As Fighting Continues, Lebanese Author Says New Poll Shows Overwhelming Support For Hezbollah

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Authors Amal Saad Ghorayeb and Robert Dreyfuss join us to talk about the origins of Hezbollah and Hamas. According to Ghorayeb, a new poll shows 87 percent of Lebanese support Hezbollah’s resistance against the ongoing Israeli attack. [includes rush transcript]

International crisis talks in Rome have failed to produce a unified call for an end to the fighting in Lebanon, after the US and Britain refused to back a ceasefire. Israeli Justice Minister Haim Ramon said the diplomatic stalemate gives Israel the authorization to continue attacking Hezbollah until it is no longer present in southern Lebanon.

But many have questioned whether Israel’s military actions have in fact strengthened Hezbollah. To discuss the origins of Hezbollah, we’re joined from Beirut by Amal Saad-Ghorayeb. She is a professor at the Lebanese American University in Beirut and the author of “Hizbu’llah: Politics and Religion.”

And from our D.C. studio we’re joined by investigative reporter Robert Dreyfuss. He is the author of “Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam.”

  • Amal Saad Ghorayeb. Professor at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. She is the author of “Hizbu’llah: Politics and Religion”
  • Robert Dreyfuss. Investigative reporter and contributing editor at The Nation, a contributing writer at Mother Jones, and a senior correspondent for The American Prospect. He is the author of “Devil”s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: To discuss the origins of Hezbollah, we’re joined now on the line from Beirut by Amal Saad Ghorayeb. She’s a professor at the Lebanese American University in Beirut and the author of Hizbu’llah: Politics and Religion. And from our D.C. studio, we’re joined by investigative reporter, Robert Dreyfuss. He’s the author of Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam. We welcome both of you to Democracy Now!

ROBERT DREYFUSS: Thanks. A pleasure.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s begin with Amal Saad Ghorayeb. Do you think that Hezbollah expected the response it got when it crossed the border and captured these two Israeli soldiers?

AMAL SAAD GHORAYEB: I don’t think it necessarily expected this response. I think it envisioned it as one possible scenario. And this is why I don’t think we should say it miscalculated. I think it laid out necessary contingency plans, and, you know, the example of that or what’s evident is that its TV station is up and running despite constant bombardment, its military performance has been nothing short of very effective. And I think this points to some kind of a very good contingency planning on its part.

AMY GOODMAN: Amal Saad Ghorayeb, could you talk about the origins of Hezbollah?

AMAL SAAD GHORAYEB: Well, actually, Hezbollah’s raison d’etre was the Israeli invasion of 1982, at a time when — actually there was no organizational nucleus until ’85. But in those three years before then, there was various Islamic and other groups, Shiite groups, which were loosely affiliated under this umbrella called Hezbollah, and they would act independently as cells, military cells, confronting the Israeli invasion.

AMY GOODMAN: And its goals? And who were the people who first started it?

AMAL SAAD GHORAYEB: Its goals at the time, and it still remains, to resist Israeli aggression. Basically, in '82 it was to liberate South Lebanon from the Israeli occupation. It succeeded in doing that. It pushed the Israelis away, up until the Litani River in 1985. And today, it remains armed, because Israel continues to occupy parts of South Lebanon, the Shebaa Farms. It holds Lebanese prisoners. It violates Lebanese airspace on a daily basis. So Hezbollah is very much a deterrent force to Israel, although it's also a legitimate political party, which commands the following of the vast majority of Shiites in Lebanon.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In terms of the rise of Hezbollah, it seems that the rise of resistance organizations like this — if you go back to ’67 and the rise of the PLO as a result of the original occupation of the West Bank — that these resistance movements seem to arise as a result of the failure of the Arab governments, in one way or another, to be able to deal with the continued expansion of Israeli power throughout the Middle East.

AMAL SAAD GHORAYEB: Yes, that’s right. I mean, in '82 the Lebanese government was a Maronite-nominated one. It was one which had allied itself with the United States and Israel. And it wasn't only neutral in the conflict with Israel, it actually took sides with Israel. Of course, today’s government is in a different situation entirely. It has a much more accreditable political system now, after the Taif Accord of ’89. But nonetheless the government that was formed in the aftermath of the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon is commonly described in the Western media as being pro-American. But in fact, I mean, this government has proven to be very weak, I think, in the current conflict and has not been able to stand up to Israel, not only militarily, but even politically. It has not been able to use its clout with the U.S., which claims to back this government.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined in Washington by Robert Dreyfuss, investigative reporter, author of Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam. Talk about the origins of Hamas, Robert.

ROBERT DREYFUSS: Well, Hamas is a branch of an international organization called the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in the late 1920s, and after World War II it established branches in Jordan and Palestine and Syria and Lebanon and elsewhere, actually going back to even to the early and mid-'30s. But the Brotherhood is a Sunni fundamentalist — in religious terms, I would say also extremist — organization that's committed to a kind of an Islamic version of what the Christian right wants, which is a merger of politics and religion, basically a theocracy.

The founder of Hamas was a man named Ahmed Yassin, who was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza before Israel occupied Gaza in the late 1960s, in 1967 exactly. He had been arrested by Egypt in 1965, when the Muslim Brotherhood was one of the main opponents of Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. And when Nasser cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood after they tried to assassinate him in 1965, Yassin was arrested. When the Israelis occupied Gaza and the West Bank, they freed Yassin, and they also allowed, encouraged, supported the growth of Islamism in the West Bank over the next 20 years.

From 1967 until 1987, when Hamas was formally established, the Israelis literally and in other ways encouraged Yassin. In 1973 he established what he called the Islamic Center, which happened under the eye of the Israeli military authorities. In 1977, they formally licensed his Islamic Association, which was the forerunner of Hamas. And all of this was done because the Shin Bet, the Israeli domestic security organization, had the too-clever-by-half notion that they could mobilize Islamic feeling in the West Bank and Gaza as a weapon against the nationalists, as a weapon against the PLO. And you see this time and time again across the Middle East, where the Islamists are often seen as opponents of nationalism, especially during the Cold War. So Hamas, although it was established in 1987, got its origin, its support from the Israelis for a period of 20 years.

And I should add that in Lebanon, too, the Israelis saw the Shiites as possible allies. When they invaded Lebanon in 1978 and afterwards when they again invaded in 1982, the Israelis had this kind of querulous notion that maybe Lebanon Shiites would be allies of Israel against the Sunnis. And, of course, the PLO, which was based in Lebanon at that time, was mostly a Sunni organization. So they encouraged and supported the Shiites in Lebanon partly because they saw the Shiites in the Arab world as kind of a potential minority ally against the majority bloc among the Arabs. And so all of this kind of Machiavellian manipulations has contributed both directly and indirectly to the creation of both Hamas and Hezbollah.

And the Hamas part is very little known. No one wants to talk about how the Israelis were involved in this effort. But in my book, I have a whole chapter on this, kind of documented fairly extensively, including interviews with American intelligence people who followed this, sometimes with their mouths agape, wondering what the grand strategy was for the Israelis in trying to play with fire, as one intelligence person told me, and to encourage the Islamists, who gained traction. By the 1980s, Hamas was literally fighting pitched battles with Fatah in universities and other areas of the West Bank and Gaza. There were actually armed clashes and other kinds of fisticuffs that not only weakened Fatah and the PLO, but gave Hamas this aura of being a fighting organization.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Robert Dreyfuss, I’d like to ask you. There’s been quite a bit of debate apparently on many Islamist websites in recent weeks over whether Sunnis should be backing Hezbollah, given the historical differences between Sunnis and Shiites, even among the resistance groups. And obviously from the Bush administration’s point of view, all these terrorist groups are the same: al-Qaeda, they lump Hezbollah and Hamas. But there are really major differences between Hamas and Hezbollah and the al-Qaeda approach, obviously, in terms of mass movements that they come out of. Could you talk a little bit about those debates and those differences?

ROBERT DREYFUSS: Well, you know, five years ago the Bush administration told us it was all one big terrorist ball of wax. It was Iran and Iraq and Syria and Saudi Arabia and Hamas and Hezbollah and al-Qaeda. And you could throw the Chechens in there, too, I guess. I mean, it was like one big global enemy that we had to fight. And that was completely wrong and idiotic. It was the most perverted distortion of the notion that the people who attacked us on 9/11 were this global vast Islamofascist conspiracy.

Many of these people don’t like each other. There’s divisions and tensions all across the board between the states and non-state actors. I mean, Iran and Syria are states. Yes, they support Hezbollah. Yes, they support Hamas. But there’s tensions among them and between them. They’re not one big entity that we’re fighting.

The same goes for the Sunni-Shiite divide. Hamas and Hezbollah have a kind of working alliance, but they’re suspicious of each other, because Hamas is a almost an entirely Shiite organization with a lot of resonance among the Iraqi Shiites and among Iran, which is a Shiite state, whereas Hamas is a almost entirely Sunni organization with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and, beyond that, to Wahhabi and Salafist groups and to the Saudi Arabian far right, the Wahhabi religious establishment there. So this is a very complex and multilayered thing. I mean, the fact that jihadists are debating which is the proper — you know, this is like angels on the head of the pin or, you know, some Da Vinci Code kind of perverted notion of what Islam is all about.

These groups are ultimately quite kooky. The fact that they have established thriving insurgencies with popular support doesn’t take away from the fact that their theocracy is fanatical and quite dangerous, not only to Israel, but to their own populations, who are not exactly supporters. I mean, Hamas, for instance, a few years ago had the support of only probably, according to polls, about 15% of the Palestinians, about the equivalent that of people who support, you know, Pat Robertson here. Well, because the Israelis refused constantly over and over again to make any concessions, because the Fatah and PLO couldn’t deliver anything, Hamas grew in strength because they capitalized on the failure of the population there, of the Palestinian Authority. And among the population, now Hamas’s support is probably up in the high thirties. Again, it’s still a minority force, even among the Palestinians, but it’s a significant one. And it’s clear that what Israel is doing by militarily trying to defeat what are essentially grassroots insurgencies, they’re going to only intensify the power of the appeal of that kind of far right Islamism that gives rise to groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Beirut to Amal Saad Ghorayeb to ask about, well, this comment that got played a lot around the world when President Bush was caught on tape, speaking to the British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Let’s take a listen for a second.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: See, the irony is that what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this s*** and it’s over.

AMY GOODMAN: He used an explicative, and that’s why it got played a lot. But what he said is “what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this (bleep).” Amal Saad Ghorayeb, what about the role of Syria and Hezbollah, and how much support now does Hezbollah have in Lebanon? In the U.S. press, a lot of people are saying Hezbollah is holding the Lebanese people hostage. Is that your sense?

AMAL SAAD GHORAYEB: I’m glad you asked me this question. I’ll answer the second one first, if you don’t mind. I’ve recently taken part in devising an opinion poll, along with a local think tank here, and the results have been published today. Basically, 87% of all Lebanese support Hezbollah’s resistance against Israel today. And that includes 80% of all Christian respondents, 80% of all Druze respondents, and 89% of all Sunnis. And this, of course, is non-Shiite groups, so those which have supported the March 14 pro-American — the March 14, sorry, alliance, which is seen as being pro-American, pro-French, anti-Syrian.

So I think, you know, all this talk about Hezbollah holding Lebanon hostage and, of course, Israeli officials’ stomach-turning comments about them doing this for the sake of the Lebanese people, and other American officials making similar comments, are clearly very poor public relations exercises here. Hezbollah, by default actually, has won the support of the overwhelming majority of non-Shiites in Lebanon.

And, in fact, what I also found very interesting was that of all the respondents asked, 89.5% believe that the U.S. was not an honest broker in this current conflict. In fact, only 8% of Lebanese see it as playing a balanced role. And I think this has a lot to do with, not only the U.S.'s past in dealing with the Middle East — Arab-Israeli conflict, sorry — but more specifically how unabashedly, not only pro-Israeli the U.S. is seen as being, but as in fact engineering this whole invasion. So that's with regard to your second question.

Your first question, the role of Syria, the role of Syria here is, I think, really overstated by the United States, Israel and the Western media. And it’s becoming increasingly apparent that all of this talk directed at Syria and its role on Hezbollah — sorry, its influence on Hezbollah, is really propaganda more than anything. I think George Bush must know that Syria holds very few cards now that it’s been pushed out of Lebanon, it’s been humbled by the UN investigation into the assassination of Hariri. It’s the primary suspect. I don’t see what cards it has left to play. When we talk about influence, I’d like to ask: what power does Syria enjoy in the region, and especially over Hezbollah? Now that it’s out of Lebanon, what can it possibly do for Hezbollah? You know, I think that’s a question that remains to be answered by somebody. If anything, Hezbollah has more influence over Syria than the reverse.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in terms of the Lebanese leadership, obviously, they must be aware of the enormous popular support that Hezbollah has, because it seems that the leaders of Lebanon have been getting increasingly strident in their criticism of Israel and the United States in terms of this latest series of bombings.

AMAL SAAD GHORAYEB: Yes. You know, this conflict has been raging for two weeks now. And it’s very interesting to compare government officials’ statements in the first week to their comments now. Of course, this has a lot to do with Hezbollah’s successes on the ground, you know, by Israeli standard, as well. I mean, the Israeli Army is faring very poorly. They’re considered the fourth strongest army in the world, and they’re fighting, you know, what they call a ragtag group of militiamen. And yet this very small group of fighters has been able to deter Israel, in fact, and has been inflicting heavy casualties on them. And so I think this — really this conflict has all the making of — the potential, sorry, to change the entire face of the region if it continues. And whether or not Hezbollah is weakened, I think, is immaterial here. Already, I think, Israel has failed to reach any of its objectives.

AMY GOODMAN: Amal Saad Ghorayeb, finally, the issue of Hezbollah targeting civilians and now sending rockets into Israeli towns. Is this a change of strategy?

AMAL SAAD GHORAYEB: It’s not a radically new change of strategy. In the past, when Israel would attack civilian targets here, Hezbollah would launch Katyushas into northern Israel. Now, what has changed the rules of game, so to speak, is that Hezbollah is striking deeper and deeper into Israeli territory. It’s struck Haifa. And Hezbollah has recently threatened to strike Tel Aviv, you know, indirectly Tel Aviv and other areas.

So this is the first time, I think, that the Israeli public gets to see — the conflict has been transferred from the Lebanese arena to Israel itself. And this is something quite unprecedented. And this is, in fact, where Hezbollah’s deterrent capability lies, not only on the ground, but also in terms of how it can retaliate. And Hezbollah has interestingly made a new equation here, that if the Israelis strike Lebanese infrastructure, such as electricity, then Hezbollah will strike petrochemical installations in Haifa and could cause devastating damage.

AMY GOODMAN: Amal Saad Ghorayeb, do you have electricity right now?

AMAL SAAD GHORAYEB: No, we don’t. This is why I couldn’t talk to you on my landline.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the situation where you are in Beirut?

AMAL SAAD GHORAYEB: Well, I live in East Beirut, a Christian area, and I can say that it’s a ghost town. The streets are deserted. Everything is closed. Most shops are closed. The entire country — I mean, the economy has been completely crippled. People have fled to mountainous areas that haven’t been struck by Israel yet. But interestingly, Israel has struck East Beirut, you know, in different areas, Christian areas, which have nothing to do with this conflict whatsoever. And I think the purpose behind this was to turn all Lebanese against Hezbollah.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Amal Saad Ghorayeb, teaching at American University of Beirut. Her book is Hizbu’llah: Politics and the Religion. Robert Dreyfuss’s book Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam.

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