Book Review: Hezbollah: An Outsider’s Inside View
by Brenda Heard
Reviewed by Richard Edmondson
Hezbollah is routinely branded a “terrorist” organization by Western media, but if asked, most Americans would probably be hard-pressed to name a single terrorist act the group has committed (armed resistance against a military occupation of one’s country does not constitute terrorism).
Yet the media resolutely go on labeling the group with words like “extremist,” “militant,” “fanatic,” etc. in a deliberate effort to manipulate public opinion. Why?
In her book, Hezbollah: An Outsider’s Inside View,” Brenda Heard gives us an answer to that question. It is an answer that can be found in the words of dozens in the Resistance movement she has interviewed going back to the year 2006—when she first arrived in Lebanon in the immediate aftermath of the July War.
In this book we find the stories of Hezbollah fighters, its health care workers and other support personnel, as well as average, ordinary people in southern Lebanon, some of whom have lived through repeated Israeli onslaughts upon their country. All have a story to share, and make no mistake about it, some of these stories are deeply moving. They entail courage, endurance, sacrifices, and yes, the willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Taken altogether, Heard paints a picture of a movement whose rank and file members are loyal to an ideal and also guided by a deep faith in God, along with a leadership that has, at least thus far, refused to be corrupted. From the perspective of Israel and the US, that’s a dangerous threat.
In other words, what Heard gives us is the story of Hezbollah the mainstream media doesn’t want us to hear.
“We emphasize and focus on integrity and honesty because our religion calls on us to do so,” says Sheik Naim Qassem, whose meeting with Heard is described in chapter four of the book. “To be Hezbollah, we must be frank with others. If we aren’t like that, then we would be something else, but not Hezbollah.”
Described by Heard as “a man at the core of Hezbollah,” Qassem is a co-founder of the organization and has served as its deputy secretary general since 1991. He is also the author of what might perhaps be described as the definitive, go-to book on the group, Hizbullah: The Story From Within, published in 2004. According to Qassem, “we find that the resistance fighter who fights is at the same time a university student, a homemaker, and has social relationships and personal relationships.” He refines the profile even further:
He goes to the ballot and to demonstrations. And he prays and acts in a very honest fashion. All of this is part of our duty. We can never be religious and not have morals in dealing with others. Praying is not enough. Praying is a means to behavior to steer us away from wrong doings.
Heard tells of her first visit to a Hezbollah resistance camp in southern Lebanon in the autumn of 2008, and in the process casts doubt on one of Israel’s most standard, boiler plate claims. “Had I not read allegations that the Resistance hid themselves amongst the civilian populations as shields?” she asks. “Was that not the justification cited for bombing civilian communities? Here I was on the threshold of a Resistance camp, and there was neither sight nor sound of any civilian. The birds were their only companions.”
The author ends up touring the camp in the company of a Hezbollah fighter named Abbas, who she finds helpful, friendly, and open. In fact, her reception in the camp shatters the media stereotypes we so often hear:
I found it ironic that the Western media stated time and again that the men of Hezbollah despised and shunned all things Western. They were supposed to be half-serious, half-crazed men full of hate and judgement. Yet here was a man at the heart of the Hezbollah Resistance, and he talked to me with respect and with kindness…I sensed a graciousness in Abbas, who seemed so proud of his work as he ushered us about the grounds, yet who at the same time seemed so humble when explaining his own role. I picked up a shell casing from the ground and asked if I could keep it. His eyes widened with delight and answered, “of course,” as though I’d merely popped by for a social visit and requested a second cup of tea.
Later, when Abbas walked Heard and her guide back to their car, he bade her farewell with the words, “May God bless you.”
Heard’s experiences are not dissimilar from my own encounters when I visited Beirut last year, during which time I spent several days in the city’s southern suburb of Dahiyeh. The people were friendly and more than willing to stop and offer help to a confused westerner. We are all accustomed to the lies and deceit of the mainstream media, yet I have come to suspect that one of the most malevolent deceits of all is the media’s attempts to equate Hezbollah with ISIS, for what Heard’s book by and large conveys is that the truth may just well be the opposite—and that Hezbollah, if anything, is the complete antithesis of ISIS.
In addition to Abbas and other Resistance people active in the struggle today, Heard also introduces us to Hezbollah veterans of previous conflicts, some of whom gave and sacrificed much in the fight against the Israelis. One of these is Haj Hussein, one of the group’s very first fighters, who is today blind and wheelchair-bound but who says he would do it all over again. Or take Abu Hassan, who in January of 1989 set off on a Hezbollah mission to seize an Israeli command post built on the hill of Beer-Kallab during the Jewish state’s occupation of southern Lebanon. This was still in the early years of that occupation, and Hassan was the only one of his unit of ten men to make it back alive. Spotting their movements down below, the Israelis began to open fire. In Hassan’s words:
For almost an hour, the Israelis, sheltered in their Merkavas, were bombing us. Their 105mm cannons fired shells toward our location. Some shells were just explosive, some poisonous, some packed like cluster bombs with nails. Myself, I was hit with thirty-four nails. Thirty-four. One of our men was hit just once, directly between the eyes. I watched a thin trickle of blood run down his nose, and instantly he was still, and the blood was just frozen there on his nose…
We waited. Many of the men were hit severely. Some were bleeding badly, missing legs and arms. I managed to bring some water from the stream, and I offered it first to one and then another, but each man waved me off and, looking toward the others of our unit, told me to save it for his fellow fighters, as they were worse off and needed it more.
One of our unit, Ahmed, was only eighteen years old. He was popular and clever in school. He was dedicated in religion. He was popular amongst his family and friends. A shell hit him and took off one of his legs completely. He stumbled up and held onto a tree. He said ‘Ya-Hussein, I’m here, I’m ready to go with you.’
Eventually “all the men lay as martyrs around me,” with only Hassan left alive. Then a strange thing happened; a wild animal, a hyena, appeared.
I watched the animal, afraid that it would try to eat the bodies. It walked around them, sniffing. But instead of setting on them as prey, the hyena nestled up to each of them, flipping the bodies over, one by one. It nuzzled them the way a cat will do and then it licked their wounds. The hyena then reached to Ahmed. It watched him for a moment and then turned and walked back toward me.
The hyena continued toward me, stopped and just looked at me. I stood up. It walked in front of me and I followed. I didn’t think about it, I just followed. I knew it was three days walk back to the safe-house in Ein et Tine. I asked Sayyeda Zahra [ed.-the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad] to take care of me. It was snowing. I started walking. The trees, the ground, it was all covered with snow.
The hyena stayed just in front of me and it seemed as if it were guiding me all the way back through the Bekaa Valley. I just followed and ended up back at the safe-house.
Reading Hassan’s words, we kind of get a feeling of what the Arabic word sumud, or “steadfastness,” is all about. From a strategical standpoint the mission was a failure. But Hassan doesn’t view it that way. “That mission was a victory in that we were opening the door for those who would follow,” he says. And follow they did—until eventually, in the spring of 2000, Hezbollah drove the Israelis out of southern Lebanon.
The victory of 2000, and the “’divine victory” which followed in 2006 are also covered in Heard’s work. But in addition to supplying us with war stories, Heard also details the efforts of Hezbollah social services organizations. One of these is the Islamic Health Society. With 102 health centers located throughout Lebanon, the IHS provides all levels of health care, from physical exams to surgeries, making its services available to one and all, without distinction to religious affiliation. “We serve all people,” says Hasan Ammar, IHS assistant general manager. “A human being is a human being, whether he is Shia, Christian, Sunni, whatever, a human being is a human being.”
Another organization is Jihad al Binaa, a construction and engineering firm that undertakes the task of rebuilding homes and infrastructure following each Israeli assault upon the country (al binaa means “the construction” in Arabic). As may be imagined, the firm was faced with monumental challenges in the wake of the 2006 war. Its achievements earned for it the wrath of the US Treasury Department, where Under Secretary Stuart Levey initiated an endeavor to freeze its assets and forbade Americans from engaging in financial transactions with it, this while the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, one of America’s more ignominious think tanks, issued a policy paper, in February 2007, entitled “Shutting Hizbollah’s ‘Construction Jihad.’” Commenting upon it all, Heard states the matter rather succinctly:
The sell line was, in other words, that if Jihad al Binaa were to build a roof over the heads of orphans Ali and Mohammed, heaven only knows what terrorism they may get up to. The rationale was more likely that they had just spent millions of dollars knocking down all those buildings, and down is where they wanted them to stay. And they were certainly not going to tolerate Hezbollah looking like the good guys when they had invested so much time and effort painting them as the bad guys.
Another valuable aspect of the book is an analysis of mainstream media’s almost universally negative portrayals of Hezbollah, and particularly of interest here are the New York Times’ treatment of the Mahdi Scouts, Hezbollah’s youth movement, in two articles published in 2008, as well as a discussion on the film Syriana, a Hollywood production whose objective, in the author’s words, is to “reinforce in the viewer’s mind that Hezbollah is a mafia-styled militia maintaining an oppressive society over which they rule with absolute authority.”
Heard has also set up a website, which functions more or less as an appendix to the book and which includes a number of documents pertaining to various topics covered in the book. Among these is a series of letters exchanged between officials in Lebanon and the World Scout Bureau in Geneva pertaining to the Times’ reporting on the Mahdi Scouts. In one of the letters, the head of the Lebanese Scout Federation assures that the main Times article, headlined “Hezbollah Seeks to Marshal the Piety of the Young” and published on November 21, 2008, “does not rely on any facts or evidences,” and that “the source of these rumors was Israel.”
Heard covers a lot of ground here, and through it all serves up observations of her own that are at times witty and often thought provoking. The author says she wrote the book to answer “the question that has been asked for years by the concerned Westerner: who are those people over there and do we really need to be scared of them?” My answer to that question, after reading her book, is that Americans have much more to fear from the Zionist lobby than from Hezbollah.
Generally speaking, the author has been thorough. However, one criticism I would offer is that nowhere in the book is there any discussion on where Hezbollah gets its funding. Does it levy taxes? Does it perhaps collect religious tithes from the Shia community in Lebanon? We haven’t heard any stories about Hezbollah engaging in drug trafficking, and one would assume that if something of that sort were going on that the media would be all over it like flies on honey.
More than likely there’s a certain amount of foreign assistance from Iran, but does that cover all of its costs, including equipping its soldiers as well as keeping the doors of its 102 medical clinics open? Doubtful—particularly given the sanctions that Iran has been under all these years. Maybe the Lebanese government appropriates some funds for the clinics. That would seem like a reasonable arrangement given the services they provide to the public. Or maybe the answer is simply that “God provides.” Still, it would be nice if the author had offered some information or at least some speculation on the matter.
Be that as it may, if you are interested in how a minority population in an invaded and occupied country defied the odds and kicked out the occupiers, this is a book you should read. Hezbollah: An Outsider’s Inside View was published in 2015. It is available from Arkadia Books, and can be purchased here, here, and here.