A senior officer in the US Central Command (CENTCOM) said that “Putting Hizballah, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda in the same sentence, as if they are all the same, is just stupid.” He was referring to a statement made by that prince of idiocy, Danny Ayalon, Israel’s perpetual embarrassment of a Deputy Foreign Minister.
As shameful as it is that a man as crude, boorish and ignorant as Ayalon holds such a position in Israel, the source of that statement is just one element in what appears to be evolving thinking in the US military.
An article at Foreign Affairs on the so-called “Red Team” report regarding policy toward Hamas and Hezbollah should not be given more weight than it is due. The purpose of the Red Team deliberation is specifically to challenge existing policy. Still, the thinking that the article reports is quite promising.
There is a real understanding reflected in their recommendations that Hezbollah and Hamas are not transitory political forces, but are here to stay, and they need to be dealt with in a serious fashion. Merely writing them off as terrorists and refusing to engage them has already proven counter-productive. Eventually, both groups will, in fact, be dealt with in an open fashion. That day is likely a long way off, which is unfortunate; a lot of bloodshed could be avoided by hastening, rather than delaying, that day.
Different kinds of Islamist groups
It’s easy to lump all of those groups together. It’s a useful propaganda tool for the inane “war on terror.” And it produces a backlash among leftists, who often overlook the abhorrent acts Hamas or Hezbollah have committed, identifying them primarily as freedom fighters. Given that all of these groups have used the tactic of terrorism, they make it easy for people to lump them together.
The reality is that al-Qaeda and similar groups, on the one hand, and national-religious groups like Hamas and Hezbollah are real forces in the world, and if we don’t do a better job of both distinguishing between them and understanding them, the conflicts we are in today are going to go on for a long time.
I touched on one of the most important distinctions we need to make, and that is between national-religious groups and those for whom the pejorative label “global jihadist” is more appropriate.
Al-Qaeda is the best known of the latter group. They are not fighting for any sort of national liberation, nor for control of any particular government. They see the Muslim world as being controlled by apostates, whose ideology is Western-inspired and adopted by many in Muslim countries. This is how they justify killing of both Muslim and non-Muslims innocents. In essence, they use terrorism to bring chaos in the hope that a new caliphate will arise out of the tumult, bringing the Muslim world back to “true Islam” and rising it of Western, Christian and Jewish influences.
By contrast, Hezbollah and Hamas are Lebanese and Palestinian nationalist groups, respectively. The two groups have both little in common with and little love for al-Qaeda. Indeed, groups which follow a “global jihadist” ideology would properly be understood as threats to both groups.
But now it would seem I’m lumping Hezbollah and Hamas together, and that would also be wrong. The two groups have very different characters, some of which arises from their different circumstances, some because of their different roots.
Hezbollah arose as a distinctly militant group in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The exact date of their formation is disputed. The attack, in 1983, on a barracks in Beirut which killed 299 American and French soldiers is widely attributed to Hezbollah. Since that time, they have grown into a major political force in Lebanon, controlling a militia that is arguably stronger than Lebanon’s army, and also has a wide social services network, operating chiefly in the southern part of the country.
Though Hezbollah has its own enmity with Israel (it developed its strength by fighting the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon until Israel’s withdrawal in 2000), it has maintained that it will accept any agreement the Palestinians sign of their own free will.
Although Hezbollah is essentially nationalist and Lebanese, it is also essentially Shi’ite in composition, and for most of its history has represented that group exclusively in Lebanon’s sectarian politics. In recent years, though, it has struck accords with other Muslim and Christian groups in the country. This is part of Hezbollah’s evolution, as it strives to be a major player in Lebanon’s future.
Iran was crucial to the creation of Lebanon, hoping that a Shi’ite ally in the Levant would help in the spread of its own revolution. Iran remains a key backer of Hezbollah, but the notion that Hezbollah is merely an arm of Iran is misguided. Hezbollah’s character is essentially Lebanese-nationalist. In the article I mentioned above, the piece’s author, Mark Perry writes, “The most interesting aspects of the report deal with Hezbollah. The Red Team downplays the argument that the Lebanese Shiite group acts as a proxy for Iran. The report includes a quote from Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, stating that if Lebanon and Iran’s interests ever conflicted, his organization would favor Lebanese interests. “Hezbollah’s activities increasingly reflect the movement’s needs and aspirations in Lebanon, as opposed to the interests of its Iranian backers,” the report concludes. “
Hezbollah has also been glorified in some very misguided ways. Its prominence has been assured throughout the Arab world by its having been credited with driving Israel out in 2000 and surviving its onslaught in 2006. But that should not erase its irresponsible behavior in 2006 in embroiling southern Lebanon in a war that killed some 1,000 Lebanese civilians, and 43 Israeli civilians. Nor does it erase hezbollah’s history of attacking civilians (NOTE: by the same token, Hezbollah’s attacking of civilians does not justify Israel’s massive attack on Lebanese civilian infrastructure in 2006, either—if we cannot be guided b y the principle that crimes against civilians by one side do not justify crimes against civilians by the other, we have no claim to a moral compass of any kind).
But Hezbollah has evolved. It openly renounced aspirations for a religious state, recognizing the multi-cultural nature of Lebanon. It clearly and staunchly continues to refuse to accept Israel’s right to exist and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has made a number of very disturbing, anti-Jewish statements, and the Hezbollah television station, al-Manar aired a series involving a Jewish world-domination conspiracy.
Nonetheless, Hezbollah is present and it is useless to try to simply eliminate, from the outside, such a potent political force in any country. Engaging them and finding a way for them to become fully integrated into the Lebanese government (a process which already has come a long way) is the only realistic option if there is ever to be peace.
Hamas started from the opposite end as Hezbollah, beginning as a religious and social service-oriented group, which, in fact, Israel hoped would be a Muslim counterweight to the secular Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
It grew a military wing, and brought the phenomenon of suicide bombing tragically to the fore of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It’s been in control of the Gaza Strip since 2007. In this case, I’ll leave the history aside.
The important question regarding Hamas is really whether it has the capacity to grow in a similarly pragmatic direction as Hezbollah has.
There have been some signs that this is the case, though under present conditions it is difficult to know what they mean. Hamas is much less organized than Hezbollah, and its leadership, based in Damascus, is sometimes out of touch with its government-like structure in Gaza. Where Hezbollah is a Lebanese political force in Lebanon, Hamas is a Palestinian political force essentially scattered between Gaza, the West Bank and Syria.
Hamas, despite its roots in social networking, clung much more to its identity as an oppositional and revolutionary force. The very fact that it agreed to run in the 2006 Palestinian national elections was perhaps the clearest evidence that the group was capable of evolving and re-examining its fundamental assumptions about itself.
CENTCOM’s Red Team was less sanguine about Hamas than Hezbollah, apparently. No doubt, this is merited. Hezbollah and the Lebanese government have come through civil wars and other, lower-scale conflicts, to arrive at least at the beginnings of ways to live together and cooperate. Such is not the case with Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, and the much more direct nature of the conflict with Israel in Hamas’ case also complicates matters.
Nonetheless, Perry writes: “The report argues that an Israeli decision to lift the siege might pave the way for
reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, which would be “the best hope for mainstreaming Hamas.” The Red Team also claims that reconciliation with Fatah, when coupled with Hamas’s explicit renunciation of violence, would gain “widespread international support and deprive the Israelis of any legitimate justification to continue settlement building and delay statehood negotiations.”
The Red Team’s bottom line should be self-evident: the current policy of attempting to isolate both Hezbollah and Hamas isn’t working. Reality always intrudes, and the reality is that both these groups now represent significant portions of the Lebanese and Palestinian populations, respectively.
The real trouble is that, from the West’s perspective and especially from Israel’s, the sine qua non for both groups is their willingness to renounce independent violence. The way forward for both is to allow their military forces to come under the control of a central government.
For Hezbollah, there is a lot less pressure to do this domestically. Many Lebanese, with much justification, see Hezbollah as their best line of defense against renewed Israeli attacks. They’ve proved themselves capable in this regard. Still, the situation is inherently unstable; if a government does not control the means of violence, it does not control the country. And 2006 also proved that Hezbollah can, through impetuous actions, bring about Israeli attacks for which the population suffers.
Hamas still has not really decided whether it wants to be a militant revolutionary group or if it prefers to be a part of a unified Palestinian government. Its reluctance to allow the PA, in a unified government, to take command of its fighter is both understandable, from their point of view, and the biggest sticking point in unity talks.
Hamas sees the PA as collaborationist. This presents a quandary. Joining a unity government, even as a minority party (as polls suggest it would), would enable it to confront what it sees as quisling tendencies in Fatah. But it would also mean it would have to agree to cease completely all military operations independent of PA decisions.
For Hamas, confronting Israel with violence is still a central part of its identity.
For Hezbollah, the Western-oriented government of Fuad Siniora is both too hostile to its Iranian patron and too willing to accommodate American and Israeli desires, which it sees as incompatible with Lebanese national aspirations.
These are problems. But it is possible that they can be worked through if engagement is sustained. In any case, that is the only realistic course open to the US. Trying to starve or wipe out these groups is simply not going to work, as it never does in these situations, historically. There is no way to negotiate with al-Qaeda, as they are not interested in any sort of agreement and their only path to the future is through violence. But Hamas and Hezbollah, as deeply objectionable as I find them, are not the same. It seems some in CENTCOM have reached a similar conclusion. Let’s see how long it takes for that understanding to filter its way up the food chain to the political leadership, at least in America.