Middle East: the character of Hezbollah

Only workers’ unity can show a way out of war and poverty. Part Two

Hezbollah has developed sophisticated social welfare support particularly for the Shia population in the poorest areas of Lebanon. It played the role which the corrupt Lebanese elite failed to do in providing schools, hospitals and employment. Today it is the second biggest employer in Lebanon, with 250,000 relying directly on it for jobs. There are numerous examples of how families whose sole breadwinners have lost their jobs have had visits from members of Hezbollah who have turned up unannounced to leave money or food boxes. Families needing money for expensive operations for sick family members have been given cards enabling them to go to any clinic in Lebanon for treatment. Hezbollah leaders are renowned for not being corrupt and, too many Lebanese Shia especially, appear to undertake political activity in the interests of the poorest sections of society.

This activity was in marked contrast to that of national politicians, renowned for their corruption and failure to do anything for the poorest sections. One Lebanese commentator stated that Hezbollah was a "state within a non-state". The tendency for Hezbollah to build further support, particularly in Shia areas which have borne the brunt of the latest Israeli attack, is likely to continue given the way it responded to the post-war situation.

On the day after the ceasefire, Hezbollah members were active in most of the main bombed areas, surveying the damage and beginning to direct clearance and recovery of bodies trapped under rubble. Hezbollah leaders immediately announced that each family whose house had been destroyed would receive over $12,000 in the first year and Hezbollah would help them rebuild their homes. It is likely that the finance necessary for this will be provided by the Ahmadinejad regime in Iran, which will further boost its position in the region.

In the struggle against Israeli occupation in the 1980s, Hezbollah used its mass backing as a support base for its military activity, melting into the villages once it had attacked IDF positions or the client militia, the South Lebanese Army. The same tactics were used in this war. Over the years Hezbollah built an extremely efficient, secretive and underground guerrilla fighting force. In this conflict, on the few occasions IDF units managed to capture Hezbollah positions they found air conditioned bunkers with sophisticated computer guided missile systems. This shows that Hezbollah used the lessons learnt by Iranian militias in the Iran-Iraq war. Moreover, these discoveries show that Hezbollah undoubtedly received money and armaments from Iran. This made dramatic attacks such as the guided missile attack on the Israeli naval destroyer possible. However, although this was a propaganda coup for Hezbollah it was the tenacious campaign by its fighters on the ground that caused the Israeli regime its major difficulties.

But western commentators are in the main unable to really explain the main reason for its effectiveness as a fighting force. Undoubtedly its fighters are well trained and extremely courageous. One Israeli general commented during the recent fighting: "If you are waiting for a white flag coming out of the Hezbollah bunker, I can assure you it won’t come. They are extremists, they will go all the way". (The Best Guerrilla Force in the World, Washington Post, 14 August) But the reason for their courage and effectiveness is that all their fighters are fighting to save their jobs, lands and houses and those of future generations. What is more they have the support of the local population for their struggle.

This explains the huge difficulties that the IDF ground war faced. Repeatedly, IDF officials claimed the capture of towns like Bint Jbeil only to admit a few days later that fighting was still going on. In the end, the IDF only could gain control of these areas by bombing them to the ground.

Despite the hammer blows of the Israeli regime, Hezbollah continued fighting. Outrage against the Israeli attacks, rather than uniting the Lebanese population against Hezbollah, led to the complete opposite. One opinion poll at the height of the bombing put support for Hezbollah at 85% amongst the Christian population. It was even higher amongst other sections.

However, while there is support for it across the country, the main question is whether Hezbollah can break the cycle of sectarianism that has been part of Lebanese politics and build lasting active support across the community divide, and a membership amongst all religious and ethnic groups? Despite its popularity, which at the moment will probably continue to rise across Lebanon, this is unlikely to happen. The Islamic slogans and phraseology that is still used by Hezbollah is likely to cause fears and suspicion amongst members of non-Muslim communities in Lebanon that, in the last analysis, the organisation is only interested in defending the rights of Shias.

It has to be recognised that, while Hezbollah may gain broad popular support under certain conditions (as in the current situation created by Israel’s assault and the power vacuum in Lebanon), in its ideology, popular base and external connections, it is essentially a sectarian organisation. Under changed conditions of intensified sectarian conflict in Lebanon (between Shia, Christians, Sunnis, Druze, etc) it can swing back to narrow Shia-sectarian policies. The Hezbollah leadership will never escape these political limits on the basis of policies that ultimately accept the rotten framework of capitalism. Only a programme of socialist change, capable of uniting the working class and poor across sectarian divisions, could provide a way out.

Workers’ unity & socialism

Under the conditions of poverty and want which exist in the Middle East for the majority of the population, and which are even more pronounced in the post-war situation, the potential for a mass united struggle of the working class and rural poor undoubtedly exists. But in order to realise this potential a cross-community working-class party is needed, which has a political programme and methods of uniting the poorest sections of the population. Such a party could only achieve this unity by explaining the class basis of society and by putting forward demands which deal with the common problems of the working class and rural poor, be they Sunni, Shia, Christian or Druze. Part of these demands would also be a recognition of the democratic rights of all minorities and their right to practise the religion they wanted to. But such a party could only maintain unity by going beyond basic economic and democratic demands which deal with everyday problems. It would have to explain that division and sectarian strife are part of the capitalist system and a socialist society is necessary to overcome these divisions once and for all.

In the absence of such a socialist and mass workers’ party, other tendencies can develop in society of division and conflict between the different ethnic and religious sections of society, whipped up by reactionary forces. When they feel confident, such forces will try to whip up propaganda against Hezbollah as the ‘party of the Shias’. Under conditions where Hezbollah sees its popularity beginning to fall or where there are increasing sectarian tensions in society, the leadership could bring its Shia Islamic ideology to the fore, thus leading to even greater polarisation.

The movement against increases in electricity prices gives an indication of what can happen. This movement was undermined by right-wing parties blaming Hezbollah for the increases because it was supposedly taking electricity out of the national grid illegally for Shias in the south of the country. Hezbollah will not be able to fully answer these propaganda attacks to the satisfaction of the members of non-Shia communities. These fears can only be answered through building support for the ideas of workers’ unity and socialism.

Socialist ideas will not be accepted automatically by the masses and will have to be systematically built in Lebanon and across the Middle East. This is especially the case given the immediate popularity that Hezbollah has achieved. In fact, the ideas of guerrilla struggle against imperialism will be given a big boost in the countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America as a result of Hezbollah’s victory.

Undoubtedly, the IDF suffered a military defeat at the hands of Hezbollah’s small guerrilla army. But can Hezbollah’s tactics prevent future invasions of Lebanon by the Israeli regime? Can they end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza? Will they bring about a fundamental change in the conditions of abject poverty the Arab masses are sinking further into every day, for surely this is what the struggle against Israeli capitalism and US imperialism is all about?

In order to achieve these aims, the social and economic conditions that lead to poverty and oppression need to be removed. This means a struggle to overthrow Israeli capitalism and drive the feudal-capitalist Arab elite out of power in the Middle East.

Under certain conditions guerrilla struggle can be an important auxiliary to the struggle against imperialist aggression and exploitation. But on its own, this tactic cannot succeed, for example, in overthrowing the Israeli capitalist state. Frustrating an invasion by the IDF of Lebanon is one thing. Militarily destroying the Israeli army in a lasting defeat is something quite different and beyond the military capabilities of Hezbollah. But in order to end the possibility of future invasions by the Israeli regime then the Israeli state machine has to be defeated.

The only possibility is to undermine the social base on which the Israeli state rests, as a first step to overthrowing capitalism in Israel. This means splitting away the Israeli Jewish working class (whom the state relies upon to fight its wars) from the ruling class, and winning them to the idea of overthrowing capitalism in the region. In order to do this the fears that the Israeli Jewish workers have for their survival have to be answered. It is for this reason that, while we fully supported the right of Hezbollah to defend Lebanon from invasion by the Israeli regime, we did not consider it correct to fire rockets at Israeli civilian areas. This drove Israeli Jewish workers into the arms of their ruling class, thus strengthening its position

The existence of an Israeli national consciousness has to be recognised. However, we do not believe this should be done at the expense of the rights of a Palestinian nation to exist. How will it possible to accommodate the national rights of the Israeli nation, the Palestinian masses and the Arab masses in general? This is not possible under capitalism. Only by utilising the resources and wealth of the Middle East in the interests of the majority, will it be possible to give an answer to all the problems and fears faced by the Arab and Palestinian masses and the Israeli Jewish working class. This could be achieved through the struggle for a socialist confederation of the Middle East in which a socialist Palestine exists alongside a socialist Israel.

Hezbollah’s victory will not only mean a rise in support for the ideas of guerrilla struggle. Given the brutal application of neo-liberal economic policies and US imperialism’s military intervention in the region, an explosive mix exists. Up to now one factor that partially held back social upheavals amongst the Arab masses was the feeling of powerlessness, an inability to stand up to the oppressive dictatorial regimes across the Middle East. However, the defeat of the IDF has raised confidence to its highest level in decades and exposed the weakness of the majority of Arab leaders. Under conditions like this, nervous regimes which attempt to crush any opposition could find that, unlike on previous occasions, such methods are a spark for massive social protests.

In Iraq, the insurgency is likely to become bolder as a result of the difficulties of US imperialism’s main regional ally. Shia groups, such as the forces around Moqtada al-Sadr and even Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, will possibly adopt a more strident anti-US position.

The Ahmadinejad regime will feel more confident of demanding further concessions from the EU powers and US imperialism over the offer they have made to try to persuade Iran to stop its attempts at producing weapons’ grade uranium. In fact, the Iranian regime, which has just carried out extensive war games in the Baluchi area of the country as a ‘warning to its enemies’, may even go as far as carrying out its threat to reject the package put forward by the EU completely. This would once again lead to a rapid sharpening of tensions in the region and would pose a major headache for US imperialism.

Israeli political crisis

However, it is in Israel that the most immediate and sharpest changes in consciousness and developments could be seen. The result of the war will see a growth in political instability and fears for the future amongst wider sections of the population. The Kadima government has entered a period of crisis. It is not guaranteed that Olmert and Amir Peretz, the defence minister, will even keep their jobs. Support for Olmert has gone down from 78% to 40%.

Peretz languishes at 28% support, a complete turnaround from the position which he had when he was first elected leader of the Labour Party in November 2005. Many working-class Israelis regarded him as breaking the mould of Israeli politics because he was the first Labour leader to come from a poor working-class background and spoke their language. Peretz initially put forward radical demands like a doubling in the minimum wage and for a state-run pension system. During the general election campaign he dumped most of these policies and, just a few months later, has ended up as one of Israel’s most unpopular politicians ostensibly in charge of one of the most disastrous military campaigns in the country’s history.

Kadima was the creation of the former prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and contains many of the old dinosaurs of Israeli politics from the two main traditional parties, Likud and Labour. It has no clear ideology or programme apart from the commitment to a unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank and the declaration of final borders of a Palestinian state. With the crisis in confidence in the government, Olmert has had to announce the shelving of this plan, the main promise his party made in the election campaign.

One process in Israeli society emphasised by the war is the undermining of the institutions of capitalist rule, particularly the way in which the army is viewed. This would have important implications in any country but in Israel, whose army has had mythical status in what is essentially a capitalist warrior state, these are even more serious. On top of this is a further undermining of the already low standing of the political elite.

Despite the huge initial public support amongst Israeli Jews for the war, particularly after Hezbollah rockets started falling on civilian areas, the perception developed that the politicians and generals had no clear aims and were continually surprised by developments during the fighting. A commentator in Ha’aretz, dealing with Olmert’s future, wrote: "You cannot lead an entire nation to war promising victory, produce humiliating defeat and remain in power. You cannot bury 120 Israelis in cemeteries, keep a million Israelis in shelters for a month, wear down deterrent power, bring the next war very close and then say – oops, I made a mistake. This was not the intention. Pass me a cigar please". (15 August)

An indication of the problems that will come the way of the ruling class is the huge scandal which broke out immediately after the ceasefire, centring on the Chief of Army Staff, General Halutz. It was revealed that in the three hours following the initial attack by Hezbollah, before Halutz ordered the implementation of the military campaign, he contacted the manager of his $15,000-share portfolio and instructed him to immediately sell – a new version of insider dealing! There is outrage that, while a war was being prepared which was portrayed as one for the ‘survival of Israel’, its top general was preoccupied with his personal wealth! This is especially so given the complaints that surfaced at the end of the war from mobilised reservists about the lack of equipment, supplies (including water!) and the total chaos which the generals presided over. These criticisms are particularly important since all adults in Israel below retirement age are, in effect, reservists.

In the absence of a genuine workers’ party which could channel this anger electorally, it is likely, given peoples’ fear for their security, that the standing of right-wing politicians like Netanyahu could rise once again. A more right-wing coalition government cannot even be ruled out in the future. However, even if this perspective is borne out, this does not mean social peace in Israeli society. There is likely to be a re-emergence of fierce class battles as workers are forced to pay the costs of this conflict. Among more conscious sections of the population, particularly among young people, a new radicalisation will develop. This will result in increased interest in the socialist and revolutionary ideas put forward by Maavak Sotzialisti, the CWI’s affiliated organisation in Israel.

Volatile situation

The fact that the Israeli military elite suffered a defeat opens up a new and possibly dangerous situation in Middle Eastern politics in the medium term. While it would seem logical that the Israeli regime should hold back from further military action, the ruling class will want to repair the damage done to its image and may attempt more military adventures.

The Israeli regime is likely to take a much harder line in the West Bank and Gaza. Even before the end of the war, the IDF was increasing its repressive measures in Gaza, partially hidden from world view by the war in Lebanon. Up to 151 people were killed in the Gaza strip in July, the highest level for two years. A UN report said that 70% of the population were reliant for their survival on outside food aid. It is clear that this is the result of the IDF attacks on Gaza over the last few months.

A further contributing factor to instability is the ceasefire itself. There are many issues unanswered by the UN-brokered ceasefire. It is not even certain that it will hold. The agreement calls for 15,000 Lebanese troops to be deployed in south Lebanon and a similar number of UN troops to act as a buffer between Israel and Lebanon.

The implication of the resolution is that the Lebanese army should be responsible for the policing of Hezbollah. If this responsibility had been given to the UN forces this would have very rapidly led to clashes with what would have been seen as a new foreign occupation force acting in the interests of the Israeli regime, camouflaged in the blue helmets of the UN.

But it is ruled out that the Lebanese army will attempt to forcibly disarm Hezbollah. Under present conditions soldiers would refuse to obey orders and would probably go over to the side of Hezbollah. There has clearly been an interim agreement between the Lebanese government and Hezbollah leaders that Hezbollah fighters will store their weapons and rockets but will not disarm.

This has been openly acknowledged by Lebanese leaders and some UN officials, even while US and Israeli leaders have been asserting that the role of the Lebanese army and the multinational force is to disarm Hezbollah. "The role of this [UN-sponsored multinational] force", announced UN deputy general secretary, Mark Malloch Brown, "is no large-scale disarmament of Hezbollah but rather policing a political agreement". (International Herald Tribune, 19 August) The ‘political agreement’ is really a charade designed to allow Israel a way out.

"It’s not a search-and-seizure operation", stated the Lebanese premier, Fouad Siniora, referring to the deployment of the Lebanese army in the south. "The army would not ask militants to relinquish their weapons", confirmed Lebanon’s defence minister, Elias Murr (International Herald Tribune, 16 August). "The reality", commented the International Herald Tribune (18 August), "is a kind of murky deal in which Hezbollah takes its weapons off the streets and the army does not look too hard, if at all, for them".

France, which had initially indicated it would play the major role within the UN force, has only committed 200 soldiers so far! This is because the French ruling class realises that a UN force could end up being seen as occupiers and suffer big casualties. This is why France and other countries have asked for clearer rules of engagement – at the moment they are not happy with the fact that they can only retaliate militarily if they are attacked. A number of countries have also expressed concerns about the unclear chain of command in the UN force.

The UN force has been given the responsibility to stop the transit of weapons into southern Lebanon from Syria and further afield. However, it is likely that if it implements this proposal forcibly, clashes with Hezbollah will develop. At the moment, the UN agreement is in danger of being completely compromised by the failure of different countries to provide soldiers.

This is why some Israeli commentators have claimed that the recent conflict was a precursor for the ‘next war’. Alain Gresh wrote: "Not since 1967 has the Middle East suffered so many simultaneous high-intensity crises. Though each has its own rationale, they are linked by many threads, making partial solutions more difficult and dragging the region even faster into the abyss". (Le Monde Diplomatique, August 2006)

The latest war in the Middle East demonstrates the incapability of capitalism and imperialism to solve any of the growing problems of the region. The devastation in Lebanon gives a concrete reminder of the necessity to build a movement across the region for a struggle for socialism and a socialist confederation of Middle Eastern states to begin to repair the damage done over decades by imperialism and their supporters.

  • All foreign troops out of Lebanon
  • For the defence of the national and religious rights of all minorities
  • For a socialist confederation of the Middle East with a socialist Lebanon, a socialist Israel and a socialist Palestine

[Part One (posted yesterday) and Two of this article will also appear in the September 2006 issue of Socialism Today, monthly magazine of the Socialist Party, England and Wales]

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