Standing Up Against Israel

by Tom Barrett


Some journalists may be able to write objectively and dispassionately about the horrific Israeli assaults on the people of Gaza and Lebanon. I cannot. Seeing even the sanitized images of the Beirut Corniche, where I once walked, looking out on the Mediterranean on one side, and high-rise apartment buildings on the other, buildings which were reduced to rubble during the civil war of the 1970s and were being rebuilt in recent months, and which have now been reduced to rubble again by Israeli bombing, has made me so emotionally upset that I begin to lose control. Reports of the devastation at Baalbek in the Beqaa Valley, an area of remarkable natural beauty and the site of well-preserved Roman ruins, has made me too angry not to speak out. Images of the bombed-out remains of Jibail, also known by its Greek name of Byblos, a center of Lebanese civilization over 4,000 years ago, offend the sensibilities of all civilized people.

Of course, the destruction in the post-1967 occupied territories of Palestine, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, is even worse. I have talked with people who have personal connections to those areas, and it is difficult for them to express in words the depth of their anger and sadness at what the Israelis have done to their homes.

At this writing, a cease-fire sponsored by the U.S. and France has been in effect for nearly a month. After thirty-three days of relentless bombing and the deaths of over a thousand Lebanese, nearly all civilians, the cease-fire, whatever its limitations and injustice, is a welcome relief. The Lebanese people are turning to the task of rebuilding their homes and their lives, and the greatest amount of help, both in terms of physical work and financial aid, is coming, not from the United Nations, not from the United States, not from the Lebanese government, but from Hizbullah, the “Party of God,” which was the ostensible target of the Israeli attack.

At the same time, however, Israel’s monstrous attack on the Palestinian Arabs of the Gaza Strip continues unabated. Indiscriminate shooting of civilians, demolition of homes, and an overall state of siege has made life in the Gaza Strip nearly impossible.

There are many good sources for the account of what exactly happened during the thirty-three days of the Israeli bombing and invasion. One of the best is “The 33-Day War and UNSC Resolution 1701” by the Lebanese writer and activist Gilbert Achcar, who now lives in France. We will not repeat here the information in Achcar’s article. However, it is necessary and important to address some of the political complexities of the contradictory political formation known as the “Party of God,” in Arabic, Hizbullah.

Hizbullah is an armed political movement of the Shi’i Muslim community of Lebanon, which during the past thirty or more years has become the largest religious community in this country where the coexistence and interaction of its religious communities has been the dominant factor of its history. (Sometimes its name is spelled as “Hezbollah.” “Hezbollah” is a transliteration of the Farsi language pronunciation of the name, in which all of the vowels are unwritten in the Arabic alphabet. Farsi is the language of Iran. “Hizbullah” is the way it is pronounced in Arabic, the language spoken in Lebanon.) Hizbullah maintains a conventional uniformed army as well as guerrilla units. It is a political party, which fields candidates for electoral office and has a significant presence in the Lebanese parliament. It also organizes a network of social services to aid the Shi’i community, which is the most economically disadvantaged in Lebanese society. As anyone familiar with Islam knows, contributing to charity to aid the poor is one of the “Five Pillars of Islam,” a duty of every devout Muslim. Hizbullah administers the contributions through the Shi’i mosques, providing food, clothing, and other necessities of life to the poor people of their community. The people who benefit from these social services reward Hizbullah with their loyalty and often with their service in Hizbullah’s armed forces. In order to understand how Hizbullah came about, we need to look at Lebanese society and its evolution during the twentieth century.

The Evolution of Modern Lebanon

The modern Lebanese republic has its origin in the French Mandate of Syria in the years following the First World War. Under the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, a secret agreement between Britain and France which was made public by the new Soviet republic in 1917, the Arab lands between the Mediterranean and the plateau of Iran were to be divided between British and French colonialist empires upon the defeat of Ottoman Turkey, which was allied with Germany. The British were to administer the southern half, which has become the states of Israel, Jordan, and Iraq; the French got the northern half, which today is Syria and Lebanon. Lebanon has been since the dawn of history a center of maritime trade, since it has several natural harbors on the Mediterranean coast. Its famous cedar forests in the hills to the east of its coastal plain provided the raw material for shipbuilding. People from all over the Mediterranean basin came to Lebanon to do business over the centuries, and Lebanon’s mountains created the conditions for communities to evolve in relative isolation from other communities in those areas to the east of the coastal region. The result is that Lebanon became a crazy-quilt of religious groupings, each of which had relative autonomy under Turkish rule. These included the Maronites, a Christian group accepting the supremacy of the Roman Catholic Pope, and which has its origin in the Crusades; Orthodox Christians, following the same traditions as practiced in Greece and Russia; Sunni Muslims; Shi’i Muslims; and the Druse, a reclusive and closed Islamic community.

After World War I France ruled Lebanon under a Mandate of the League of Nations. This required them to prepare the region for eventual independence. The original French plans were to set up an independent state for each of Lebanon’s many religious minorities. However, because the different groups were interspersed throughout the territory, there was no way such a plan could be practical. The end result was a small republic of Lebanon, in which different government posts were reserved for representatives of the different religious communities. For example, the Lebanese National Pact, agreed to in 1943, dictates that the president of the republic must be a Maronite Christian and that the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim. The speaker of Parliament must be a Shi’i Muslim; other posts are reserved for the Druse and Orthodox Christians. The relative importance of the positions was based on the groups’ proportions in Lebanon in the 1940s. That has changed considerably in the decades since then.

Those British and French gentlemen who engaged in nation building in the post–World War I period fundamentally misunderstood Middle Eastern people, Middle Eastern history, and Middle Eastern society. That even includes some who were most sympathetic to Arab and Islamic people, such as Colonel T.E. Lawrence, who was the British liaison to the Hashemite tribe (today the royal family of the Kingdom of Jordan), as they led an uprising against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.

What they did not get is that countries as we think of them are really a Western European concept, and they did not spring from the creation of God, but rather they evolved over centuries and they did so basically for economic reasons, to insure internal peace and safe transportation in the interests of commerce. In the Middle East, international commerce has always been a way of life, and under the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman empires, many peoples, languages, and religious communities coexisted and traded. People paid taxes to the central ruler, whether emperor, caliph, or sultan, but their first loyalty was to their extended family. Even one’s religious community, as important as that has always been, has never been as central, and in any case, one’s religion was always determined not by individual choice but by one’s family. For example: my own parents grew up as Southern Baptists, but as young adults made the choice to convert to the Protestant Episcopal Church, the American co-religionists of the Church of England. In the United States such a thing may cause a little awkwardness, but it happens every day. In traditional Middle Eastern society it is unthinkable. To be sure, there are Middle Eastern people, and plenty of them, who are guided by rational thought and are not bound by the old traditions of the past. However, the connection between family loyalty and religion is much stronger in the Middle East than in the West, for Muslims, for Christians, for Jews, for Zoroastrians, for all the religious groups of the region. Loyalty to a nation-state takes second place. For example, no Shi’i Muslim in Iraq gives a second thought to the fact that the Grand Ayatollah in Iraq, Ali as-Sistani, is in fact a Persian, born in Iran. However, the resentment for decades that the central government in Baghdad was dominated by Sunni Muslims was strong and deep.

Whether Lebanon is viable as a nation-state at all is open to serious question. It is too small and too poor in natural resources (its famous cedar forests are hardly significant in this century) to sustain a national economy. The central mountain range divides the territory into distinct regions where distinct communities have evolved, communities which mistrust the communities in other regions. During the 1950s and 1960s the United States and the Western European powers attempted to mold Lebanon into a cosmopolitan financial and commercial center for the Middle East, a kind of eastern Mediterranean Switzerland. My family’s connection with Lebanon began in 1962, when my second-cousin’s husband was appointed to the position of Dean of Agriculture at the American University of Beirut (AUB). The university was transformed from a Presbyterian missionary school to a world-class university with outstanding faculties in medicine and engineering, among other disciplines. It was also well-known as a place where CIA agents observed the radicalization among Arab intellectuals, and the developing Palestinian resistance. The United States took a great interest in Lebanon, both as a financial/commercial center and as a base for staging military action. When the Iraqi monarchy was overthrown in 1958, for example, President Eisenhower dispatched the Marines to Beirut, poised to go into Iraq if the need arose.

The Lebanese civil war put an end to the dream of Lebanon as the “Switzerland of the Middle East.” For fifteen years the Lebanese people endured a nightmare of chaos and violence. My second-cousin and her husband returned to the United States in 1978, and to this day she suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome that requires intense medication to enable her just to get through a day. Her husband resigned his position of Dean of Agriculture and declined the offer of the presidency of the university. His successor as Dean was taken captive by a Shi’i guerrilla group and held for two years in the Beqaa Valley. The name of the group was Hizbullah.

What Is Hizbullah? What Is It Trying to Do?

Hizbullah was founded in 1982, right in the middle of the period of civil strife that tore Lebanese society apart. Its purpose was to lead the Shi’i Muslims of southern Lebanon in resistance against Israel, which had occupied the region earlier that year. As we have mentioned, by 1982 the Shi’i had become the largest religious community in the country.

Hizbullah took its name and its inspiration from the Iranian revolution of 1979. The Iranian Party of God was the agent of the Thermidorean reaction in that country, carrying out physical intimidation and repression of trade unions and socialist groups in order to consolidate the power of the Shi’i clerics, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The Lebanese Hizbullah, by contrast, has never directed offensive action against any other religious community or group; its purpose has been the defense and welfare of the Shi’i Muslim community, and it has directed its fire on the imperialist enemies: Israel and the United States.

Iran’s population is over 90% Shi’i Muslim, and the clerics of that country traditionally have provided the social safety net for poor people in Iran. As we have mentioned, contributing money for the welfare of the poor is one of the “Five Pillars of Islam,” a duty required of every observant Muslim. The Iranian mullahs have for centuries put that money to use, building an infrastructure of social services for people in need, especially in the slum neighborhoods of Iranian cities. In so doing, they earned the loyalty of the subproletarian poor, who have consistently followed the clerics’ lead, whether in progressive or in reactionary campaigns.

Hizbullah in Lebanon has followed the example of the Iranian Shi’i clergy and organized a similar social infrastructure in the predominantly Shi’i areas of Lebanon. They have provided schools and hospitals for the people when the Lebanese government could not or would not. After the latest devastation it has been Hizbullah which has come through first to rebuild, not the United Nations, not the United States, and not the Lebanese government.

Hizbullah did something else in emulation of the Iranian revolutionaries, and that was to capture Americans and other citizens of Western imperialist countries as hostages. It was a cruel tactic, but surprisingly effective. The Reagan administration in the United States was so upset by it that it was willing –– secretly –– to sell weapons to the Islamic Republic of Iran in the hope that Tehran would use its influence with Hizbullah to bring about the hostages’ freedom. A number of hostages were indeed released, and Iran was better able to defend itself against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, against which it was fighting a devastating war at the time.

The Hizbullahi fighters, like the Iranian revolutionaries of 1979, showed — and continue to show — remarkable courage and self-sacrifice. Although Hizbullah has denied responsibility, Shi’i fighters carried out one of the first and most effective suicide bombings in the region, hitting the U.S. Marine barracks at the Beirut airport in 1983. Two hundred forty-one U.S. servicemen were killed in that attack, an attack carried out by two men driving a truck loaded with explosives. It can be argued that individual terrorism is not a good tactic, and in many if not most cases it is not. In this case, however, the effect was that the Reagan administration, which cultivated an image of bellicosity and refusal to back down to “America’s enemies,” pulled all U.S. troops out of Lebanon within a year. The suicide bombing achieved its desired result.

Hizbullah’s struggle against Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, called “terrorist” by some, was ultimately successful. In 2000 Arik Sharon, who eighteen years earlier had overseen the massacre of 800 civilians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Christian Phalangist soldiers, was forced to withdraw his troops from the region, knowing full well that the Hizbullahis would become the real power there, as they remain to this day.

Syrian Intervention in Lebanon

Only Syrian intervention brought the bloodletting in Lebanon to an end in 1990. The Lebanese people, exhausted and war-weary, welcomed any help in putting an end to the violence and allowing them to begin rebuilding their country.

Some comments about Syria are in order: Syria is in many respects the last remaining secular nationalist state in the Arab world, the product of the “Third World” nationalist anticolonialist upsurge of the 1950s and 1960s. The majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims; however, President Bashir al-Assad and most of his government are Alawi Muslims, the name given to Shi’i Muslims in Syria and Turkey. Their co-religionists in the Beqaa Valley, which has no natural separation from Syria, are the overwhelming majority. When I visited Baalbek, the largest town in the Beqaa Valley, I was told that unlike Beirut, as-Sour (Tyre) or Sidon, the Beqaa Valley was really “Syria,” even though it was on the Lebanese side of the border.

Syria is a remarkably poor country; it has no oil, and it produces virtually nothing for international trade. Compared to Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Sa’udi Arabia, or even Lebanon, there are very few foreigners living and working in Syria. In spite of that reality, or maybe because of it, the Syrians are among the proudest and most dignified people whom I have ever met.

When Syrian troops first entered Lebanon they were welcomed by everyone. Civil war had devastated Lebanon and had accomplished nothing whatsoever positive. Thousands of Lebanese died in vain. The small country, once so vibrant and beautiful, was in ruins. Many Lebanese were uncomfortable with the idea of the tough desert Arabs from Syria, by necessity accustomed to a Spartan life style, running things in what was once the Middle Eastern Riviera. But that was better than the endless cycle of death and misery.

After the Israeli withdrawal from the south in 2000, the work of rebuilding began in earnest. It was an exciting time to be Lebanese. New technology companies began operations in Beirut, and trade was beginning once again to flourish.

The thirty-three day Israeli assault destroyed all that had been built during the past six years.

History is full of ironies, and one of the greatest ones is that there has been a reaction to the Syrian presence in Lebanon over the past year, since the mysterious murder in 2005 (by car bomb) of Rafiq al-Hariri, a former prime minister (a Sunni Muslim, as the prime minister must be). Massive anti-Syrian demonstrations filled the streets after Hariri’s death, and Syrian President Bashir al-Assad agreed to withdraw Syrian forces in the face of this “Cedar Revolution,” which was greeted favorably by both the United States and Israel. Hizbullah by contrast never opposed the Syrian presence in Lebanon, and some of the participants in the “Cedar Revolution” initially supported Israel’s attempt to neutralize Hizbullah. After what Israel has done to their country, and after seeing Hizbullah’s courage and effectiveness in resistance to the Israeli invasion, the entire population of Lebanon, all denominations of Christians and Muslims, has rallied in support of Hizbullah and against the United States and Israel. Israel attacked not Hizbullah but Lebanon, Washington’s shining example of a “pro-Western democracy” in the Middle East. For being such a “pro-Western democracy,” the Lebanese saw their country devastated just as their rebuilding was getting under way. Never again will they trust promises coming from Washington. History will record this as one of the worst of many Middle East policy blunders by the Bush administration.

Standing Up Against Israel in the United States

I have not commented on the barbaric Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip which continues to this day. Having no personal connection to Gaza, I have not become as emotionally upset about it. I am not proud to say that, because the crimes which Israel is continuing to commit in Gaza are every bit as shameful as what they have done in Lebanon.

I was proud to join thousands of Arabs, Arab-Americans, Muslims of other nationalities, and Americans who believe in peace and justice in Washington on August 12, 2006. We marched in protest of Israel’s crimes and Washington’s complicity, demanding that Israel immediately withdraw its forces from Gaza, the West Bank, and Lebanon, and demanding that the United States end its financial and military aid to Israel. The march and rally were organized by the coalition known as Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER).

ANSWER claimed an attendance of 30,000 people. I believe that estimate is a little generous, but it is neither here nor there. One could not expect that an explicitly anti-Zionist march and rally could attract the kind of numbers that attend the rallies and marches against the Iraq war. The largest antiwar coalition, United for Peace and Justice, could not bring itself to participate in such an action; it is not only unwilling to break with its “friends” in the Democratic Party—which is as much pro-Israel as the Republican Party, if not more so—but its leaders genuinely support the existence of the state of Israel, and are working only for a kinder, gentler Zionism rather than the democratic, secular Palestine called for in the Palestine National Charter. The religious groups (other than Islamic) and trade unions are likewise still committed to “Israel’s right to exist” and instinctively resist participating in activity specifically directed against Israel and against Washington’s support for Israel.

As a consequence, the “demographics” of the August 12 demonstration were quite different from the typical antiwar demonstrations which have been seen periodically in Washington, D.C., and other cities. In many respects that difference was quite positive, in spite of the significantly smaller numbers.

For one thing, the participants were considerably younger on average than those attending the anti–Iraq war demonstrations. Thousands of university students and high school students attended. Additionally, in attendance were many young families with small children, almost entirely Muslims and/or Arab-Americans. Just as an example of the difference in character than the usual demonstration: I was marching near a group of junior high school–age girls who were chanting in Arabic. The rhythm was like that of the usual demonstration chant, or for that matter, the kind of chant that one might hear at a Friday afternoon football game. When I listened closely, I realized that they were chanting, “There is no god but God; Muhammad is the messenger of God.”

A considerable number of the women who participated—and thousands of women did participate—were wearing the Islamic head scarf, the hijab, and a large number of them came with their babies and small children. This was, in my opinion, a great strength of this demonstration and this movement. This is in the last analysis a struggle for the young families, for the children of Palestine and Lebanon. It reminds us that politics is first and foremost about people, not about ideology. Our ideas, our programs, our enthusiastically chanted slogans (even if they are about God!) are only there to aid us in our work to improve the lives of real people, real families, real children. This is not an intellectual parlor discussion. Anyone who spends his life, as most of us do, making sure that our children have a roof over their heads, good food three times a day, and warm (and even stylish!) clothing will understand that to be unable to provide those things would be the worst thing in life, short of our children’s actual physical harm. The Arab people of Palestine and Lebanon are facing both the inability to provide for their families and their children’s actual physical harm. In that situation, people who have never thought of politics or ever had a political discussion in their lives will arise and fight.

The rally speeches varied little from the usual pattern of the typical ANSWER-sponsored rally. The angry denunciations of imperialism from every constituency—from the Philippines, from Haiti, from a high-school student, from a trade unionist, from a South Korean, from an African-American, from a Latino, and of course from Lyndon Johnson’s attorney general Ramsey Clark, etc., etc.—are not bad, especially for a first-time participant, but I have heard them before many times. Instead, I wandered about the rally site, engaging people in conversation. The personal stories that I heard were quite sufficient to remind me of why this march and rally were important.

I spoke to a woman in her early 40s who was not wearing al-hijab, but rather was dressed in a casual American style. She was Palestinian Arab, from the town of Jenin. Jenin is a West Bank community which has suffered most intensely from the violence of Israeli occupation. She told me that it broke her heart to see the destruction that the Israeli armed forces had perpetrated in her home town, and that the reality was much worse than anything we had seen in news reports in the United States. She had visited Jenin three weeks earlier and had gone with her two young sons, who were born in the United States and therefore automatically American citizens. Her boys were traveling on American passports. Even so, they were harassed by the Israeli soldiers at the checkpoints, who called one of them “another stupid American.” Any mother can just imagine how she might feel to see a soldier, armed to the teeth with automatic weapons, threatening and frightening her child. I know as a father how angry it would make me, and it made me angry even that it was done to a child I had never met, whose name I did not even know.

I had conversations with Arabs from Lebanon, who told me of the terrible destruction throughout their country. I talked with Iranians, and we shared our concern that the United States may be targeting their country for war in the near future. I talked with American radicals about the politics of the demonstration and the political future of the socialist movement in the United States.

ANSWER and the Politics of the August 12 Demonstration

International ANSWER is not a true united front coalition, but rather an organization based on a multitude of explicitly anti-imperialist demands. It is not a formation in which Christian pacifists nor any but the most socialist-minded trade unionists would be comfortable. It has not attracted antiwar GIs or military families. It has attracted people of color, Muslims, and Arab-Americans because it has been willing to explicitly oppose Zionism and embrace the demand for the right of return of all Palestinian Arab refugees to their homes, not only in the West Bank and Gaza but in pre-1967 “Israel” as well.

ANSWER’s politics have been divisive in the struggle against the Iraq war. In all fairness, the politics of United for Peace and Justice have been divisive as well, and the organized antiwar movement’s disunity weakened the struggle at a time when unity against Bush’s criminal assault on Iraq is most important. Opposition to the Iraq war goes way beyond those who understand what imperialism even is, let alone those who oppose U.S. imperialism in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In order to defeat Bush’s Iraq war policies, the maximum unity is required in order to mobilize those social forces who have the actual power to shut down the war machine: that is, the organized labor movement, and the enlisted GIs themselves.

ANSWER did not pursue a different course in building the August 12 demonstration, but the results were far less negative. The demand for Palestinian Right of Return was, in my opinion, completely appropriate for August 12. It is, in fact, a very good demand for the Palestinian Arab struggle. It is clearly understood by anyone: the Palestinian Arab people should be allowed to return to their homes and live in peace and security, whether they became refugees in 1948, 1967, or at any other time. The demand does not include anything about expelling the Israeli Jews, nor should it. But the Zionists understand fully that if this demand, as obviously fair as it is, were implemented, Jews would cease to be a majority in “Israel,” and so they refuse even to discuss it. This is true not only of the right-wing Likud supporters; it is equally true of the Peace Now movement and others in the Zionist community who are conscience-stricken about the injustices perpetrated against the Arab people of Palestine. The attitudes of those liberal Zionists are reflected in the leadership of United for Peace and Justice, whose leaders in fact have personal contact with them.

For an explicitly anti-Zionist demonstration, as August 12 was, the demand for Right of Return for all Palestinian Arab refugees, was not in the least divisive. The demands relating to Haiti, South Korea, the Philippines, Cuba, Venezuela, and every other anti-imperialist struggle under the heavens did not cut across the focus on Israel’s criminal assault on Lebanon and Gaza or the United States’s military and financial support to Israel. It did not, as far as I could tell, limit the participation of those who agreed with the main demands of the action. No, the demonstration did not attract hundreds of thousands of people, but the potential was not there. ANSWER did the best that it could to mobilize people for the march and rally, and they deserve credit and thanks for their work.

What is needed in the immediate future is a campaign of education and mass action through which the Arab-American and Muslim communities can act together with their friends and allies in the American working class and among radicalizing youth, and which can explain to workers and young people beyond their friends and allies why the Arab people fight against Zionism. The demand for the Right of Return is an easy demand to explain and around which to mobilize. It explains the Arab struggle in terms of simple justice, and it unites the Arab people, together with their friends and allies, in common struggle against Zionism and racism.

Furthermore, all those who oppose Zionism must unite with the broader antiwar movement, which is demanding the immediate, total, and unconditional withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. We cannot impose our anti-Zionist program on this broader movement; that is the unfortunate reality. With consistent and energetic work to educate and where appropriate agitate against Zionism, more people will become convinced of the justice of the Palestinian Arab cause. The work done thus far is beginning to show results.

In spite of the terrible death and destruction which Israel is inflicting on the Arab people, I am feeling optimistic about the future. The Hizbullahis’ courage and effective struggle, combined with the growing recognition internationally of the criminal character of the Zionist state, dealt Israel a severe political defeat and denied them a military victory. The international solidarity that can be provided by Americans who oppose imperialism and racism can make the difference in insuring that the Arab people of Palestine can live in peace in their ancient homeland, with security, equality, and democracy. An Arab tradition is to qualify every statement about the future with the phrase “insha’allah,” which means, “if God wills.” But with united and tenacious action by the Arab people and their sisters and brothers throughout the world, a democratic Palestine, where all religions are respected but none is dominant, will come to pass, and Christians, Jews, and Muslims will recognize the will of God as the cycle of death and destruction comes to an end.