Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollahs Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel, by Nicholas Blanford (Random House, 544 pp., $30)
The only reason Israel has been able to survive in the Middle East, and even to flourish there, is because its enemies armies are incompetent. When asked how and why Israelis win every battle, the celebrated general Moshe Dayan said its because they fight Arabs. Were a feuding people, not a warring people, Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi said to me once in Beirut. We havent been good at war for hundreds of years. If Arabs could fight as effectively as, say, the Russians, Israel would have ceased to exist long ago. Most likely it would have died before its first birthday. Syrian and Egyptian armies tried three times to destroy the Jewish state, and the Jordanian army tried twice. Hamas and the Palestine Liberation Organization have spent decades harassing Israel with terrorist, guerrilla, and low-level rocket attacks, but theyve never come close to threatening the countrys existence.
Hezbollah—Lebanons Syrian- and Iranian-sponsored Party of God—is different. Hezbollah is the most formidable non-state army in the world and by far the deadliest and most effective fighting force ever fielded against Israel. And its just as sworn to Israels destruction as the would-be conquerors of the past. Nicholas Blanfords gripping new book, Warriors of God, explains in peerless detail how Hezbollah grew into such a major force.
It began as a shadowy, ragtag terrorist-guerrilla group during the crucible of Lebanons civil war. After Israels withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah transformed itself into a wholly original hybrid of guerrilla army and conventional army. The Party of Gods partisans didnt even have their own name in the early years. They made themselves famous with hostage-taking and airplane hijackings, but their most potent innovation—which transformed the face of the region—was the suicide bomber.
In November 1982, Imad Mughniyah, who would later become Hezbollahs most skilled and hunted commander, told Fatah member Bilal Sharara he had found someone willing to blow himself up. I laughed and thought he was crazy, Sharara told Blanford. Who would want to blow themselves up? No one had done anything like that at the time. Suicide bombers are dangerous, but theyre weapons of the weak: it would be 18 years before the last Israeli soldier evacuated the security zone in South Lebanon. As the anti-Israel insurgency ground on, though, Hezbollah tacticians and fighters acquired better weapons and the skills to use them.
The Party of God hasnt yet outworn its designation as a terrorist group—the United Nations accuses it of killing Lebanons former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, for instance—but it rarely resorts anymore to al Qaida-style attacks. Hezbollah now has an enormous rocket arsenal with the power not only to kill civilians in Israel, but also to sink Israeli ships and to blow up supposedly indestructible Merkava tanks with swarms of missiles.
During the 2006 war, Hezbollah fought Israeli ground troops with a highly sophisticated mixture of guerrilla and conventional tactics. The resistance, Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah boasted, did not wage a guerrilla war. . . I want to clarify this point; it was not a regular army, but [it] was not a guerrilla [army] in the traditional sense, either. It was something in between. Blanford quotes an Army War College study bolstering the Hezbollah chiefs claim. Hezbollahs position on the guerrilla-conventional continuum in 2006, it said, was much closer to the conventional end of the scale than non-state actors are normally expected to be.
Today, Hezbollahs rocket and missile arsenal is larger than that of most national armies. Not only does it stock thousands of relatively weak Katyusha rockets in bunkers, houses, and hillside launch sites; it also has ballistic missiles that can blow skyscrapers off the map in Tel Aviv. Its conventional strength means that it can now wreak far more havoc than a mere terrorist organization, but its well-honed guerrilla tactics make it just as hard to defeat.
Hezbollah scored its great victory in forcing the withdrawal of exhausted Israelis from their security zone in South Lebanon. It was the first time, arguably, that the Jewish state lost a war. Hezbollah, though, was never solely interested in the liberation of land. Its war of unrelenting hostility, as Blanford puts it, was always about the destruction of Israel. The resistance, he writes, is Hezbollahs beating heart, its one immutable defining certainty. The Party of God said so explicitly in its first manifesto, the Open Letter of 1985, and Nasrallah has repeated that promise ever since he became the militias leader. The elimination of Israel from existence, he said in February of 2008, is inevitable because this is a historical and divine law from which there is no escape.
Hezbollahs cult of death, nurtured during its suicide-bomber phase, is stronger than ever. Wherever Hezbollah has a serious presence in Lebanon, portraits of young martyrs hang from electrical pylons. The eliminationist rhetoric and dreams of total destruction are taken to heart by those willing to die to kill Israelis and Jews. You cannot understand the joy of jihad unless you are in Hezbollah, one of its fighters tells Blanford. Nasrallah himself refused to accept condolences when his own son was martyred.
Blanford refrains from condemning Hezbollah outright—partly, no doubt, because he wants to retain his nearly unparalleled access to its spokesmen, but also because it isnt necessary. Readers seeking denunciations of terrorism and resistance will have to look elsewhere. The Party of Gods own actions and words suffice well enough to condemn it. If calls to destroy a sovereign U.N. member state dont bother you, there isnt much Blanford or anyone else can say that will change your mind.
While Blanfords focus is Hezbollah, the portrait he paints of the Israeli occupation isnt flattering, either. Israelis of nearly all political persuasions view Lebanon as their Vietnam, so to speak, since one disaster and botched operation after another led to an all-but inevitable defeat and withdrawal. Blanford, though, does a better job here than most of his Beirut-based colleagues. Hes seemingly aware, without actually saying so, that Israel is the subject of hysterical lies every day in the Arab world, and he almost always takes great care before accusing Israel of any wrongdoing.
Hezbollahs war against Israel is now in its 31st year. None of the outstanding issues that led to conflict in the past (Israels existence being the primary one) have been resolved. And the resistance is stronger than ever. The rocket war in 2006 killed more than 100 Israelis, more than 1,000 Lebanese, five U.N. peacekeepers, and even a handful of Iranian Revolutionary Guards. It caused billions in damage and produced hundreds of thousands of refugees in each country. It convinced both sides that the next round will be the deadliest ever and to prepare accordingly. Israel wont make the same mistakes, and it cant afford to; next time, not only Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but also Israels Dimona nuclear power plant, will be within Hezbollahs missile range.
Hezbollah fighters hope the next war will be fought more in Israel than in Lebanon. The resistance leadership might ask you to lead the resistance to liberate Galilee [in Northern Israel], Nasrallah said to his cadres early last year. God willing, we will go into Palestine next, one fighter told Blanford. Next time maybe the U.N. will ask us to withdraw from Northern Israel, another said, rather than Israel withdraw from South Lebanon.
Ten years ago, Blanford wrote in Beiruts Daily Star that Hezbollah may be planning to storm Israeli border towns and seize hostages. The revelation raised some eyebrows at the time, he wrote, but not anymore. Hezbollah fighters arent (yet) sufficiently skilled or well-equipped to invade Israel and survive long enough to be asked to withdraw—but at the end of the day, they dont have to. They have enough powerful missiles to inflict considerable pain without going anywhere. All they need to do is hide the launchers from Israeli aircraft—which they proved they can do during the last war—and use their guerrilla tactics to prevent Israeli soldiers from coming in and sabotaging the launch sites by hand.
Even with its bristling arsenal, Hezbollah still isnt strong enough to destroy Israel. It probably never will be. But if its model of resistance is exported to enough of Israels neighbors—even if Iran fails to acquire nuclear weapons—the Jewish state may finally face the existential threat it has long feared. It may not be a likely scenario, but it has become an imaginable one.