Skip to main content

Understanding Hezbollah's Leadership and Mission

A few years ago, writer Jeffrey Goldberg spoke with Hezbollah leaders for a 2002 article in called "In the Party of God: Are Terrorists in Lebanon Preparing for a Larger War?" Goldberg will help us understand the background of the current unrest in Lebanon. Goldberg serves as Washington correspondent for The New Yorker.

15:29

Other segments from the episode on July 19, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 19, 2006: Interview with Vali Nasr; Interview with Jeffrey Goldberg.

Transcript

DATE July 19, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Author Vali Nasr, professor of Middle East and South
Asia politics at the Naval Postgraduate School, talks about
Hezbollah and conflicts within Islam between Sunnis and Shiites
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Hezbollah is an Islamist group of Shiite Muslims. It's aligned with Iran,
which is a predominantly Shiite country. In Iraq, Sunni and Shiite Muslims
are fighting each other. The historic split between Sunni and Shiite Muslims
and how that's affected politics and war in the Middle East is the subject of
the new book, "The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the
Future." My guest is the author, Vali Nasr. He's a professor of Middle East
and South Asia politics at the Naval Postgraduate School and an adjunct senior
fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Vali Nasr, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like to begin by just asking you to make
two columns for us...

Mr. VALI NASR: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...one of the most important countries and groups that are primarily
Shia and the other that are primarily Sunni.

Mr. NASR: Well, Shiites are about 10 to 15 percent of the Muslim world, and
the majority of them live in the Middle East. That means that most of the
rest of the Muslim world is predominantly Sunni, so when we think of Malaysia,
Indonesia, Senegal, Nigeria, there are no Shiites there. So let's focus on
the Middle East where they co-exist. The most important Shiite countries, or
Shia majority countries are Iran, Azerbaijan, Iraq and Bahrain, and this does
not mean that they actually rule in all these countries. And then Lebanon
comes next, with about somewhere between 45 to 50 percent of the population
are Shiites, so they're the biggest community. And then everywhere else they
are minorities, varying in size from about 20 percent of Afghanistan,
Pakistan, to 30 percent of Kuwait, to 10 to 15 percent of Saudi Arabia.

GROSS: I want to ask you another just kind of framing question, in your book
you talk about the old Middle East compared to the new Middle East. What's
the difference?

Mr. NASR: Well, even though--if we looked at the demographics of this region
in the area between Pakistan and Lebanon, there are almost as many Shiites as
there are Sunnis, so there's a parity in terms of population. But outside of
Iran, the Shiites have been shut out of power, and so in countries, in Iraq,
even though they were a majority, the government under Saddam and even before
him was ruled by a minority of Sunnis. In Bahrain, 75 percent of the
population are Shiites, but it's ruled by a Sunni dynasty, and everywhere else
where they're a minority, that is in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, they
are excluded from a seat at the table of power, and they don't have a share of
resources. Even in Saudi Arabia, all the oil is in the Shia region, they get
virtually none of the proceeds, and consequently the old Middle East was
really dominated by Sunnis. Even though the governments were secular Arab
nationalists, it's the Sunni ruling class, the landed classes, the Sunni
bureaucracy, militaries, that dominated. And the Shiites largely lived as a
minority. Whether they were a majority or minority, they lived as a minority.

After Iraq, this has changed. The Shias have assumed power in Iraq. Iraq is
the very first Shia-Arab country, and everywhere else they are asking for
greater powers, rights and share of resources, and therefore the new Middle
East is likely to be more Shia in its character and far more defined by this
struggle for power and resources between Shias and Sunni than the old Middle
East.

GROSS: Let's look at what's happening now in the Middle East between Israel
and Hezbollah. Hezbollah is a Shiite group. The Amal militia, which was the
predecessor of Hezbollah, you say the Amal militia became `the beacon of the
Shia awakening.' In what way?

Mr. NASR: Well, Lebanon is actually the very first place in the Arab world
where the Shiites broke away from a blind commitment to Arab nationalism and
began to question whether or not it was benefiting them, and they began to
demand their rights. Throughout the 1960s and particularly in the 1970s, they
came under a lot of pressure from the Palestinian and Israeli conflict. They
were paying with their lives and livelihoods for the conflict in south
Lebanon. They began to assert a separate identity from the Palestinian and
the Sunni-Arab dominant identity in Lebanon.

And Amal was the movement that essentially began this, and it began to
organize the Shia youth and Shia power within a very distinctly sectarian Shia
movement which is Amal. At some point, it was actually quite
anti-Palestinian. When the Israelis invaded south Lebanon, in fact, the
Shiites initially welcomed them with flowers, and they greeted them well,
which led many later on during the Iraq war to expect the same kind of

reception for American troops as they pushed north from southern Iraq.

Then Hezbollah was born essentially as a very distinctly Shia movement, one
that followed Iran's ideological lead but which was not as distinctly
sectarian as Amal had been. Hezbollah has always tried to push for Shia power
but tried to do so within a context of unity with Sunnis around the cause of
the Palestinians...(unintelligible)...as being opposed to Israel, championing
the Palestinians is a way for Hezbollah to couch Shia power behind a cause of
unity.

GROSS: I just want to get back to something that you said. You said that the
Amal militia, which was the predecessor of Hezbollah, actually greeted the
Israelis in 1982 when they came into Lebanon with flowers. I still find that
so hard to, you know, in retrospect, so hard to imagine. Why did they take a
more positive attitude toward Israelis incursion into Lebanon into 1982?

Mr. NASR: Well, Amal as an organization did not do so. It was actually the
Shia population in south Lebanon that did so.

GROSS: Oh, I see.

Mr. NASR: Amal was very anti-Palestinian at one point. It actually put a
siege on a number of Palestinian camps, including the famous Sabra and Shatila
camps, and cut them off from water and food. This goes back to a conflict in
south Lebanon when the Palestinians set off...(unintelligible)...in south
Lebanon and began to attack Israel throughout the 1970s. Israelis retaliated,
destroying Shia villages and there was an exodus of Shias from south Lebanon
into the poor suburbs of Beirut, which is now the Hezbollah stronghold. The
Shiites gradually became quite bitter about the fact that the Palestinians
would come in, take their land and forcibly recruit their youth and set up
checkpoints in their towns in south Lebanon, and then attack Israel and bring
an Israeli retaliation with it. And they began to see the Palestinians
essentially as usurpers, as people who came from the outside and imposed their
will on the Shiites.

So when the Israelis first came into Lebanon, the sort of gut reaction of the
population there was to look at them as liberators. They were happy to see
the PLO to be evicted from south Lebanon, and they took--and many say, in
fact, that Israel's single biggest mistake in Lebanon was to overstay that
initial welcome 'cause exactly 100 days after the very first flowers were
given to Israeli soldiers, the very first suicide bomber attacked an Israeli
checkpoint.

GROSS: When the Israeli army expelled the PLO from Lebanon, how did that
affect the Shiite population in Lebanon and the development of Hezbollah?

Mr. NASR: Well, the Shiite population was happy for the PLO to go, and after
all, the PLO in a de facto way, was the militia of the Sunni population of
Lebanon. So the expulsion of the PLO created a vacuum into which the Shia
power could now grow. However, the Shiites also understood that they--for
their power--the growth of their power to be successful, it could not be
against the will of the brother Arab world. That for them to succeed, they
have to champion the same Arab causes.

This was also the Iranian strategy at the time, and so Iran helped create
Hezbollah and helped nurture it as a force that would be simultaneously Shia
but also very anti-Israeli, and Hezbollah unlike Amal did not turn the sharp
edge of its sword against the Palestinians but rather against Israel, and ever
since then, Hezbollah has been saying that it is the most successful military
force against Israel in the Arab history. It has achieved what no Arab army
has achieved, which is to force Israel to militarily retreat, and it is
exactly the same kind of a goal that is driving Hezbollah today to be able to
do what Arab governments show themselves incapable of doing, which is to take
Israel on.

GROSS: Iran has backed Hezbollah, helped to create Hezbollah. What does Iran
want from Hezbollah?

Mr. NASR: Well, whenever you invest over a long period of time in an
alliance, then it has its sort of own momentum. Iran has been associated with
Hezbollah for over 20 years. There is a whole cadre of senior Iranian
revolutionary guard commanders who at one point or another served in Lebanon
in various capacities in the Becca Valley with units of the revolutionary
guards that were working with Hezbollah. They know Lebanon well. They have
friends in Hezbollah. There are intelligence connections. There are
religious connections with the holy city of Qom in Iran. But also beyond
that, Hezbollah represents Iran's only really successful case of establishing
a beachhead for the Iranian revolution. Despite Khomeini's efforts to be
recognized as a leader of the Muslim world after the Iranian revolution, Iran
was never really able to get a foothold in the Arab world other than through

his...(unintelligible)...in Lebanon.

And then in more recent years, Iran has looked at Hezbollah essentially as an
asset. The more Iran sees Israel and its main rival in the region and sees
Israel as its main adversary, the more it's likely to look at Hezbollah as an
asset in a broader regional power game with Israel.

GROSS: If Hezbollah wants an Iranian-style revolution and wants an Islamic
state, how do the other populations, the other religious populations within
Lebanon feel about that?

Mr. NASR: Well, this has been always an issue, and not only even with the
rest of the populations but also a good chunk of the Shia population of
Lebanon, particularly the middle-class merchants and professionals have also
not been favorable to the religious ideology of Hezbollah and favor far less
doctrinaire and far less Iranian model of government. But I think over the
years, Hezbollah has realized that the plurality of the population in Lebanon
does not allow the implementation of an Iranian-style revolution. So despite
the rhetoric, Hezbollah after the Taif Agreement of 1990 agreed to participate
in the existing political system in Lebanon, has been participating in
elections, and in fact, in the last elections, last year, it finally joined in
a pan-Shiite alliance with Amal, which won about four fifths of the Shia vote
in Lebanon and a good chunk of also the Sunni and Palestinian vote as well.
So it's become very pragmatic, and you have two wings to Hezbollah. One is
the military wing, which is--does the attacks, the bombings and the like, and
then you have the political wing, which is engaged in the political process,
and Hezbollah also runs a vast array of social services, orphanages, clinics
and the like in Shia neighborhoods. In some ways, Hezbollah has an IRA and a
Sinn Fein side to it.

GROSS: My guest is Vali Nasr. His new book is called "The Shia Revival."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Vali Nasr, and he's the author
of the book "The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the
Future."

Now it's Hezbollah that controls militarily the southern border of Lebanon,
which is just across the border from Israel, and its from there that Hezbollah
has been firing its rockets into Israel. How did Hezbollah get into the
position where it controlled that part of Lebanon militarily?

Mr. NASR: Well, very early on, Hezbollah proved itself to be a very, very
effective military force, and in particular, it made very shrewd and effective
use of what today we call `suicide bombings' but in the 1980s we called it
`martyrdom missions.' And at that time, it was believed that only Shiites
would do these things, but now we see that Hezbollah has served as a model for
Sunnis as well, most recently in Iraq. And the ferocity of Hezbollah's
campaign of suicide bombings against Israeli targets ultimately forced Israel
to move out, and it--Hezbollah even was in the process capable of establishing
at some points casualty parity with Israel, which no other Arab military force
has ever achieved.

And Hezbollah was able to overshadow Amal, and given the combination of its
success on the battlefield, which brings any force a great deal of
popularity--there's nothing as successful as success itself--and its ability
to provide social services--schools, clinics, orphanages, and the like--made
it a very dominant force not only in south Beirut but in south Lebanon, and
then once Israeli forces left Lebanon, Hezbollah moved very rapidly into that
territory and established military control over it through its military units
but also through its control of the villages and their economy and society as
well.

GROSS: Let's look at the current war between Israel and Hezbollah. Why do
you think Hezbollah decided to take on Israel now and cross the border, kill
several Israeli soldiers and take hostage a couple of others?

Mr. NASR: Well, Hezbollah in the past two years has confronted a set of
challenges that have diminished its popularity, if you would, on the Arab
street, beyond its core Shia support. First is when there was an
assassination of the Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, and there was a
call for withdrawal of Syria from Lebanon. Hezbollah took Syria's side, and
this tarnished its nationalist image because it was seen to be supporting an
occupying country. And, secondly, the events in Iraq, when they happened,
many outside of Hezbollah's core Shia supporters among Palestinians and Sunnis
in the region who lionized Hezbollah for its anti-American anti-Israeli
position expected it to take the side of the insurgents in Iraq, in other
words, support the anti-American forces in Iraq.

But after all, Hezbollah is a Shia organization, and many Lebanese Shia follow
Ayatollah Sistani. Many Lebanese Shiites look to what happened in Iraq as a
good omen for also empowering--greater empowerment of Shiites in Lebanon. So
Hezbollah's real deep loyalties lay with the Shiites in Iraq which many Sunnis
in the region have viewed as lackeys of Iran or as collaborators with the US,
and this also sort of began to constrict Hezbollah. Hezbollah's hope was that
by picking another fight with Israel and provoking Israel into a massive
retaliation and for Hezbollah to be seen as the champion of the Palestinian
cause, that it can gain the high ground that it had before the events of the
past two, three years.

GROSS: But an interesting thing happened. The heads of several Arab
governments criticized Hezbollah for taking on Israel. So how do you
interpret that?

Mr. NASR: Well, first of all, I think that Hezbollah and Iran are trying to
force a paradigm shift on the region, namely Iran--Iranian president has been
attacking Israel, has questioned the Holocaust, has questioned Israel's right
to exist, and Hezbollah is now sort of championing a military confrontation
with Israel. All of these are, if you would, the pre-Oslo, pre-1980s paradigm
for the region of a combative, confrontational approach to the Arab-Israeli
issue.

Most of the Arab states in the region have already subscribed to accepting
Israel's right to exist and to political solution to the problems in the
region. So they don't look favorably upon Hezbollah's attempt to scuttle
things on the ground and to shift things to--into a different arena. One can
also say that they see Iran's hand in this, and it worries them that the kind
of Shia revival that they have been criticizing in Iraq is now finding a
regional dimension in the sense that it is the two Shia powers in the region
that are now defining conflict and defining regional politics.

GROSS: How do you--like, what do you see as the possible end game here in the
war now between Israel and Hezbollah?

Mr. NASR: Well, every military conflict has its own dynamic, and it can very
easily spiral in different directions, regardless of the original motivations
were. I think Israel has an interest in making sure that Iran and Hezbollah
don't come away from this conflict with the wrong impression, that their
policy of combativeness is going to yield results and that Israel does not
seem to be vulnerable to their strategy.

On the other hand, I think Iran is interested in a limited conflict that would
reveal the extent of its regional importance and power and is hoping that the
US and the West will understand that they have to engage Iran rather than
confront Iran.

GROSS: Vali Nasr is the author of the new book "The Shia Revival." He's a
professor of Middle East and South Asia politics at the Naval Postgraduate
School and is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations.
He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Vali Nasr, author of the
new book, "The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the
Future."

Have you thought a lot--I imagine you have--about how Lebanon will be changed
for years, perhaps decades, by the effects of the bombing?

Mr. NASR: Well, there are economic impacts, in other words, whatever Lebanon
had gained in terms of becoming the banking, entertainment, cultural center of
the region over the past decade obviously are being undone, and the
infrastructure for economic boom is being affected. But I also think that
this conflict will once again problematize Lebanon's political structure.

Essentially true that this conflict has brought to the fore is who is to
define what is good for Lebanon, and I think in many ways Hezbollah's argument
is that they represent the majority or the largest community in that country,
and that gives them the right to do so, even though the demographics of the
Shiites in Lebanon is not reflected in the parliament and Hezbollah--the
Shiites have no more than 29 seats in the parliament. But I think the
conflict is going to force far more debate about when and how will Lebanese
politics actually reflect the numbers in the country, and that debate may
prove to just as violent as the one that we saw--as the one that we are
witnessing in Iraq. In other words, a shift of power from the dominant
communities towards the Shiites is a risky one and can be bloody.

GROSS: In Iraq, the Sunni and Shiite Muslims have been fighting each other
and that fighting seems to, if anything, only be escalating. Saddam Hussein
was a Sunni Muslim. We drove him out of power, and many--most of the other
Sunnis we drove out of power, too. Is the Shite majority now in the Iraqi
parliament? The Sunnis, who we drove from power, Sunni leaders have now been
asking the US military to stay longer to help protect them from the Shiites.
Your book is about the split between the Shiite and Sunni Muslims through the
Muslim world. How do you explain this shift, this split in Iraq?

Mr. NASR: Well, when the Iraqi regime first was changed, the Sunnis, who are
the main losers of that change, also had greater military capability. In
other words, foreign fighters, as well as leftovers of the Iraqi military and
die-hard supporters of Saddam, had the organization and military capability
and also the willingness to attack the Americans and the Shiites, and they
operated under the perception that if you got the United States out of Iraq
very quickly, you could have a restoration of Sunnis back to power and that
they also operated under the belief that if you hit the Shiites hard enough,
they would cower and essentially go into their own hole--back into their hole.

The Shiites initially were not organized militarily well enough to respond,
and they relied on the United States to deal with the insurgency, and
Ayatollah Sistani also had the strategy of restraining the Shiites. After
every bombing, after every attack, he would tell them to focus on the prize of
winning Iraq through the elections and not to bite into the apple of civil war
because that would disadvantage them. When the Samarra bombings happened,
something broke among the Shiites. In other words, militant groups emerged
who argued that Sistani's strategy of turn the other cheek is interpreted as
weakness and that the Shiites have to establish a balance of terror and that
they have to show force. And at the same time, the Shiites concluded the
Americans cannot provide security to the Shiites.

So as the Shiites began to show willingness to kill in equal numbers and to
assassinate, engage in ethnic cleansing and the like, the balance of terror
clearly changed the perception of the Sunnis, and given that they're a
minority, ultimately in this game, a confrontation will favor the Shiites. So
the Sunnis are now looking to the US, if you would, to help them balance out
the Shiites.

GROSS: Your book is about the division between Sunnis and Shiites within
countries and between countries. How much of that split--and in Iraq for
instance we're seeing intense fighting now between Sunnis and Shias--how much
of that split is really about how the religion is practiced? And how much of
it is really just about political power?

Mr. NASR: Well, this is much like the Protestant-Catholic split. At times
it is about doctrine, particularly all the times in history, but at times it's
about identity, just like Northern Ireland today. It's not about what you
practice, it's about who you are. But it--what we're seeing in the current
period is that we have a particularly intense period of rivalry between
Shiites and Sunnis where--and this is really because changes in the region
which has started with Iraq is recalibrating the distribution of power between
Shias and Sunnis, and in many ways, it is about politics, and it's about
distribution of power and distribution of wealth.

GROSS: So do you think--you think that the new Shia majority government in
Iraq is changing the balance of power in the Middle East. Do you see a
connection between that and the war between Israel and Hezbollah?

Mr. NASR: Well, yes, in some ways, mainly because symbolically Iraq is the
very first Shia-Arab country. One has not existed before where the Shiites
have actually ruled over an Arab country, and the fact that change is possible
has given hope and expectation to Arabs--Shias elsewhere. The fact that
political change and elections in Iraq has created an expectation of change in
Bahrain, in Saudi Arabia, in Lebanon, in Pakistan and elsewhere as well. And
on the other side, it has created an enormous amount of anxiety among the
Sunnis and certain resistance now to voting to political reform and to change.
And also Iraq has another dynamic for this region, namely because the
Shia-Sunni conflict there is particularly violent and bloody, it is producing
very, very violent ideologies, which we most noticeably saw in Abu Musab
al-Zarqawi that will ultimately travel elsewhere in the region and will be a
threat and...

GROSS: Now he was the head of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia?

Mr. NASR: Exactly. Exactly. And the kind of, you know, virulent ideology
that is festering among the insurgents in Iraq will ultimately go back to
Jordan, will go back to Egypt, will go back to Saudi Arabia, the same way
as--in which the ideology of bin Laden in Afghanistan ended up going back to
the countries from which his fighters came.

GROSS: Now I know that you grew up in Iran, do I have that right?

Mr. NASR: That's correct.

GROSS: And so I assume that you are Shiite Muslim.

Mr. NASR: Yes.

GROSS: Did you grow up with a sense of the split between Sunni and Shiite?

Mr. NASR: No, I actually discovered I was a Shiite when I first went to
Pakistan on a research trip because the Shiites were about 20 to 25 percent of
the minority--of the population in Pakistan, were engaged, if you would, in a
sectarian conflict at the time with militant Sunni groups, and it was very
clear that even though hostility was not everywhere, nevertheless
consciousness of identity, of who is Shia and who is a Sunni was very strong,
and it was very--it was--as an Iranian, I did not confront the Shia-Sunni
issue until I went somewhere where the division of the population made it an
issue.

GROSS: And did you feel very much in the minority in Pakistan? Did you feel
like you were in a discriminated-against minority?

Mr. NASR: Well, it was not necessarily discrimination so much it was--as
being typecast as `the other.' Particularly Pakistanis are very conscious
religiously, and they--at least the more religious segments tend to look at
the Shiites as non-Muslims, as un-Islamic. And it was eye-opening for me at
that time to be, you know, respectfully put in the category of an outsider.
And it is, I guess in some ways, like the history of Judaism in Europe. It's
the Gentiles often who confirm Jewish identity and underscored it. It in many
parts of the Muslim world, it is the attitude of the Sunnis towards the
Shiites that has hardened their identity.

GROSS: Do Shias--Sunnis and Shias have any differences in opinion about
martyrdom and suicide bombers?

Mr. NASR: Well, yes. I mean, the doctrine of martyrdom was strongest among
Shiites because the third Shiite imam, which was most popular with Shiites,
was buried in the city of Karbala in Iraq, was martyred in the seventh century
and his martyrdom was really the birth of Shiism, in the same way as the
crucifixion of Christ was the birth of Christianity, and as a result, the
Shiites have always looked favorably upon martyring oneself in the cause of
truth emulating that early day saint.

The Sunnis never really had a doctrine of martyrdom and, in fact, I remember
only 10 years ago people would say that Sunnis will never do the kinds of
things that Shiites are willing to do, the kind of suicide bombings, because
they don't have a doctrine of martyrdom, but we learned that actually these
doctrines can travel, mainly, just when the Shiites began--stopped engaging in
martyrdom practices, the radical Sunni groups began to pick it up, and now
it's a staple of their mode of operation rather than that of the Shiites.

GROSS: Thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. NASR: Thank you.

GROSS: Vali Nasr is the author of the new book "The Shia Revival."

Coming up, we talk about Hezbollah with Jeffrey Goldberg of The New Yorker
magazine.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Jeffrey Goldberg of The New Yorker magazine talks about
his meeting with Hezbollah leaders in 2002
TERRY GROSS, host:

We invited Jeffrey Goldberg to talk with us about Hezbollah. His two-part
article about Hezbollah in The New Yorker magazine in 2002 won the National
Magazine Award for reporting and the Center for Public Integrity's award for
Outstanding International Investigative Reporting. Goldberg has covered the
Middle East for The New Yorker magazine and is now a Washington correspondent.
His memoir, "Prisoners: A Muslim and Jew Across the Middle East Divide," will
be published this fall. It's about the time in the '90s when he briefly moved
to Israel and served in the Israeli army. I talked with him about meeting
leaders of Hezbollah for his New Yorker article.

You met with some leaders of Hezbollah in 2002?

Mr. JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Right.

GROSS: How did you manage to do that?

Mr. GOLDBERG: I called them up on the telephone in Beirut. Hezbollah
actually does have a spokesman or spokesman's office, and I expressed an
interest in meeting its leaders and getting a tour of its facilities in the
southern suburbs of Beirut, where a lot of this bombing is now taking place,
as well as in the Becca Valley and in south Lebanon, which Israel recently at
that point evacuated. And they were amenable. Every terrorist group has a
story to tell, and it wants its story out.

GROSS: And so it was that easy? You just called, like, what? The head
publicist for Hezbollah?

Mr. GOLDBERG: Yeah. They were a little suspicious, as you might well
imagine, particularly someone with my last name, but I make no bones about who
I am, and that sort of straightforwardness usually works in my favor. They
probably--actually, I know for a fact that they googled me. The vaunted
Hezbollah intelligence service used Google just like everyone else. The thing
you have to remember about any of these groups is that while we might look at
them and think `terrorist,' they, of course, define themselves as `resistance
fighters,' `freedom fighters,' and they have a narrative as well, and they
want that narrative out.

GROSS: And what was that narrative they presented to you?

Mr. GOLDBERG: Their narrative is very complex. Their `super' narrative, if
you will, their Islamic narrative is that they are the party, even more than
Hamas or Palestine Islamic Jihad. Certainly more than the secular Palestinian
organizations--PLO, organizations surrounding the PLO. They are the vanguard
of anti-Zionist resistance and that they are the stalwart fighters who will
bring down the state of Israel and the whole Zionist entity, as they call it,
which is--Zionist entity, in secular Palestinian terms, is an archaic term.
It's the PLO stuff using that in the '70s but Hezbollah still uses it today.
So that's part of their narrative.

Their other--and so their narrative is that they are the best fighters. That
they are the ones who will bring about the defeat of Israel on behalf of the
Palestinians. This, by the way, has caused a lot of jealousy between Hamas
and Hezbollah. Though they work together on occasion, they're also quite
competitive with each other. Each one wants to be the symbol across the
Muslim world, across the Arab world, of anti-Israel steadfastness. So that's
part of their narrative.

Their other narrative, of course, is that they are a Lebanese political party
and that they are trying to play politics within the system and that they are
the representatives of the dispossessed Shiite plurality or majority, at this
point we don't know since there's no census recently of the dispossessed
Shiites of Lebanon. There's another part of their narrative which is that
they are the embodiment of the spirit and the will in the beliefs of Ayatollah
Khomeini, the founder, the leader of the Iranian Islamic revolution in 1979.
So they have multiple personalities, this organization.

GROSS: Who did you meet with in 2002 from the Hezbollah?

Mr. GOLDBERG: I saw a whole bunch of people including their spiritual
leader, Sheikh Fadlallah. I met Sheikh Nasrallah only for a minute.
They--there was a long argument in Hezbollah in these circles--I was there for
a few weeks--whether or not they should let me see him, and I met him in a
group of people, but as soon as I started asking questions, they shuffled him
away. I met a lot of the fighters and leaders of the fighters in south
Lebanon and the Becca Valley as well. The guy, I guess, who gave me the best
understanding of the world view is the spiritual leader of--the so-called
spiritual leader of Hezbollah, Sheikh Fadlallah, who is an Iranian-trained
cleric who has extraordinary influence among the Shiites of Lebanon.

GROSS: You're Jewish. How did he react to being interviewed by a Jewish
journalist?

Mr. GOLDBERG: Whenever I deal with Islamic terrorists, Islamist clerics and
extremists, it doesn't matter where, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon--the same
rules generally tend to hold, which is that there's an attraction-repulsion
phenomenon that takes place. In other words, they're repulsed by Jews,
repulsed by everything that they think Jews and Judaism, and Israel and
Zionism stand for. On the other hand, they spend most of their lives thinking
about Jews so when one actually shows up in their living room, it's quite an
event, and what they want to do, generally--this is my experience--is get into
a big argument. They want to ask questions and they want to argue points.
Some of the points they want to argue are things that I'm not ready to argue
about. I mean, they want to argue about--I remember with Sheikh Fadlallah, I
think, he had a, I guess what I would call, a profound misunderstanding of
what the Talmud is and what the Torah is, and I wasn't going to go there. I'm
not going to start trying to disabuse him of his fantastical beliefs and what
is--what is contained--what secrets are contained in the Torah. And I've seen
this a number of times, even with--even with Hezbollah in the south--I
remember in south Lebanon when they realized that I'm Jewish, and that's not
something I hide. When they realize I'm Jewish, sometimes they'll even call
up friends, and say, `Hey, come over,there's a Jewish guy here. You're not
going to believe it.' And, you know, I find that arguing with them brings out
more information that I can use in my articles.

GROSS: My guest is Jeffrey Goldberg of The New Yorker magazine.

We'll talk more after a break. This FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Jeffrey Goldberg, former Middle East correspondent and
current Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. He won a National
Magazine award for his 2002 New Yorker article about Hezbollah.

Where was the headquarters of Hezbollah that you visited and what did they
look like?

Mr. GOLDBERG: It's actually very interesting. There was a bifurcation, if
you will. Most of the Hezbollah buildings are in the Dahia, the southern--the
so-called southern suburbs of Beirut. You see that in the newspaper, the
seven suburbs. They're not very suburban-looking by our standards of
suburban. They're big tall buildings and crowded streets. It's--and what I
noticed was very interesting, and this is what one of the Hezbollah fellows
told me was that the offices were fairly makeshift, and one of the people I
was dealing with there told me that they're built and stocked and manned in
such a way that they can be broken down in half an hour or an hour, that
there's not a great deal of investments put into the aesthetics of these
headquarter buildings. Not for lack of money, by the way, but because there
is the expectation, now fulfilled, I guess, that Israel would target these
buildings first, if it ever came to open conflict.

The one difference--the building that always struck me as quite different was
the headquarters of the Hezbollah television station Al-Manar, which when you
walk into the lobby, it looks--well, it's nicer than the NPR lobby in
Washington, as a matter of fact. It's a marble and glass building, you know,
air conditioned and carpeted, and the studios are topnotch and the editing
suites are topnotch, and I was always struck by the amount of money that they
pour into their television station.

But, generally speaking, it's an organization that didn't invest quite a lot
of money in its above-ground facilities. Now, of course, as you probably
know, Hezbollah has a series of bunkers that they built underneath this
neighborhood, connected by tunnels and buried fairly deeply in the ground. I
was not allowed to see those, obviously, but I assume they are
well-provisioned and built to last.

GROSS: You mentioned how nice the lobby of Al-Manar, the Hezbollah TV station
was. I assume that's the same location that was bombed.

Mr. GOLDBERG: It was. I think Israel understands the central role Al-Manar
plays in propagating the truth faith of Hezbollah. On the other hand, it's
not directly a military target.

GROSS: As somebody who lived in Israel, lived on a kibbutz, joined the
Israeli army in the early '90s, do you think that Israel's use of force now is
disproportionate? Are you worried about the number of Lebanese civilians who
are being hurt, about the destruction of some of the Lebanese infrastructure?

Mr. GOLDBERG: This is the most difficult question of all. I don't know.
It's very interesting, and this is an argument that people have been having
forever and will continue to have. Hezbollah bases itself in heavily crowded,
civilian areas of Beirut. It hides its weapons in mosques and underneath
hospitals and in villages. It fires its rockets from the centers of villages
filled with civilians in order to protect itself, in order to limit the damage
that Israel can cause to it.

So then you have to ask yourself, you're an Israeli prime minister, you're
elected by the people to defend Israel, someone is firing a rocket into Haifa,
killing civilians, and they're firing this rocket from a heavily populated
area. What do you do? I think, by the way, that if you look at what's
happened over the past week, I think some of the things that haven't happened
are more interesting than the things that have happened. I actually think
that both sides have not crossed all the red lines yet. I hope they don't
cross all the red lines, but I think Israel has the capability of flattening
all of Lebanon in about 12 hours, and it's been fairly pinpoint in its
attacks. Hezbollah hasn't yet fired its most deadly rockets--or most of its
most deadly rockets, and they haven't yet hit Tel Aviv. I think that they
understand that if they cross yet another red line, then Israel will simply
flatten all of the Shiite areas of Beirut and flatten most of south Lebanon.

One wishes that not a single civilian will be hurt, but one of the things I
noticed about Hezbollah and going back to this question about the offices is
that many of the Hezbollah offices in south Beirut, in the southern suburbs of
Beirut, were placed on the lower floors of civilian apartment buildings, and
by my Western standards of morality, that's quite immoral. You shouldn't--I
mean, literally, the fearsome and brave leaders of this so-called resistance
movement were hiding behind women and children, and you have to ask yourself
and you have to put yourself in the shoes of the Israeli prime minister who is
supposed to defend his people and ask yourself, `Because Hezbollah has made
this choice, does this mean that I cannot go and attack the people who are
attacking my people?' It's a terrible dilemma. It's tragic and it's terrible.
But I would look a little bit more to Hezbollah's culpability in this and a
little less to Israel's culpability.

In Gaza, I think that some of the actions of the last couple of weeks were
probably an over-reaction, but in Lebanon, it's hard for me to say that quite
yet.

GROSS: Well, Jeffrey Goldberg, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Thank you.

GROSS: Jeffrey Goldberg writes for The New Yorker magazine. His memoir,
"Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide," will be
published this fall.

Tomorrow we'll talk about Lebanon with Julia Choucair of the Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace. She's Lebanese and has lived in the US for
the past six years.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

'Monuments to the Unthinkable' explores how nations can memorialize their atrocities

In How the Word Is Passed, author Clint Smith explored U.S. sites that deal with the legacy of slavery. Now, in The Atlantic, he writes about German memorials to the Holocaust.

42:42

Journalist Maria Ressa explains 'How to Stand Up to a Dictator'

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning journalist faced criminal charges in the Philippines after her news site's reporting angered government officials. How to Stand Up to a Dictator is her new memoir.

08:48

Maureen Corrigan's favorite books of the year: 10 disparate reads for a hectic 2022

Some years, my best books list falls into a pattern: like a year that's dominated by dystopian fiction or stand-out memoirs. But, as perhaps befits this hectic year, the best books I read in 2022 sprawl all over the place in subject and form. Here are 10 superb titles from 2022:

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue