On a warm afternoon in October, the streets of the southern Lebanese town of Aalma El Chaeb were deserted. The petrol station, the grocer, the bakeries and the church had all been shut down. In the middle of town, three grey herons sifted through weeks-old bags of rubbish, oblivious to the monotonous whine of an Israeli drone flying somewhere overhead. On a ridge opposite, outside the kibbutz of Hanita, stood a fortified Israeli military post, furnished with communication towers and concrete turrets, and home to an IDF unit of tanks and armoured vehicles. A few days before, a unit of Hizbullah fighters, armed with Russian-made Kornet anti-tank guided missiles, had hidden in the undergrowth to observe the Hanita post. ‘Ya Fatimat al-Zahra,’ one of the Hizbullah fighters shouted, as he fired a missile. It left a faint trail of smoke before hitting and destroying a Merkava tank. Another missile followed, and a second tank went up in flames. In a statement released by Hizbullah to accompany the video of the attack, the organisation claimed that ‘several enemy soldiers were killed and injured.’
In the following days, there were more attacks on Hanita, using small arms, anti-tank missiles and rockets. Two Palestinian fighters were killed when they tried to cut through the perimeter fence and infiltrate the base. Israel retaliated by shelling the outskirts of Aalma El Chaeb, starting a fire in the fields and olive groves that reached the edge of the town. Hizbullah had started attacking Israeli military positions on 8 October, the day after Hamas militants crossed the Israeli border, killing 1200 people and taking 250 hostage. It declared that the Mujahideen of the Islamic Resistance – as Hizbullah refers to itself – was conducting military operations ‘in support of our steadfast Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip as well as their valiant and honourable resistance’. Hizbullah fields a larger and more experienced fighting force than Hamas, and Israel has every reason to be wary of it.
The attacks and counterattacks were initially limited in scope. But as the war in Gaza intensified, Hizbullah started raising the tempo, expanding the range of targets to include barracks and other military positions, but still limiting its action to areas along the frontier – to the displeasure of some in the region. Israel stepped up its retaliation too, sending in its air force and armed drones to kill scores of Hizbullah fighters along with a few civilians, leading Hizbullah to use heavy calibre rockets and deploy kamikaze drones for the first time. After nearly two decades of relative calm along the Lebanese-Israeli border, the Israeli defence minister is threatening to do to Beirut what he is doing to Gaza. Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah’s leader, has warned Israel that if it attacks Beirut again Hizbullah will start bombing Tel Aviv and beyond. It’s clear that a new war wouldn’t be limited to Lebanon, but could well involve the whole region, if the Iran-aligned ‘axis of resistance’ – Hizbullah, Hamas, the Syrian Arab Republic and other groups – invokes the doctrine of the ‘unity of the battlefields’. Yemen’s Houthis and pro-Iran factions in Iraq are already attacking US and Israeli bases.
The Israel-Lebanon frontier is called the Blue Line. Despite being one of the most heavily fortified inter-state boundaries in the world, it is not a border under international law but a demarcated ‘line of withdrawal’, established by UNIFIL – the UN Interim Force in Lebanon – to confirm the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon in 2000. (‘Without prejudice to future border agreements between the UN member states concerned,’ as UNIFIL put it.) It stretches for nearly 120 kilometres, from the shores of the Mediterranean in the west, through the hills of Jabal Amil and then north-east to meet the Syrian border above the occupied Golan Heights, next to what is called the Galilee Finger of Israeli territory. Israel has constructed a high-tech security barrier along the Blue Line, connecting bases like the one at Hanita to others along the frontier. It stands at a height of nine metres, and consists of concrete slabs topped with a steel fence. Sprouting from the walls at regular intervals are slanted metal structures carrying surveillance and thermal cameras, along with other sensors and listening equipment, allowing Israel to keep the Lebanese side under constant watch.
I drove the length of the line in both directions. The wall snakes up and around the hills, sometimes hidden behind trees or ridges, at other times hugging the road, towering over anyone driving along. On the Lebanese side, artists have painted murals: one in a Banksy style shows a man firing a pistol through a window with the golden dome of al-Aqsa Mosque beyond; there are also stencilled portraits of martyrs, among them the Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani, killed by a US drone four years ago. Along the way, I saw fighters in military jeeps or off-road motorbikes. As I approached Aalma El Chaeb, columns of white smoke rose from another Israeli strike, and later, in Dhayra, I could hear the woosh-woosh of an outgoing salvo of rockets. At night, my small hotel in Naqoura shook when an Israeli airstrike targeted a nearby position.
The inhabitants of Aalma El Chaeb and other frontier towns weren’t prepared to wait to see which way the war would turn – whether it would be short-lived or expand across the region. On 9 October, the day after Hizbullah fired its first rocket, almost everyone left town – the sixth time they had done so since 1978. But a handful of people were still around, including two nuns I met in a side street. They had decided to set off that afternoon in their old Toyota, but the priest they were with was inclined to stay. During the 2006 war, he told me, Israeli strikes had destroyed 130 houses – people didn’t want to go through that again. ‘We don’t know what’s going to happen,’ he said. ‘No one came and told us what to do. We don’t know if we should stay or leave, parents don’t know what to do with the children. It’s like the last war, and we are caught in the middle. They – Hizbullah, the Lebanese government, the army – haven’t built a single shelter here.’ In another town, further along the road, the only remaining residents were an old woman and her husband. She sat on a plastic chair in the concrete porch of her house and said that she couldn’t walk anymore. ‘I drag myself around on this chair if I want to move.’ Beside her was a small stove, which she used to bake flatbread. ‘Where do we go?’ she asked. ‘Our children can hardly feed their families; we will stay here and die if Allah wills it.’
The hills of southern Lebanon have seen more wars between Israel and Arabs than anywhere else in the Middle East, with the exception of Gaza. Even before Israel’s first invasion, in 1978, its targeting of the PLO – which had made Lebanon its permanent base after its expulsion from Jordan – led to a high number of casualties among the local Shia population. The second invasion, in 1982, was followed by eighteen years of Israeli occupation, carried out with the help of the Southern Lebanese Army, a largely Maronite Christian militia. Israel withdrew its troops in 2000, after a long insurgency by Hizbullah, but only after conducting two brutal bombing campaigns, in 1993 and 1996. Then came the 2006 war, which is estimated to have displaced a million Lebanese.
The Jabal Amil hills have been dominated by Shia Lebanese for centuries. Many settled there after being driven out of the coastal cities by the Mamluks in the 13th and 14th centuries after the collapse of the Crusader kingdoms. The region’s rugged terrain and infertile soil ensured that it remained a forgotten part of the Damascus and Beirut provinces of the Ottoman Empire. And yet Jabal Amil was at one point a leading centre of Shia learning, rivalling Najaf and Karbala in modern-day Iraq. Its influence reached its height in the 16th century, when the Safavids invited Arab scholars, especially those of Jabal Amil, to help convert Iran to Shiism, which only increased the suspicions of the region’s Ottoman rulers.
A collective Shia identity was strengthened after the end of the First World War, when French colonial administrators introduced separate religious courts. When Lebanon gained independence in 1943, its sectarian political system was enshrined in the National Pact, signed by Shia, Sunni and Maronite leaders. Officially, Lebanon became a multiconfessional state. But in practice it was controlled by a Maronite-Sunni elite, with the Shia marginalised and dominated thanks to a tradition of clientelism and patronage that put power in the hands of a few regional bosses. The harsh living conditions in Jabal Amil forced many of its inhabitants to migrate to West Africa, the US and the wealthy Arab principalities of the Gulf. But most poor migrants settled in shanty towns in Beirut’s southern and eastern suburbs. Displacement, economic hardship and political marginalisation weakened traditionalist leaders and the established clergy. Poor, urban young Shia – living in what became known as the ‘belt of misery’ around Beirut – channelled their militancy through leftist activism, rebelling against the oppressive and corrupt Lebanese state. Then a charismatic Iranian cleric of Lebanese origin, Musa al-Sadr, arrived in the southern city of Tyre after a stint in Najaf. He started mobilising the community and galvanising their sense of displacement, and in 1974 set up Lebanon’s first political Shia organisation, Harakat al-Mahrumin (the Movement of the Dispossessed).
For the majority of their history, Shia clergy took a quietist, apolitical approach, condemning any interference in state matters before the coming of the Twelfth Imam at the end of times. But as the 20th century went on, revivalist Islamic political movements grew in influence, partly as a reaction to the spread of secular, pan-Arab, nationalist and communist parties, and to the failure of those parties to respond to the challenges posed by the West and the conflict with Israel. The Islamic Dawa party, which had its roots in the Shia seminaries of Najaf, faced off against Iraq’s Ba’athists in the early 1970s and recruited widely, just as Ayatollah Khomeini was formulating his theories of Islamic governance. Another Iranian revolutionary, Mostafa Chamran, made his way to Lebanon to join forces with al-Sadr, helping to develop the movement’s military wing, Amal, which fought to defend Shia interests during the Lebanese Civil War, which broke out in 1975.
By the time Israel launched its second invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Khomeini had consolidated his hold on power in Iran, and his forces were able to take an active role in exporting the revolution. Around 1500 Revolutionary Guards were flown to Damascus and proceeded overland to the Beqaa Valley, then under Syrian control. They took over a Lebanese army military base and began training Shia militants to resist the Israeli occupation. In August that year, Khomeini summoned a group of Lebanese clerics and urged them to return home to join the mobilisation effort. Later, he even suggested a name for the movement that was taking shape: Hizbullah, or the Party of God.
At first, Hizbullah was an umbrella for different Shia factions. Some of its members had left Amal after 1978, when al-Sadr disappeared during a trip to Libya, presumably killed on Gaddafi’s orders. The new leader, a lawyer called Nabih Berri, had begun steering the organisation towards a more secular position that radical militants found unacceptable. Others had fought with Palestinian factions, or were new recruits inspired by the example of Khomeini himself. Hizbullah ‘had two progenitors’, David Hirst wrote in his seminal book on Lebanon, Beware of Small States (2010). ‘If Iran was one – with Syria, so to speak, as midwife – Israel was unquestionably the other. Iran furnished the model and the means, Syria the facilities, Israel – with its invasion – the provocation, the anger, the turmoil, or, as Israel’s like-minded American friends, the neoconservatives, might have put it, the “constructive chaos” out of which new orders grow.’
‘Had the enemy not taken this step,’ Hassan Nasrallah said many years later, ‘I don’t know whether something called Hizbullah would have been born.’ It didn’t officially announce its existence until 1985, when it published an ‘Open Letter to the Oppressed in Lebanon and the World’. It adopted Khomeini’s doctrine of Wilayat al-Faqih, in which the Supreme Leader is considered to be the representative of the hidden Twelfth Imam. It called for the unity of the Islamic ummah, an Islamic government in Lebanon, and jihad against Israel and its allies in the West.
Many believe that Hizbullah was behind a string of suicide attacks in Beirut in 1983, culminating in the simultaneous bombing of the US Marine Corps barracks and a contingent of French paratroopers, which killed 241 American and 58 French military personnel. The targets were members of the Multinational Force in Lebanon, which had been deployed to ensure the PLO left Lebanon under the terms of a US-brokered agreement. A little-known organisation called Islamic Jihad (not the later Palestinian organisation of the same name) claimed responsibility for the attacks. Hizbullah has consistently denied any connection to the group.
By the 1990s, after a tussle for primacy with Amal that resulted in fighting in a number of towns, Hizbullah had established itself as the de facto representative of the Shia in southern Lebanon. In 1991, when the Syrians, by then hegemonic in the region, tried to restore order in the country, which was in chaos after the civil war, Hizbullah was the only organisation allowed to keep its weapons, so that it might continue its resistance against the Israelis. It was granted full control of the theatre of operations in the south. Attacks on Israel’s occupation forces and their allies increased year by year. Hizbullah fighters laid sophisticated ambushes and planted IEDs in the shape of rocks by roadsides. Twice Israel launched massive retaliatory operations, in 1993 and 1996, pounding the hills of the south with artillery shells and dropping bombs on towns. They also committed massacres, the most notorious being the bombing of a UNIFIL base in Qana where 800 civilians had taken shelter – 106 of them were killed. During these campaigns, the US gave Israel its full support, asserting Israel’s right to respond to Hizbullah’s attacks. Eventually, on both occasions, the unsustainable casualties, coupled with internal pressure, forced Israel to withdraw, leaving the majority of its local collaborators behind.
On 25 May 2000, tens of thousands of Lebanese – Christians, Druze and Sunnis as well as Shia – poured into the south in a day of celebration, many returning to their villages for the first time since the occupation began. Israel had never before abandoned occupied land in response to military pressure from an Arab force. Hizbullah’s fighting strength at the time didn’t exceed 1500 men, around 500 of whom were full-time professionals: it was an unprecedented victory. Hizbullah rejected international calls for it to disarm, insisting that it would continue its resistance ‘as long as Israel threatens Lebanon every day with air strikes, attacks and punishment’, and as long as there were still Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails. As Hirst notes, it was hardly realistic to expect Hizbullah, at its moment of its triumph, to throw away the military machine that had achieved it. But it had also become a significant political movement: in 1992, with religious sanction from Ali Khameini, Hizbullah stood in parliamentary elections, winning more seats than any other party. Its vote share increased in every election after that. It was following two tracks: armed resistance in the south and pragmatic, legalist political engagement within the confines of the rotten political system that it had at one point vowed to overthrow.
From its earliest days, Hizbullah had maintained a network of social organisations to cater for the needs of its community, mirroring similar organisations in Iran. These provided healthcare, education and pensions for the injured and the families and children of the martyred, services the state failed to deliver, strengthening the bond between the party’s elite and the masses. Like other revivalist movements, Hizbullah constructed a historical narrative that posited a continuous tradition of successful resistance, stretching from the time of the Crusaders to the war of liberation from Israel in the south, to be followed inevitably by the liberation of Jerusalem. The traditional Shia rituals of the villages in the south were adapted to honour that proud history. Hizbullah, founded as a transnational Islamic militant movement, had to a large extent become a national Lebanese organisation. It maintained – and strengthened – its financial, ideological and religious connections to Iran, but the party was also very much a product of local conditions, deeply embedded in the society of southern Lebanon.
For Hizbullah’s detractors in the wider Middle East, the rhetoric of resistance was a ploy, allowing an armed militia to keep its weapons, build a state within a state and serve the interests of its Iranian masters – this narrative is pursued by sectarian media outlets, mainly in the Gulf. And for many young Lebanese, by sitting in parliament next to former warlords, Hizbullah had capitulated to a corrupt political system, entrenching the vested interests and factionalism that had broken Lebanon’s economy and destroyed any chance of social progress.
It was a difficult line to tread. The person who made it possible was Hassan Nasrallah, architect of the dual strategy of armed militancy and political participation. He became Hizbullah secretary-general in 1992, after Israel assassinated his predecessor and mentor, Abbas al-Musawi. Nasrallah was born in 1960 in the seafront slums of Karantina in north-eastern Beirut, where his father was a vegetable seller, and grew up amid the urban poor. After the Christian Phalangist militias overran Karantina in the first massacre of the civil war, the family returned to their ancestral village in the south. Like many young people of his generation, he was drawn to politics and joined Amal when he was a teenager. He went to school in Tyre before leaving for the holy city of Najaf in Iraq. There, with no means to support himself, he was taken in hand by Musawi, a fellow Lebanese. In his seminary, Nasrallah was influenced by the developing theories of Islamic governance and found himself drawn to Khomeini’s teaching. When Saddam began his crackdown on Shia political activists in the immediate aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, Nasrallah was among the thousand or so expelled from Iraq. He returned to Lebanon, and in 1982, the year of its formation, he became a member of Hizbullah.
Nasrallah is credited with shepherding Hizbullah through its military successes of the 1990s, culminating in the Israeli withdrawal. But he was also responsible for introducing the policy of infitah, Hizbullah’s opening up to Lebanese society. He moved the party on from its beginnings as a secretive, fiercely puritanical organisation, strict about religious and social observance, and dedicated to militant action – allegedly masterminding suicide bombings in Lebanon and Kuwait, kidnapping foreigners and, in 1985, carrying out the hijack of TWA Flight 847, from Athens to Rome. By the early 2000s, Hizbullah had managed the extraordinary trick of simultaneously being Lebanon’s most prominent political party and one of the world’s most effective guerrilla organisations. In 2009 Nasrallah issued a new manifesto for the party to replace the Open Letter of 1988. While retaining Hizbullah’s commitment to a unified ummah and pledging continued resistance to Israel and the US, the 2009 document no longer insisted that Lebanon should be an Islamic republic, and recognised the right of all denominations to participate in government on equal terms. While asserting the right of Palestinians to resist Israeli occupation by any means, Hizbullah now declared that its opposition wasn’t to the Jewish people but to Israel as a Zionist state. ‘People evolve,’ Nasrallah said in his speech announcing the manifesto. ‘The whole world changed over the past 24 years. Lebanon changed. The world order changed.’
The extent of that change became clear after 12 July 2006, when Hizbullah fighters breached the border fence and ambushed an Israeli army patrol, part of a reservist unit on the last day of its deployment. They killed three soldiers and kidnapped another two, who later died from their wounds. It took the Israeli unit nearly two hours to organise a search party, and when they entered Lebanon, they too were attacked. Hizbullah calculated that it was still playing within the rules; after all, it had conducted a similar operation a couple of years earlier. But what it hadn’t taken into account was the increased belligerence of the US administration, now that George W. Bush had publicly declared his aim to weaken Iran. This time, the Americans encouraged Israel to respond to Hizbullah’s action with all due force.
In four weeks of aerial and ground-level bombardment by the Israeli military, around a thousand Lebanese civilians were killed, a third of them children. Towns and villages were reduced to rubble; bridges, sewage treatment plants, port facilities and electric power plants were crippled or destroyed. This was an example of what the Israelis later called the Dahiya doctrine: the use of disproportionate force on civilian targets to cause such overwhelming damage that it serves as a lasting deterrent. The UN, EU, Russia, China and the countries of the Global South pressed for a ceasefire, but the Bush administration (and, of course, Tony Blair) vetoed it, giving Israel ample time to pursue its stated goal of destroying Hizbullah and killing its leaders.
But even full-scale bombardment failed to stop Hizbullah firing its rockets. The IDF had to send in troops, and they were shocked by the result. Small, mobile Hizbullah units – armed with anti-tank guided missiles, hiding in rocky ravines and taking cover under vegetation, using a network of underground tunnels and bunkers – destroyed a large number of Israeli tanks and armoured vehicles and killed scores of soldiers, members of elite units as well as reservists. Israel declared its operation a success, but it didn’t accomplish a fraction of its stated goals. It suffered heavy casualties, exposing severe vulnerabilities in its war machine, and enabling Hizbullah – which in order to win only had to survive – to boast that it had humiliated the mighty Israeli army.
This came at a cost. Beirut’s suburbs were turned into canyons of pulverised concrete; it took years and a lot of foreign – predominantly Iranian – aid to rebuild the shattered country. Nasrallah admitted that if he had known that the kidnapping of the two soldiers would have led to this war he wouldn’t have sanctioned it. It was a rare miscalculation from such a shrewd strategist. But the events of 2006 proved that Hizbullah was a potent military force, and that its expertise could prove valuable in other arenas. By 2012, its fighters – according to some assessments, as many as four thousand of them – were engaged in the Syrian conflict, driving the US, EU and Gulf-backed rebel forces out of areas under their control. Between 2013 and 2015 they were deployed in both Syria and Iraq as part of the fight against ISIS, training local militias and supporting government troops. They seem to have remained in Syria for some years.
Hizbullah’s interventions outside Lebanon played a significant role in transforming its military capabilities. In Syria and Iraq it learned how to fight like an army, on multiple fronts, with tanks and infantry, taking on ISIS guerrillas in alleyways and dense urban settings. Between one and two thousand Hizbullah fighters were killed, but the Syrian war in particular helped it to expand, adding to its highly trained core of seasoned fighters a great many recruits to its auxiliary brigades, the Saraya, which offer combat training to those of all denominations – including Sunnis, Christians and non-ideological Shia. Hizbullah is now capable of fielding tens of thousands of fighters, and has an estimated arsenal of 100,000 missiles (about three times the number thought to be available to Hamas). Thanks to the military connections it has made abroad, the concept of the ‘unity of the battlefields’ envisaged by Shia religious leaders doesn’t seem as far off as it once did. If a regional war did break out, targets could extend from Israel to American bases to the oil fields in the Gulf. Everyone in the Middle East and beyond would pay the price. The reality is that not all the members of the ‘axis of resistance’ are equal. Members of Hizbullah often speak with disdain about the Iraqi factions they fought alongside, accusing them of profit-seeking and corruption. They feel that these new alliances have tarnished the reputation of Hizbullah itself.
But Hizbullah’s updated military capabilities have unquestionably further secured its position in southern Lebanon. It seems unlikely that Israel would again risk bombing the region’s villages as it did in 2006; any future ground offensive would come at a high price. Over the last ten years the area has been transformed. Since the devastation of 2006 houses have been rebuilt, and towns and villages have spread into what were once fields and orchards. Homes have been built close to the border fence, in the knowledge that if Israel attacks, Hizbullah will retaliate. Lebanese families who have spent their lives overseas have returned to build their own villages. New stone villas with red-tiled roofs and swimming pools, along with the occasional neoclassical column, are a sign of the wealth that has been pouring back into the south. An old man I met told me that when he was a teenager the village elders warned him not to look in Israel’s direction or point at the fence because it would draw the attention of soldiers. No one dared go out at night. Now, like everyone else in the area, most of the time he acted as though the fence just outside his house didn’t exist.
But war is still close. One morning, I drove to the funeral of a young Hizbullah fighter who had been killed the day before. In the photograph on display he looked to have been in his early twenties, and he wore the insignia of a military unit that had fought alongside the Syrian army. The street leading to the cemetery was packed with people dressed in black and children in scouts’ uniforms. At the top of the hill, in the cemetery itself, some of the mourners were wearing green military uniforms and red berets. The man was being buried in the mausoleum for martyrs, a long rectangular room with three large arches. I looked at the graves. Some of these men had died fighting the Israelis in the 1980s and 1990s. Their pictures were old and faded. One was of a local commander who had been killed while leading an operation to capture two Israeli soldiers. (His men had completed the mission, and the remains of the two Israelis were exchanged a decade later for 45 Hizbullah prisoners.) Another photograph showed a middle-aged commander standing in the snow beside an old Soviet-made T-54 tank, probably somewhere in Syria. Outside, a group of young men gathered around a tall, bespectacled man with a long beard whom everyone called Khomeini. One of the men started crying and buried his face in Khomeini’s chest. Khomeini patted him gently on the head and told him to rejoice for his friend, who was now a martyr. A few of the men buried here had been killed in Hizbullah’s foreign wars. But most of them, and most of those who will be buried over the months to come, grew up and fought in the hills around this town. They knew everyone, and everyone knew them. This is a tight community that keeps its people close, until the moment when the party calls on them to go and fight.