Hezbollah: Craving war, not wanting it
By Nicholas Noe
BEIRUT - Almost five years after the George W Bush administration was handed a
potentially game-changing opportunity to peacefully declaw the militant Shi'ite
movement Hezbollah, Washington is finally waking up to the grim reality of its
ill-conceived "Cedar Revolution" policy in Lebanon: the prospect of a renewed
war involving a sophisticated actor whose hybrid military power has only grown
Setting aside, for the moment, the contentious argument over who is indeed
responsible for these developments - which, it should be noted, quickly
followed the forced exit of Syrian troops in April 2005 - the truly pressing
issue for concerned policymakers and citizens alike is that both opposing axes,
but especially the "resistance axis" of Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas, now seem to
believe that the next war can and should be the last one between Israel and its
Unfortunately, this ideological certainty only helps to further grease the
wheels of conflict - since the perception is that there will (finally) be no
more "winning by not losing" or "winning, but the loser as "we know him'
remains" - while virtually guaranteeing that, should war come to pass, the
costs will be truly awful for all those touched by it.
Interestingly, from Hezbollah's perspective, which has been increasingly
uniform across private discussions and public rhetoric, there is relatively
little concern or extended analysis about exactly when, or even whether, war
The central reason for this seems to be that with either a war or a
confrontational ceasefire with Israel, it perceives victory.
The real questions being asked, then, concern the mechanics of how this victory
will come about, and, more remotely, whether the "hardware" and "software" of
the US-Israeli negotiating position(s) will change just enough to avoid the end
For the party, which now publicly appears to be the least doubtful actor among
its allies, this represents a dramatic shift in strategic thinking - a shift
that needs to be fully appreciated by those who believe further violence is
either wrong and/or will ultimately serve no one's interests.
The transformation in Hezbollah's outlook was evident as early as September
2006, in the wake of what the Lebanese call "the July War". For much of the
Western media the change only came into focus in the past month - that is,
following the recent "resistance axis summit" in Damascus and Hezbollah
secretary general Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah's mid-February speech threatening the
wide devastation of Israel should it pre-emptively attack.
Aspects of this movement had been apparent before, most notably following the
collapse of peace negotiations between Israel and Syria and the unilateral
Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon in early 2000, after which point
Nasrallah famously declared Israel was "weaker than a spider's web".
But it was the July War (vigorously encouraged by the Bush administration), the
February 2008 assassination of Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeah and then the
May 2008 street violence between the opposition and the majority "March 14"
forces that really crystallized what Nasrallah now publicly views as the
impending, "divine" telos of history.
"Arab armies and peoples," Nasrallah told the war-weary crowd of over a million
one month after the August 14, 2006 ceasefire, are "not only able to liberate
Gaza and the West Bank and East Jerusalem, they are simply capable of regaining
Palestine from sea to river by one small decision and with some determination".
"This is the equation," Nasrallah declared. "Today, your resistance broke the
image of Israel. We have done away with the invincible army. We have also done
away with the invincible state. Indeed, we have done away with it. I am not
exaggerating or voicing slogans."
With this, Nasrallah had decisively broken through the greatest barrier in his
own thinking, in that of the leadership and, crucially, in the hearts of his
supporters: Israel could be defeated, once and for all, and, more to the point,
it could be done with relative ease.
By the time Mughniyeah was assassinated in Damascus in February 2008, Nasrallah
felt certain enough to declare that Israel would collapse, not in 10 or 20
years, but in the "coming few years".
"In the aftermath of the 2000 withdrawal," Nasrallah explained, "The only
remaining question [is]: Can this entity [Israel] cease to exist? Well, before
the year 2000 this was impossible. Before the Lebanese resistance and the first
and second Palestinian Intifada, this talk was merely a legend and madness ...
I can say that after 2006 this question was undoubtedly answered ... there was
a new answer ... Could Israel be wiped out of existence? Yes, and a thousand
times yes, Israel can be wiped out of existence."
Soon after his declaration of impending victory, Nasrallah laid out eight,
detailed points as to why he believed the Jewish state of Israel was finished.
Not surprisingly, as is Hezbollah's custom, the points borrowed heavily from
analyses laid out by leading Israelis themselves concerning the inner,
long-term dangers facing their state - including demography, emigration amid
fear, corruption and mounting miscalculations in conducting international
relations and international conflict.
Nasrallah did not, however, address exactly how the Israelis would react in the
event of an impending collapse, whether such a reaction might entail mutual
destruction or whether most Lebanese thought such a process worth it in the
Always the careful purveyor of cost-benefit calculations, the secretary general
had unbound his normal economy of rhetoric and cast aside exactly the question
he had long said should be paramount for any resistance movement: will
self-sacrifice lead to a reasonable outcome?
No matter. Avenging Mughniyeah's death had become a critical lever in
accelerating the effective end of such questions: for it had become permanent.
"As for retaliation," Nasrallah explained, "It will always be in front of us" - a statement suggesting that rather than one spectacular operation, payback for the assassination is to come in war or peace as the total collapse of Israel
And what of the likely destruction in Lebanon and perhaps beyond, given
"Our adversaries," Nasrallah assured, "cannot comprehend that this battle has
entered a totally different stage. This new stage's motive, title, and
incentive are the belief in God, trust in God, content in God, dependence on
God, and hope to win God's reward whatever the worldly results were.
"In such cases," he added, in an uncanny parallel to the threat that lies at
the heart of Israel's nuclear program (codename: Samson), "the ability to bear
calamities and to stand the loss of the beloved, the dear, the children, money
and wealth becomes something else."
More than one-and-a-half years on from these statements, Hezbollah's strategic
thinking on the conflict with Israel has only expanded further along the
mutually reinforcing tracks of analytical certainty and war and has gone beyond
mere public posturing to deter an Israeli attack.
As Nasrallah recently explained, Hezbollah "craves war but we do not want it.
We do not want it but we crave it."
The statement, evidently a contradiction, captures the essence of Hezbollah's
primary conviction that Israel cannot tolerate the repeated crossing of
successive military "red lines" - something the Israelis and Washington are now
stating often and openly. As the party crosses these lines (with air defense
weapons as but one example), fear increases and military preemption by Israel
becomes ever more impossible.
If, therefore, Israel fails to reprise its spectacular 1982 air assault in the
Bekaa that knocked out Syria's air defense capability (or for that matter,
fails to hit the Iranian nuclear program a la Osirak in 1981), then the fate of
Zionism is sealed, Hezbollah seems to believe.
In this "rosy" scenario, war is avoided, but the crescent of resistance now
partially surrounding Israel steadily locks its inhabitants into either a
negotiated settlement with the kind of far reaching Israeli concessions that
talks have so far failed to produce, or, as the Hezbollah prefers, an outright
The real scenario, though, that Nasrallah and party leaders appear to be
gambling on - or "craving" - is an outright Israeli "miscalculation"; a rush to
a war that the Israeli Defense Forces and the political echelon do not fully
understand and for which it's army and home front are not really prepared (the
Iron Dome anti-missile system, gas masks, perpetual American assistance - these
things, Nasrallah said recently, only offer illusory protection in the near to
"Syria is getting stronger with time," Nasrallah claims. "Iran is getting
stronger with time, Hezbollah is getting stronger with time. The Palestinian
resistance factions are getting stronger with time:" The arc of history is on
the side of the resistance axis.
An Israeli miscalculation, the party believes, will realize Nasrallah's promise
of a Zionist collapse in the next "few years" - rather than the somewhat longer
and perhaps less certain timetable of a relatively peaceful implosion.
What options remain, then, to disrupt these scenarios and calculations?
If one accepts that the war option - or the "war unbound" option as some in
Israel and among ex-Bush administration adherents favor - is a bad option,
playing into the hands of the resistance axis, then what is left are familiar
avenues that have hitherto produced little substantive movement:
1. Bolstering the settlement option, a course that has been
blocked even in the best of times. 2. Containment of the growing military (and possibly nuclear)
power of the resistance axis, which will be difficult given Israeli and some
Arab regime concerns that the prevention of a steady strangulation by the
resistance axis's power through technology, sanctions and targeted
assassinations is neither guaranteed nor an adequate response in the near to
3. A renewed, Machiavellian effort to stoke domestic aTABLE id= width=nd
sectarian discord in the region, something that has proven difficult to manage
4. A more radical strategy that would obliquely undermine
critical points of grievance among resistance axis members and their
constituents - essentially a policy of "pre-emptive concessions" by an alliance
of hegemonic powers that aims at dramatically undercutting (or wedging) their
desire and ability to exercise violence.
Unfortunately, the reality seems to be that this last approach, like the
settlement option, is also blocked since it is most likely too radical to
sustain politically in either the US, Israel or among Sunni Arab states where
the default setting remains, for the most part, the archaic, racist notion that
Middle Easterners only understand force (or, somewhat differently, only favor
What is left, then, is a policy of staving off conflict for as long as possible
in the hope that the balance of power will change in an as yet unknown way to
finally unlock old options and present completely new ones.
In the absence of concrete investment in specific remedies for at least some of
what deeply ails the Middle East, such a strategy appears dangerously like a
credit card debtor who, instead of paying off his mounting balance, opens
another line of funds so he and his friends can remain, just a bit longer, the
masters of a situation they know is deadly, but which they just can't bring
themselves to end.
Nicholas Noe is author of the 2008 Century Foundation White Paper
entitled "Re-Imagining the Lebanon Track: Towards a New US Policy" and is the
editor of Voice of Hezbollah: The Statements of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah (Verso,
2007). He is also a co-founder of the Beirut-based media monitoring service