In the early hours of September 13, 1997, the Israeli army killed one 45-year-old woman, two Hezbollah fighters, and six Lebanese soldiers in the mountains of southern Lebanon. Later that day, Hezbollah officials viewed video footage of the bodies and confirmed that one of the slain was a precious kill indeed: 18-year-old Hadi Nasrallah, son of Hezbollah’s leader, Secretary-General Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah.
That evening, Nasrallah was scheduled to give a speech in Haret Hreik, the southern Beirut suburb where Hezbollah’s offices are located. His second-in-command, Sheik Naim Qassem, offered to speak in his place. But, when the Lebanese turned on their televisions that evening, they saw the bearded, boyish face–at 37, looking hardly more than a youth himself–of Hassan Nasrallah.
Though the entire nation knew by then that he had lost his son, Nasrallah didn’t mention it. He commemorated the anniversary of the September 13 massacre, a 1993 incident in which the Lebanese army opened fire on Hezbollah supporters. As he spoke, the audience began to clamor: Why wasn’t he talking about his son?
To this day, people in Lebanon still talk about what happened next. Breaking off from his speech, Nasrallah noted that the country had given many martyrs the previous night. He recited the names of the soldiers and added, almost as an afterthought, that his son and another Hezbollah fighter were also killed. He thanked God for choosing a martyr from his family, saying that, while he used to feel ashamed in front of families whose sons had died for their country, now he could look them in the eye. Hadi’s killing was a victory for Hezbollah, not for Israel, he pointed out: Instead of fighting each other, as in 1993, Lebanon’s army and its guerrillas were united. “We are now fighting together and falling as martyrs together,” said Nasrallah, as the audience cheered and chanted Hadi’s name. “This is a great victory for us, of which we are proud.” And then he went on with his speech.
Timur Goksel, then a senior adviser to the United Nations in Lebanon, watched the speech with a pro-Israel Christian family. “This Christian family, who hated everything Hezbollah stood for, they started crying,” Goksel recalls.
In the Middle East, political leaders are often old, corrupt, and repressive; just as often, they are the pampered, Western-educated sons of aging dictators. There are also guerrilla leaders, who, if they survive, often end up as petty old despots themselves.
And then there is Nasrallah. Revered by the Shia, respected by his enemies, he has already earned the distinction of being the only Arab leader to evict Israel from Arab land without having to sign a peace treaty. But he is also a religious warrior. Today, as he fights a lopsided military battle against the Jewish state, he is becoming an icon–not just in the Arab world, where he was already a hero, but in the umma, the world of Islam. Nasrallah’s war is not just a war between Lebanon and Israel, or even between Iran and America’s allies; it’s a war of myths and images, a battle to transform the Arab and Islamic worlds. Whatever battlefield setbacks Hezbollah may suffer in Lebanon, on this larger stage, Nasrallah has already won.
By Friday, July 14, everyone in Lebanon knew it was war. It was clear that Hezbollah had miscalculated the Israeli response when it kidnapped two Israeli soldiers two days earlier. Israel had bombed the airport and bridges, blockaded the ports, and killed dozens of people, most of them civilians. The Lebanese were succumbing to collective panic, cleaning out grocery store shelves, buying up gasoline, and frantically withdrawing U.S. dollars. After a defiant press conference on the day of the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers, Nasrallah had disappeared from sight. Rumors circulated that he had been struck by an Israeli missile; people were beginning to wonder if he might be dead.
Friday evening, at about 8:30, Nasrallah called in to Al Manar, Hezbollah’s TV station. He sounded tired and sleep-deprived, like a man living underground. But his voice was firm, and the photograph that accompanied his speech showed, somewhat surreally, his trademark sunny, open smile. He began by offering condolences to the families of the martyrs, who had given their lives “in the noblest confrontation and battle that the modern age has known, or rather that all history has known.” He taunted the Arab regimes that had abandoned him and reminded the Lebanese of the victory they had won on May 25, 2000, when Israeli troops withdrew from southern Lebanon.
Then he did something no one from Hezbollah had ever done before. Reminding his audience that he had promised them “surprises,” he announced that they would begin momentarily. “Now, in the middle of the sea, facing Beirut, the Israeli warship that has attacked the infrastructure, people’s homes, and civilians–look at it burning,” he said calmly, almost matter-of-factly. As he spoke, out at sea, an Iranian-made C802 missile crashed into the warship. We could see an orange glow, like flares, shooting up from the sea to the sky.
Everyone tuned in to Nasrallah that night. I live in a mixed Beirut neighborhood, not heavily Shia or even exclusively Muslim. But, when he spoke these words, from the buildings around me, I heard a surround-sound rustle of cheers and applause. Outside, caravans of cars rolled through the abandoned streets, and the drivers honked their horns.
It was classic Nasrallah, charismatic and pointed, as if to underscore his difference from other Arab leaders. “In the Arab world, you have two kinds of rhetoricians: the very fiery, passionate kind, who make a lot of false promises, à la Yasir Arafat–the typical Arab rambling and passion that gets you nowhere,” says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a professor of political science at Lebanese American University and author of Hizbu’llah: Politics and Religion. “And you have others who are populist leaders, who are more plainspoken and practical. And Nasrallah is in between both.”
With his dramatic attack on the Israeli ship, Nasrallah upped the stakes, and not just for Lebanon. This was the first time any Arab leader had staged an attack on an Israeli target and announced it simultaneously, live on television. It was as though he had heeded the words of Osama bin Laden’s closest adviser, Ayman Al Zawahiri, who wrote in a letter to Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, that “more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media.”
“Nasrallah, he’s becoming like bin Laden–a star,” says Lebanese journalist Paula Khoury. “Because now he has this ability to address the world. This is a new thing, and it’s dangerous.”
Hezbollah’s pioneering tactic of massive suicide bombings once inspired bin Laden, becoming a classic in the Al Qaeda playbook. With his current war, Nasrallah is innovating once more, this time in the world of images, creating a new template for speaking to the Muslim world. Unlike the Sunni jihadists, he attacks the enemy’s armies, not just its civilians. Unlike Zarqawi, Nasrallah has style. He can match rhetoric to action, as he proved on July 14. And, unlike the lugubrious bin Laden, he can appear practical and pragmatic, down-to-earth–even fun. As Saad-Ghorayeb points out, “What other Arab leader threatens Israel and grins?”
Unlike bin Laden, and in a country where most political leaders inherit their positions, Nasrallah was born into a poor family. It was 1960, a time when Shia were moving to Beirut in droves, up from the south of Lebanon–much as American blacks had made the great migration, and for similar reasons. The son of a greengrocer, Nasrallah grew up in both southern Lebanon and Karantina, a hardscrabble Beirut suburb.
After the civil war broke out, the teenage Nasrallah joined Amal, a Shia empowerment movement created by the charismatic cleric Musa Al Sadr. When Nasrallah decided to study Islam, an Amal cleric wrote him a letter of introduction to Muhammad Baqir Al Sadr, the revolutionary Iraqi cleric who was one of the leading lights of Najaf (and a relative of current Iraqi militia leader Moqtada Al Sadr). In Najaf, he studied with Sayyid Abbas Musawi, who would later become the leader of Hezbollah.
After Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, Iraq became inhospitable to young Shia clerics, and Nasrallah returned to Lebanon, where he eventually joined the new, Iranian-backed militia. He rose to become a commander, serving as ambassador to Iran and leading battles against Israel in the south. When Israel killed Musawi in 1992, Hezbollah’s central command replaced him with his protegé, Nasrallah, then only 31.
Nasrallah surprised the nation–and angered Hezbollah hardliners–when he decided to bring the party into electoral politics, a move that some saw as tantamount to laying down Hezbollah’s arms and giving up its guerrilla status. But, in 2000, when Israel pulled out its last troops from the south of Lebanon, Nasrallah became unassailable. And having members in parliament actually protected Hezbollah’s arms by giving it legitimacy and power in Lebanon’s political sphere. Today, with charity organizations that span the country, 14 of 128 parliamentary seats, and two cabinet ministers, the party is so strong that people describe it as a “state within a state.”
But, even more than this savvy political maneuvering, it was his son’s death, and his stoic reaction to it, that elevated Nasrallah from a sectarian guerrilla leader to something altogether more potent. In the days after Hadi was killed, Lebanese leaders from across the political spectrum–even Christian warlord and bitter enemy Elie Hobeika–paid their respects to Nasrallah and his wife. Nasrallah capitalized on this moment of popularity, opening the ranks of Hezbollah to Lebanese from all sects and forming the Lebanese Brigades, a unit with several thousand non-Shia recruits. A quintessentially Shia leader–a cleric, even–had transcended his sect to become a national hero. The more Israel pounds Hezbollah and Lebanon’s Shia, the more it burnishes Nasrallah’s image as defender of the umma.
There are others who have been vying for that title. In 2004, a London-based Salafi named Abu Basir Al Tartusi wrote a document called “The Lebanese Hezbollah and the Exportation of the Shi’ite Rafidite Ideology.” In the document, Tartusi claimed that Hezbollah is a front group concocted by Iran, the United States, and “its foster daughter, the state of the sons of Zion.” Its sole purpose is to spread Shia Islam throughout the world and prevent authentic–i.e., Sunni Salafi–jihad. In June, just a week before he was killed by a U.S. airstrike, Zarqawi echoed Tartusi’s claims. In an audio message posted on the Internet, he accused Hezbollah of serving as Israel’s security wall against Sunni militants, and, even more bizarrely, he parroted U.S. demands that Hezbollah be disarmed.
On July 21, nine days after his forces captured the two Israeli soldiers, Nasrallah answered Zarqawi and Tartusi. Looking relaxed and reasonable, in a carefully staged interview with Al Jazeera, he mentioned Zarqawi’s statement. “Today, we are Shia fighting Israel,” he pointed out, in a peroration not unlike the one he made the day his son died. “Our fighting and steadfastness is a victory to our brothers in Palestine, who are Sunnis, not Shia. So, we, Shia and Sunnis, are fighting together against Israel, which is supported, backed, and made powerful by America.” In a brilliant inversion of Tartusi’s logic, Nasrallah even suggested that “some Arabs” were collaborating with Israel to smash the resistance in Lebanon.
Hardcore Sunni jihadists, especially those who congregate online, will probably continue to distrust Nasrallah and all Shia. But, closer to the Islamist mainstream, powerful and popular Islamist groups like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood have come out strongly in support of Hezbollah. On Al Jazeera, the Brotherhood’s leader, Mahdi Akef, hailed Nasrallah, saying that “the Lebanese who captured the Zionist soldiers are true nationalists, led by a great man.”
What do the Shia, his main constituency, really think of Nasrallah and his war? Among the religious majority, especially the moderates, Nasrallah is adored and respected, an emblem of Islam and Arab pride. According to the independent Lebanese pollster Abdo Saad, people have begun referring to him as the “shadow of God.”
Not all Shia are happy. Lebanon’s Shia merchant class, like all the country’s bourgeoisie, has been devastated by the current conflict. But, in the end, Hezbollah may not care that much about local public opinion. What matters far more than Nasrallah’s eventual victory or defeat is the iconography he has created: that of an Arab leader who, unlike all the others, isn’t afraid to defend the umma. “This is the decisive battle for the region. … If he succeeds, then it will reverberate throughout the region.” And, if he loses, it may reverberate just the same–and just as violently.
Annia Ciezadlo is a Beirut-based writer.
Annia Ciezadlo PO Box 113-5498 Beirut, Lebanon +961 1 750 982 (land) +961 3 274 360 (mobile) email: firstname.lastname@example.org