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2 - 8 November 2000
Issue No. 506
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Destination Palestine

Now that the peace process has floundered to what could be its last halt, many throughout the Arab world are looking to Lebanon, which offers the region's only example of national liberation without negotiations. Hizbullah, the powerhouse behind this unlikely success, seems determined to confound yet more expectations. In Beirut, Mona Anis met El-Sayed Hassan Nasrallah

Hassan Nasrallah
Born in 1960 in Burj Hammoud, a poor Armenian and Shi'ite neighbourhood of East Beirut, Hassan Nasrallah spent the first 14 years of his life in Beirut, where he attended civil schools. In 1975, with the outbreak of the civil war, his family fled the capital, returning to their native village of Bazoriya near Tyre in southern Lebanon, where Nasrallah pursued his secondary school education. In 1976 he proceeded to the Iraqi city of Najaf, one of the most venerable seats of Shi'ite theological learning, to complete the first stage of his religious education.

Two years later, Nasrallah and his fellow Lebanese students were expelled from Iraq. Back in Lebanon, he worked closely with his mentor and teacher, Abbas Moussawi (the secretary-general of Hizbullah assassinated by the Israelis in 1992), who founded a Shi'ite religious institute in Baalbek. Nasrallah studied there, also teaching at the junior level. By 1982, when the Israeli invasion of Lebanon took place, he had become the political representative of the Amal movement (the Lebanese Shi'ite movement from the ranks of which a great number of Hizbullah's fighters are drawn) in the Beqaa Valley region. He had also travelled to the holy city of Qom following the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini must have left a lasting impression on the young Nasrallah, whose two-year stay in Najaf coincided with Khomeini's residence in the same city.

Nasrallah rose swiftly within the ranks of Hizbullah, which had been founded soon after the Israeli occupation, becoming a member of the party's politburo; in 1992, upon the assassination of Abbas Moussawi, he was elected secretary-general of the party, a post he is currently occupying for a second six-year term. Nasrallah spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly last Friday at his headquarters in Harat Hreik, in the predominantly Shi'ite southern suburb of Beirut.


There is a general consensus here about the leading role your party played in the liberation of occupied Lebanese territories, but many people are now wondering what role Hizbullah will play in the post-liberation era. What will be the nature of the party's future relationship with other political forces active in Lebanese society, including the establishment and the state?

There are two dimensions to this issue: the central question that concerns all the Arab nation, including Lebanon of course; and Lebanon's internal politics. Regarding the first point, Hizbullah's mission is far from over. There is Lebanese land still under Israeli occupation: the Shaba Farms. The decisions taken by the recent Arab summit were clear on that point. There is also the question of the Lebanese prisoners [of war] in Israeli prisons. And there is the constant threat to Lebanon voiced by Israel every day. Since liberation, Israel had not stopped threatening Lebanon. This is natural, for as long as the Palestinian question remains [unsolved] the threat to Lebanon shall not cease. Besides this -- defending national territories and [releasing] Lebanese prisoners -- Hizbullah is fighting on behalf of the Arab nation and in this capacity has a duty to stand by and support the people of Palestine. Every Arab and every Muslim must bear a share of this responsibility.

We spoke before liberation, and are still speaking now, about Hizbullah shouldering its share of the responsibility in confronting the Zionist project in the region. We consider ourselves an integral part of the battle to confront this project.

As for the second part of the question, concerning internal Lebanese politics, we take to heart [the interests of] our homeland and our people, and we act from that point of departure. In this context, we uphold a number of fundamental issues: we are whole-heartedly behind the consolidation of civil peace; we are keen to prevent the return of sectarian strife and civil war among the Lebanese; we fully support the establishment of law and order based on state institutions and legislation; we are all for genuine mutual coexistence between Muslims and Christians, without this contradicting the commitment of Muslims to Islam or that of Christians to Christianity; we are in favour of exerting every effort to address the different crises the Lebanese people face, on the economic or the social levels; and finally, we are all for upholding civil liberties in Lebanon for the common benefit of all the Lebanese.

Because of all this, we enjoy good relations with every political force in our society. I am certain about that. They treat us with the utmost respect, even if they differ in terms of religion, tenets, vision or political programme. They treat us with respect because we respect them equally. We debate with everybody, we speak with them all and, when we agree on a certain idea, we cooperate. Not long ago, for the first time in the history of Lebanon, Hizbullah was able to arrange a meeting of all Lebanese parties: Muslim, Christian, national, pan-Arab, Marxist... We shall continue this kind of cooperation with all forces. Our policy is one of cooperation, alliance and positive competition, whenever there is a cause to compete over; never a policy of animosity toward any political force.

As for the state, we have our members in parliament, they are shouldering their responsibility and participating energetically in parliamentary life. Their performance in the two previous parliaments was lauded by all as an example of active participation.

During the interview
Why is your party not participating in the new cabinet announced by Prime Minister Hariri yesterday?

We are not against participating in cabinets as a matter of principle. We are open to the idea, but we will not participate under just any circumstances. We are not after power for the sake of power. We could enter as ministers in a cabinet that has a clear policy and a clear programme. If we were convinced that a given policy could solve any of the major problems facing our country, then we would want to participate in the cabinet because we want to be partners in the development of Lebanese political life and in addressing the many crises facing our country. But we do not want to enter cabinets for one of our members to be called his excellency the minister. We have decided not to participate in [Hariri's] present cabinet because we have many reservations about it. So far it has no programme; it was not formed on the basis of any clear policy. Its formation is based on bringing together a number of concerned parties and individuals. Our cooperation with any government is subject to the way this government deals with certain matters and with the policies it pursues.

Still in the realm of domestic politics, what of Lebanon's relationship with Syria? During the recent parliamentary elections almost every political force in the country spoke about that issue, many arguing for the need to reformulate this relationship, but very little, if anything, was heard from Hizbullah.

First, there is the question of the timing of what was said during the elections. We had our reservations regarding that and this is why we did not speak out. Both parties [Syria and Lebanon], however, are convinced of the need to structure their relations -- hence the signing of the Fraternity and Cooperation Treaty with Syria. There are also constant efforts to conduct relations within a clear legal framework. And we are in favour of well-studied and measured relations capable of safeguarding the interests of both countries independently as well as our mutual interests.

We did not speak about this matter during election time because those who did so raised that issue not with the aim of finding solutions, but simply as a bargaining chip to gain votes among certain groups in Lebanese society. We did not see it as befitting us to raise such sensitive issues pertaining to the destiny of our country for election purposes.

Now, though, does the liberation of the Lebanese territories not signal, among other things, the end of what is still termed "the unity of the Syrian and Lebanese tracks" in the peace process? How far are the Lebanese willing to go in supporting Syria, at the expense, some would argue, of Lebanese national interests?

As I said earlier, our battle [with Israel] is not over yet. But more important, perhaps, is that in confronting Israeli aggression, Lebanon needs Syria. I do not like this talk about "unity of tracks;" it is a "unity of destiny," for Lebanon needs Syria just as it needs all the Arabs. The previous years, however, have shown that, of all the Arabs, Syria was the one country that stood behind Lebanon, supporting and protecting it. Syria is an important regional power and a force that Israel cannot ignore. Israel threatens military aggression against Lebanon every day now, although, apart from the taking of the three Israeli soldiers as prisoners [of war], everything is quiet along the borders. Thus, Lebanon today needs Syria as much as it ever did. Lebanon needs cooperation with Syria, Syrian support, and the unity of destiny with Syria.

We also need all Arab support, governmental and popular, now more than ever, because Lebanon is the one Arab target of Israeli retaliation whenever Israel's plans are frustrated anywhere in the region. This means that Lebanon still needs all the force it mustered during the battle for liberation if it is to confront any future aggression. We are still fighting our battle on the home front, and not only in the pan-Arab sense, since part of our national territory is still under occupation. More importantly, the whole of our country is threatened with military aggression at any time.


What about the peace process? It is quite legitimate for you to speak as the leader of a popular resistance movement, but there is also the peace process, in which all the Arab states, including Syria, participate; at the very least, they must take this process into account.

We never believed in the "peace process" at any moment, from its inception in Madrid in 1991 to the signing of the Oslo agreements in 1993 and until today. We never believed in the peace process, and we still do not believe in it. From day one, we said it had unsound bases, was flawed, and could not continue. The American administration, in the final analysis, can impose a settlement of sorts, with specific conditions, on Arab governments; but they will never be able to impose this settlement on the Arab peoples.

What is taking place now inside Palestine, the Palestinian uprising, testifies to this fact. What happened in Lebanon, too, proves this. The liberation of Lebanese territories took place without a "peace process." Nobody can say "we did this or that for you in the political or diplomatic arena." The Israelis were simply faced with a situation: it became impossible for them to stay in Lebanon. They fled because their presence there became a nightmare, a quagmire. Lebanon was turned into another Vietnam, as they themselves admitted.

And now there is the uprising in Palestine. It is not true that what is taking place in Palestine now is only a response to Sharon's visit to Al-Aqsa Mosque. There is a general mood in the Palestinian street of deep frustration at the result of all the negotiations and efforts to impose a settlement. The Palestinians, whether those who rejected the principles of the current settlement or those who accepted them and entered negotiations accordingly, are now speaking of resistance as the means for liberation. This is taking place primarily because it was proved that even the bare minimum of what the Palestinian people want cannot be achieved through negotiations, while resistance and the continuation of struggle can achieve that minimum, and far more.

In short, I believe that the "peace process" is doomed to failure. I am saying this because of two things. First, the will of the Arab peoples and the Palestinian people. We have seen that giving up [the Arab claim to] Jerusalem is impossible for any Arab leader. Even if all the Arab leaders meet in a special summit for that purpose it will still be impossible, for even those who have no fear of God will have to take [the sentiments of] their people into consideration. The other factor that makes me believe that the current peace process is doomed to failure is, quite frankly, Israel itself. The problem with Israel does not lie in the Likud, but in Labour. It was Barak who led the peace settlement into the current dilemma, not Netanyahu. The Israelis talk about a settlement on their own terms, and are not ready to give the bare minimum. These are the facts governing Israeli reality, as well as Arab reality. So I believe that the current settlement will proceed from one crisis to the next -- that is, if it can remain alive at all.

What support can Hizbullah give the Palestinians in their struggle apart from setting an example of resistance?

Providing an example is not a simple thing. What is happening inside Palestine is the transformation of a specific mind-set that has prevailed for some time now; it is a cultural transformation. When the culture of resistance and uprising becomes dominant instead of that of negotiations and settlements, this is a crucial factor that can determine many things.

As for other forms of support, on the political level we have a very clear position regarding the question of Palestine. On advocacy and media levels we now have a cable station (Al-Manar) that is completely at the service of the Palestinian uprising. When the uprising began we were still at the stage of experimental airing, but our brothers at the party in charge of this station exerted every possible effort to meet the needs of the uprising. I think that what was done by Al-Manar in that respect embarrassed many Arab satellite televisions and made them raise the amount and quality of coverage they gave the Intifada.

As for material help, I cannot say anything more than that we shall not hesitate to give all we can. The very presence of Hizbullah's fighters along the international borders between Lebanon and occupied Palestine is something that both the Palestinians and the Israelis take seriously. Even if we do not fire across the borders, the mere presence of our fighters, our arms and missiles, is in itself an important factor that enters into both Israeli and Palestinian calculations. I cannot elaborate more than this. I can only reiterate here what I said at the beginning of the Intifada, something both the Israelis and the Palestinians understood well. I addressed the Palestinian people, saying: "We stand by your side, we shall never fail you, and at difficult times you can count on us." As for the way in which they can count on us, this I leave for the difficult times.

Any news of the Israeli hostages, and the establishment of a channel for negotiations?

At present [Friday 27 October], we are at the end of the stage of reaching a concrete formula for a mediating channel. As you know, at the beginning many parties offered to mediate in this question. But both sides must agree on the mediator. We may accept the mediation of this or that international organisation, but the other side has to agree on this channel. We spent the last period trying to decide upon this question and until now we have not reached a final decision. There is not until now one serious channel following up on that matter. I do believe, though, that we are about to reach something final in the near future. Until now, we have not discussed details. The only thing that is final is the principle on the basis of which any negotiations will be conducted, and that is the exchange of the prisoners [of war]. Other than that, the details of that matter, or the nature of the mediating channel, have not been settled.

It is rumoured that the Israelis told certain parties that any negotiations around this matter must be conducted with the Lebanese state.

That is not the case. All the channels engaged in mediation at present are mediating between Israel and Hizbullah. I have not heard anything about what you are saying, but even if we assume it is true, the countries that offered their mediation through the Lebanese state and the Lebanese president were referred by the president to Hizbullah. This is a matter of agreement between us and the Lebanese state. Whoever wants to mediate in that matter will have to negotiate with Hizbullah -- with the consent of the Lebanese state, of course. Naturally, we will acquaint those responsible about this matter within the Lebanese state with all that is taking place on that front.


The Lebanese experience in resistance, and your party's leading role within the resistance movement, present a model of how working with other forces can transform such an Islamist movement as Hizbullah -- a movement associated with a specific religious group -- into the leadership of a national and popular movement encompassing all the nation. Could you elaborate on how this was achieved?

Eighteen years of experience taught us that it is very difficult to engage in the struggle of confronting the Zionist project and at the same time open other fronts here and there or enter into clashes and disputes against this or that [national] force. This will inevitably be at the expense of the main struggle. It is high time that we return to the old saying, "No voice should be raised higher than that of the battle." There came a time when in the Arab world this saying was a subject of ridicule. In Lebanon, we followed it and thus were able to achieve victory. I strongly believe that "no voice should be raised higher than that of the battle." We were able to achieve what we achieved because we put an end to our differences with this party, that organisation or that sect and concentrated all our efforts on confronting the Zionist project. We are Islamists, believing in the religion of Mohamed (peace be upon him), but we can still cooperate with a Marxist believing in Marx or Lenin. Within the order of priorities we established, we cooperated with Lebanese communists in any place where there was struggle against the Israeli occupation, and we cooperated with everybody in confronting the Zionist project.

Is there a message you would like to address to the Islamists in Egypt, especially with regard to the danger of strife between Muslims and Christians?

The Christians of the East have always taken glorious national stances, whether in Egypt or in Lebanon. Recently I attended a conference at which an Orthodox priest was addressing the meeting in the name of Archbishop Hazim, the patriarch of Antioch and all the Orient. What he said in his speech about Palestine and Jerusalem does not differ one iota from what Hizbullah says on the matter. I myself was a bit surprised by what he said. As you know, many Arab Muslims are now talking about [lands occupied in] and accepting that lands occupied in 1948 are Israeli and that this is final. He, on the other hand, spoke about Palestine "from the river to the sea;" he said that all of historical Palestine belongs to the Palestinian people and that Israel is a force of occupation with no right to what it has usurped from the Arabs. Those who speak about certain Christian forces cooperating with the Israelis must not forget that many Muslim public figures and individuals did the same. In Lebanon, the agents who fought alongside Israel were not only Christians but also Muslims. In terms of sheer numbers, more Muslim militiamen than Christians fought on the side of the Israelis, and those now serving sentences in [Lebanese] prisons for doing so are more numerous than the Christians. That is what I want to say on the subject of judging people on the basis of who is Muslim and who is Christian. It is inadmissible to do so.

As for the Egyptian Islamists -- my message is to all Islamists, but I believe that what I shall be saying is more relevant to those Islamists and Islamic movements in Palestine and any front-line state that has common borders with Israel. We are keen on a sound order of priorities.

From any perspective, Israel is the threat. It is a threat to every Arab country, it is a threat to the whole Arab world, and it is also a threat to the Islamic nation as a whole. Any sound order of priorities necessitates that all Islamist movements concentrate their efforts on confronting the Zionist project while postponing side battles. The Islamist movement must take a vanguard position in this battle [against the Zionists], exerting every possible effort to mobilise the Arab and Islamic peoples on that front. It is my belief that the peoples of the region, with their various trends, including the Islamic one, are on the threshold of creating a force of pressure on their governments that will lead to better positions on the governmental level, to the benefit of the Palestinian people and the present uprising against the Zionists.

Recently, I was interviewed [on Al-Jazeera satellite TV channel] and a viewer called to ask whether I agreed that the road to Palestine must pass through overthrowing Arab rulers. I told him I did not believe this to be true. If we, as Arab peoples, begin a battle to overthrow Arab regimes, Israel will benefit and achieve even more from these internal wars and disputes across the Arab world. What we need most is for the Arab peoples to shoulder their responsibility toward Palestine by supporting the Palestinian people and by putting pressure on their governments in order for these governments to take similar stances. Much as I would love to see Arab armies liberating Jerusalem and Palestine, we need to be realistic. We may not even need those armies if the Arab peoples, their political movements and forces, are able to impose upon their governments a halt to normalisation, the severing of diplomatic relations with Israel and the extension of the necessary political and financial support to the Palestinian people. The Palestinian people have the potential, competence and capability, in both human and spiritual terms, to confront the occupation and impose their will on Israel and the whole world, for that matter.

In Lebanon, we did not need an Arab army, including the Lebanese army, to liberate our country. The Lebanese army did not need to wage long and difficult battles to liberate Lebanese territory. It was enough in our case to have the Lebanese state supporting the resistance politically. That in itself provided the necessary political protection and support. The rest was carried out by the young people of Lebanon. The will power of the young people of Palestine cannot be less than that of the Lebanese youth, and they are quite capable, given the needed political protection and material support, of achieving victory.

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