 1982 invasion, because Israel’s escalating “iron fist” tactics against Lebanese Shi‘a helped Hizbullah win admiration and support. By the mid-1980s, Hizbullah suicide bombings and involvement in Shi‘a social and economic programs increased. Israeli actions against Hizbullah also escalated, with Israeli air units assassinating Sayyid Abbas Mussawi, one of Hizbullah’s key leaders, in February 1992. Hizbullah retaliated against the Israeli Embassy in Argentina a month later, dramatically demonstrating its global reach. Mussawi’s death paved the way for Hassan Nasrallah to take the reins. Nasrallah acceded to Iranian pressure (resisted by other Hizbullah leaders) to participate in Lebanese elections: “The [End Page 383] supreme leader (Ayatollah Khamenei) had spoken, and for Hezbollah the matter was settled” (p. 101).
Blanford also concentrates on Hizbullah’s mobilization of Shi‘a religious foundations in an effort to understand its ability to recruit, gather support, and require sacrifice from both its members and the broader Shi‘a communities. For Blanford, the narrative of Shi‘a martyr Imam Husayn ibn ‘Ali at Karbala in 680 and the pivotal role of the Hidden Imam (“offensive jihad” is impermissible until he returns, for example), provides an advantage over Israel, which was technically more proficient, but lacked Hizbullah’s willingness to pay an extraordinary price against that technology. This is a disputable point. Israel has its own historical narrative (i.e., the Holocaust and other Jewish historical tragedies). Hizbullah’s real advantage may be that it is fighting on its own terrain. It is also true that both sides have backed towards the conference table (though not with each other) when the number of casualties exceeded unacceptable levels.
Lebanon’s tragedy gained global attention during the April 1996 Israeli “Grapes of Wrath” military incursion into Lebanon, when Israeli artillery fire killed over 100 civilians and UN peacekeepers at Qana. Blanford, who witnessed the event, spares no detail in describing the resulting carnage. Yet he tries to balance the accounts, refuting Israeli claims of “an accident” while noting that Hizbullah had fired at Israeli targets from the area where the tragedy occurred. The consequences of Qana included Israeli war fatigue, which Hizbullah skillfully exploited by a slow but bloody campaign against Israeli forces in Lebanon and especially against the Israeli-allied “South Lebanon Army.” Hizbullah forces also improved their technological capacity, not only devising more lethal means to kill, but swiftly moving to show media depictions of Israeli-caused death and destruction on Hizbullah’s Al-Manar television. And while Israel paid a growing price for its Lebanese occupation, so did the Lebanese. Blanford aptly and vividly describes the predicament of local Lebanese caught in the vice of brutal war. Tragically, for all sides, peace efforts persistently failed (Blanford mostly blames then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak for the collapse). Both Hizbullah and Israel escalated across the strategic...