A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 October, 2010, 12:00am

A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel
by Thanassis Cambanis
Free Press, HK$216

This book's most surprising revelation is how progressive Hezbollah are. Members of the war-inclined Shiite organisation with strong ties to Iran and a burning urge to create a fundamentalist Islamic state in Lebanon might happily read The Guardian or Village Voice.

For a start, male members of the sect sworn to the destruction of Israel are allowed to cry. In one passage the author, veteran Middle East correspondent Thanassis Cambanis, describes how the current and third secretary general of Hezbollah, Sayyid Nasrallah, weeps at the death of his son killed by Israelis. In Shia culture it is not a sign of weakness for a man to weep as an act of mourning.

Nor, despite Hezbollah's macho image, are women held in contempt. In fact, although barred from upper ranks, Islamist 'soccer moms' thrive within the party bureaucracy.

Despite the limitless appetite for war with Israel, its social slant is oddly positive. Cambanis describes the 'party of God's' doctrine as 'an Islamic prosperity gospel': a kind of holistic self-improvement movement that echoes American born-again Christian churches.

'Hezbollah preaches strength through discipline,' Cambanis writes. 'It steeps its membership in Islamic teachings about everything from safe sex and hygiene to family responsibilities and financial planning. Hezbollah encourages its constituents to work hard and seek more prosperous lives for their families.'

'Sign me up,' the reader may think. Digging deeper, Cambanis reveals the sect's demographics that, again, may come as a surprise. Hezbollah, it turns out, is far from just an army of thugs, although thugs play a key cameo role. A rebuttal to the cartoon image of dreary and desperate terrorists, Cambanis' case studies are often aspirational middle-class types.

Read: engineers, teachers, merchants, landlords, drivers, builders, nurses: people with jobs and children - people like you and me. Defined by discipline and restraint, they are united by one simple secret: the followers believe.

'Ideology matters to them,' Cambanis writes. 'Hezbollah has steeped them in a consuming way of thinking about God, their neighbourhoods, their habits, and their omnipresent enemy.'

The bad news is that the followers like war. Or they are good at it. Deploying their signature rockets, they have humiliated Israel more than once, most recently in 2006. Operation Truthful Promise began in July of that year when Hezbollah troops unleashed rockets on several Israeli towns as a diversion, then crossed from Lebanon into Israel and ambushed two Israeli Army vehicles, killing three Israeli soldiers and capturing two. The ensuing battle continued until a United Nations-brokered ceasefire came into force on August 14, though it formally ended on September 8, 2006, when Israel lifted its naval blockade of Lebanon. Still, Hezbollah recorded the 33-day fight as a victory. Cambanis calls it 'winning by surviving'.

Another of the many powerful points that this book makes is that Hezbollah represents a current and potent threat. Also that, despite its fearsome aura, Israel can be beaten - or repelled.

Cambanis' analysis of the arch-enemies oozes authority boosted by a simple fact - he actually went there. He met the people who do Hezbollah's grass-roots work on the battlefields, in politics, in nightclubs, and in scout troops. Cambanis portrays the everyday folk - especially a street fighter called Dergham Dergham - strikingly. Likewise, Cambanis analyses the bigwigs brilliantly. Just look at his assessment of Sayyid Nasrallah.

'His sense of humour, perhaps more than anything else, endeared Nasrallah to his audience. In the great loamy amphitheatre of Arab politics, minor cults of personality regularly sprung up like mushrooms after a rain [sic], and quickly withered. Hoarse leaders screamed that they would refuse this tyranny or reject that insult. In two matters Nasrallah differed from all the other leaders, demagogues, and militants, bar none: he took his cause much more seriously than he took himself, and he liked to laugh, making himself the first butt of his jokes.'

Cambanis is a top-notch stylist and analyst, as you might expect, given his credentials. He has covered the Middle East and the Arab world for The Boston Globe and The New York Times. Today he teaches journalism and foreign policy at Columbia University.

Every page of Cambanis' portrait of the 'gangster party of God' carries a charge. Finally, the reader may be left wondering why the Palestinian nationalist group Hamas and al-Qaeda grab so much attention. The book trenchantly makes the case that Hezbollah and its millions of foot soldiers are the leading force in the Middle East.