Riding In Cars With Hezbollah

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We are coming up the road toward Sidon, and the traffic has slowed. There is a spot on the coastal highway here, south of town, where the asphalt narrows down to about 10 feet wide, a rutted channel that runs, at the moment, between two giant Israeli bomb craters.

This stretch of road is repaired from time to time, but it seems to be one of those little corners of the world where efficiency is destined to be undone by history. Whenever Israel begins dropping bombs on Lebanon — something that happens with more regularity than either the Lebanese or the Israelis might like — this mile-long section of ruined beachside highway is on the target list.

We are all a bit tired. The day has been hot, and while we’ve managed good cheer through the dust and the sad little villages that dot the land between the United Nations buffer zone and the Israeli border, there is something wearing about the landscape, a dejected collage of cratered hillsides and thin, snaking rivulets of dry rivers, footpaths, and tank traps. We move on and off the shoulder of the road as we skirt the craters. Looking ahead, I see the back of my Hezbollah driver’s head, slightly coated in sweat.

In the rear of the car we have the windows down as a sort of bargain between the boiling air and the road dust outside, the kind of negotiation that, without air-conditioning, is determined by your relative preference for perspiration over coughing fits. One of my Hezbollah hosts and I are arguing about a subject you find yourself debating only in the Arab world. Wearied by traffic and coming down off a high of Lebanese coffee, we have been reduced to shorthand conversation. "Ted Turner," he says, looking at me with the intensity of a chess whiz hitting a checkmate. "Jew."

By this point I’ve been reduced as well to minimal expression. "No," I reply. "Ted Turner. Episcopalian." Honestly, I have no idea where Ted Turner prays, but I know it won’t have much impact on the outcome of this dialogue, which ostensibly involves CNN’s coverage of the Middle East. CNN has been a constant bugaboo for Hezbollah. Why couldn’t they get airtime, they wanted to know? Why did attacks on Israel get so much more coverage than attacks on Lebanon?

In response, Hezbollah had started Al Manar, its own TV station, in the years before Al Jazeera. While Al Jazeera, the Qatari channel with a global reach, had pretensions of objectivity, Al Manar — designed to be an inspiring Islamic antidote to Turner’s channel — had none. Al Manar’s programming included videos, set to Islamic rap music, showing Hezbollah fighters snaking through the same towns we had just left behind, en route to night raids.

Though Turner redeemed himself in the eyes of Hezbollah from time to time with a slap at Israel, Hassan’s answer to me as we crept back toward Beirut on that steamy late afternoon pretty much summed up his final judgment on Western media and the Arab
world: "Ted Turner," he shot back with a patient and knowing nod designed to end debate. "Jew."

Such narrow-mindedness (after all, a quick look at the internet would have answered the question) might blind you to the fact that Hezbollah is arguably the best-run Islamic militant group in the world, so efficient and well designed that it has not only survived nearly 30 years of Israeli and international pressure but has also developed some of the most powerful and successful tactics for fighting its enemies. "This is by far the greatest guerrilla group in the world," Israeli Brigadier General Guy Zur confessed after his tank brigade had been pounded by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

I had spent part of the morning jammed into the back of a navy blue BMW blasting around the tiny roads of a linked set of towns less than a half mile from the watchtowers of Israeli border sentries. And it was clear that Hezbollah, "great" or not, was masterfully run. We were always in the grip of their net of watchers, planners and fighters, even when it seemed we were not.

As we shot through the streets at 120 kilometres per hour, people stepped back into doorways or pressed themselves out of the way under arches. Men stood behind columns with radio wires running discreetly up their jacket arms or walkie-talkies in hand. When our position was too close to Israel, where there was a chance the tower sentries would open up with high-powered rifles that could hit a target a mile away, our driver would stop hard and turn. Warning shots usually came through the car’s engine block or, if the Israelis were feeling less charitable, the front windshield.

But the sense of a great and intimate conspiracy was sort of reassuring. Every three or four minutes we would pass someone who seemed to know we were headed his way and who would either give us a sign to keep driving or step out and wave a hand quietly at the ground to stop the car, then come to the window to share a few words with the driver, who would then pull us into reverse and drive back toward where we had come from, quicker this time — the same movie of heads ducking in and out of windows and shopping women stepping into doorways, but played faster.

Everyone was someone’s cousin or brother, even the Lebanese regular army officers we sometimes stopped to chat with. They were supposed to be part of the effort to collect weapons from Hezbollah, but the usual conversation was something like "I’ll see you at your mother’s for dinner next week?"

Beyond the video-game driving or the intricacy of the Hezbollah network or even the proud ambition of my guide ("This is where we will invade Israel," he explained as we passed a few narrow hillside paths), something else made it impossible to miss the evidence of how deeply Hezbollah was woven into the fabric of southern Lebanon. "We built this house," our driver would say from time to time as we drove. "And this house."

The houses were, I knew, the work of Hezbollah’s Campaign for Reconstruction Institution, a charitable arm of the militant group that had built hundreds of homes in southern Lebanon, trying to keep up with the Israelis’ pace of bombing them flat.

The campaign often failed by that measure, but they were doing something far more valuable: the houses, every one of them, put Hezbollah in touch with the most important element in this chaotic environment. By living in the places where Lebanese Shia most needed help and support, Hezbollah had become inseparable from daily life — and deeply connected to the slow variables in Lebanon.

They drew no distinction between plumbing and making bombs; often the same fighters did both jobs. They had gone deep, and this gave them everything from information to gratitude to quiet spaces where they could engineer their latest terror gadgets or bounce back from Israeli poundings.

As much as Hezbollah owed its survival to roadside bombs, they probably owed just as much to unclogged toilets and primary schools. What had kept the group alive for more than two decades, under intense pressure both within and outside of Lebanon, was this obsession with innovation and an instinct for slow-variable resilience.

This created a dangerous problem for Israel, a problem whose lethal irony had already been observed by Israel’s director of military intelligence, Aharon Zeevi Farkash: direct attacks on Hezbollah made the militants more resilient, not less. Small perturbations in natural systems — and, on the Hezbollah timetable, most of Israel’s actions were small perturbations — are usually the best way to build resilience. Swallowing antibiotics at the first sign of a cold, in the same fashion, destroys your chance to build a healthy immune system. At some point you need to get a little sick so that in the long term you become a lot healthier.

In Lebanon every bombed house was replaced by one built via the reconstruction fund; every destroyed school meant a chance to build a madrassa that would produce future Hezbollah fighters.

The group wasn’t some magical self-creating force. It would have evaporated quickly if it hadn’t been for the strong support of Iran. But how they used that support was what mattered. They could have spent all the money on munitions and fake documents. But Hezbollah’s greatest survival secret had nothing to do with cracking Israeli codes or smuggling missiles or building up a leadership hierarchy. It was in creating a system that allowed them to shift and learn and change — and that did all of those things even better when they were under attack.

"I don’t see how they are resilient," an Israeli officer said to me one day after the 2006 war. "We destroyed most of their buildings and communications. And every time we tried to kill them they just ran away."

Exactly.

This is an edited extract from Joshua Cooper Ramo’s book The Age of the Unthinkable (Little, Brown).

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