Hassan Nasrallah and the Strategy of Steadfastness

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 19

When speaking about Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s political strategy, it is necessary to study the organization as a whole. According to Hezbollah’s leaders, the party was born as a resistance movement, not as a political party in the classic sense. Nasrallah emphasizes the collective nature of Hezbollah’s leadership and its decision-making process [1]. This explanation makes Hezbollah similar to the post-Tunis PLO, a non-monolithic organization with a non-elitist self-construction. Nasrallah has become the voice of an organization rather than just another za’im (political leader). This leadership method bolsters Hezbollah’s argument that it is more than just another Lebanese political party, and is instead a genuine resistance movement. Beginning as an alliance between Islamic Amal, al-Jihad al-Islami and Ummat Hezbollah, the party transformed itself into a much larger Islamist movement resisting Israeli incursions, surviving civil war and intra-sectarian strife (with the Amal Party) and providing developmental, educational and charitable assistance in the areas where the party operates. According to Hezbollah, this status means that it is not simply a militia, and therefore is not obligated to disarm as ordered by UN Resolution 1558.

In keeping with this history, Nasrallah welcomed all Lebanese who supported Hezbollah at its September 22 victory rally and characterized the movement as follows: “We are neither a disorganized and sophistic resistance, nor a resistance pulled to the ground that sees before it nothing but soil, nor a resistance of chaos. The pious, God-reliant, loving and knowledgeable resistance is also the conscious, wise, trained and equipped resistance that has plans. This is the secret of the victory we are today celebrating, brothers and sisters” (al-Manar TV, September 22). This explanation and his abilities of clear, understandable political and strategic analysis has positioned Nasrallah differently than Sayyid Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, whom many regard as Hezbollah’s spiritual inspiration and who promoted the Lebanonization of Hezbollah [2]. Alongside some friction between more radical or accomodationist party elements, Fadlallah wanted Hezbollah to create local interests for itself. Since these early years, the organization pursued these interests and achieved a Lebanese identity. Nasrallah’s political statements that Hezbollah defends Lebanon are complemented by Fadlallah’s fatwa that the believer is obliged to come to the defense of others who are not “capable of warding off danger to themselves or their property,” or who are “not aware of the danger,” even if the consequence is loss of life [3].

Since the latest conflict with Israel, Nasrallah is now arguably the most popular man in the Arab Muslim world (al-Ahram, July 20-26; CNSNews.com, July 31). Songs are dedicated to him and babies are named for his Truthful Promise summer campaign. Certain Lebanese, Americans and Israelis hope to diminish his stature, although these Lebanese still criticize Israel’s military response. These critics include Samir Geagea and the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition. Washington likens Hezbollah to the “irregular challenge” that it faces in Iraq and some Israelis are still claiming their own victory in the latest conflict, while others are criticizing their army for not waging more destruction to Hezbollah and Lebanon.

Nasrallah’s September 22 victory speech marked the continuities in Hezbollah’s strategy and called for assessment and reflection during a peaceful Ramadan. Hezbollah as “Lebanon’s defender” has always been a major Nasrallah theme, and the war with Israel played into Hezbollah’s hands that Lebanon is in dire need of a defensive force (Arab News, September 5). Defense of the weak is the foundational narrative of Hezbollah itself. Israel’s invasion of 1978, Operation Litani, set the stage, and the huge Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian loss of life in 1982 and the devastation and occupation of southern Lebanon served as the party’s raison d’être until 2000. When in 1997 Hezbollah waged a small victory with the deaths of 12 Israelis, Nasrallah proclaimed this as the first event in the party’s restoration of dignity to the region [4]. Now he dates recovery from 2000 when Israel withdrew from Lebanon.

Nasrallah’s Post-War Strategy

Nasrallah’s post-war strategy is related to his war strategy. Moving from methodological analysis into the broader regional stage, he has summarized Hezbollah’s military and political elements with ease. Nasrallah knows his enemy, and he has stressed that this war was planned by Israel and if this particular incident had not served as an excuse for an Israeli attack, another would have been found within months (al-Jazeera, July 22). Just like other movements of the “new jihad,” Hezbollah provides sober self-assessments and self-critiques, earning popular respect for its honesty [5]. Nasrallah accurately compared Israel with its overwhelming airpower to his own smaller, less powerful force. He regarded Hezbollah’s ability to remain steadfast (here is another similarity with Palestinian discourse) in the face of heightened Israeli attacks in July as a military victory. He pointed out that while the Israelis first spoke of destroying Hezbollah, his command structure remained intact, and Israel was forced to make a rhetorical shift to claiming that they were just attempting to degrade Hezbollah’s capabilities. According to Nasrallah, their claim to have destroyed 50% of Hezbollah’s rockets is inaccurate (al-Jazeera, July 22).

Hezbollah has iterated a deterrent and resistance strategy for some time. Nasrallah explained some years ago that the party used Katyushas only when Israelis attacked Lebanese, not as an ongoing tactic [6]. In his July interview, after defending Hezbollah’s capture of Israelis and denying any foreknowledge of the plan on the part of Syria or Iran, Nasrallah explained that the differential in damage was due to the difference between an offensive and a deterrent arsenal, which remains at “20,000 rockets” (al-Jazeera, July 22). By this, he defended the party against Lebanese or Arab critics who said that Hezbollah’s actions had caused the Lebanese to suffer for the sake of its own goals.

Post-war, Nasrallah shows the interaction of strategy, politics and discourse in highlighting that the steadfastness of a few thousand fighters against “40,000 Israeli troops” was reflected in the people’s support for the party, and that the enemy was unable to sow political divisions between the two. The population of south Lebanon and the southern districts of Beirut returned to their homes at the party’s directive, thereby outdoing the government when the party more swiftly and effectively offered aid to the people. Nasrallah catalogued this event as a political victory as well (al-Manar TV, September 22).

As virtually every publication asked who “won” the conflict, and in line with the party’s tone, Nasrallah clarified his idea of “victory.” Just as during the war, it meant steadfast defense. Hezbollah’s tenacity surprised Israel. According to Nasrallah, victory did not mean the territorial liberation of Palestine, since that is the task of the Palestinians; victory is, rather, a perception that should be celebrated, but not in a sectarian or partisan manner (al-Manar TV, September 22).

Nasrallah’s Current Political Strategy

His current political strategy is tied in with his critique of external forces that had accused the party of being an Iranian and Syrian tool. He ridiculed this charge, pointing out that he had not even informed Damascus or Tehran of his summer operation. Nasrallah criticized the passive Arab governments and decried U.S. support of Israel as well as the U.S. refusal to call for a cease-fire, saying “we should today stress that this war was an American war in terms of decision, weapons, planning and desire, and by giving several deadlines for the Zionists; one, two, three and four weeks” (al-Manar TV, September 22). He also denounced the U.S. plan for a “new Middle East” in general, and the rally crowd agreed. As for the alleged cause of the July hostilities and others since 2000, the party will only informally negotiate a prisoner release if it is an exchange, and it retains its claim to the Shabaa Farms and the Kfar Shouba Hills [7]. Nasrallah does not reject the idea of disarmament, saying, “We don’t want to keep our weapons forever and they will never be used against anyone inside Lebanon.” He suggests, however, that the causes of the conflict between Israel and Lebanon must first be addressed before any such disarmament takes place [8].

As for the UNIFIL force, he cautioned the Lebanese Army not to serve merely to catalogue arms violations, for that is not its real function; here, Nasrallah is suggesting that its function is to protect Lebanon, thus rendering Hezbollah’s military force unnecessary. UNIFIL forces will not be resisted if they support the Lebanese Army, but if they are part of a broader strategy to transform the balance of power within Lebanon, resistance may form. Thus, Hezbollah’s political strategy, despite the new element of UNIFIL forces and the Lebanese Army in the south, appears to be steadfastness to its own principles.

Nasrallah explains that political division but not simply sectarianism can be healed by a new Lebanese national unity government and more fair electoral laws. He warns Lebanese with reference to their own terrible civil war of the past and to Iraq, saying that “any talk in Lebanon about partition is Israeli talk; any talk in Lebanon about federalism is Israeli talk; and any talk in Lebanon about cantons is Israeli talk” [9].

Nasrallah is not the only leader to criticize the current Lebanese government or to call for national unity. The Free Patriotic Movement of Michel Aoun, the Lebanese Forces of Samir Geagea and the Future Movement of Saad Hariri have done the same. It may be that Hezbollah will now concentrate on the Lebanese internal situation, calling as Nasrallah has for a “clean” and accountable government [10]. Additionally, and in contrast with Lebanon’s other political factions, Nasrallah has argued that this government should also have the ability to defend the Lebanese people in case Israel’s resting period proves more brief than the party hopes. If the government is incapable of doing that, then Hezbollah will step in to defend Lebanon since, as stated in his July 14 speech, they are the party that made good on threats to strike Haifa and beyond.

Notes

1. Lebanese Political Parties: Hezbollah, (Arabic) dir. Farid Assaf, Lebanese National Broadcasting Company, 2003.

2. Fadlallah and Hezbollah have denied any organizational connection. See Amal Sayed Ghorayeb, Hizbu’llah: Politics and Religion (London: Pluto Press, 2002), p. 6. Also see: A. Nizar Hamzeh, “Lebanon’s Hezbollah from Islamic Revolution to Parliamentary

Accomodation,” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 2 (1993).

3. Sayyid Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, “Rules of Self-Defense: Defending Other People,” Fatawa, http://www.bayynet.org.

4. Lebanese Political Parties: Hezbollah.

5. S. Zuhur, “New Strategy for a New Jihad,” Wilberforce Quarterly, 2006, http://www.wilberforce.edu/cdsp/journal_art_3.html.

6. Lebanese Political Parties: Hezbollah.

7. For a more detailed description, see Sami Hajjar, Hezbollah, Terrorism, National Liberation or Menace? (Carlisle Barracks: SSI, 2002), p. 25-35, and

http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/0814/p09s01-coop.html

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Some interpret this as a threat. See Daily Star, September 26, 2006.