"Clinton did not use our name by chance," a Hizbollah official told me at the time. "Clinton is joining the Israelis in the fight against us. America is declaring war on us. Something big is going to happen." Eleven days ago he was proved correct. America's failure to criticise Israel's ferocious bombardment of Lebanon in response to Hizbollah Katyusha attacks on Galilee - themselves retaliation for the killing of a Lebanese teenager whose death the Hizbollah blamed on the Israeli army - was eloquent proof of the official's contention. And Mr Clinton's equally eloquent refusal to condemn Israel's massacre last week of more than 100 refugees seeking the UN's protection in Qana in southern Lebanon was confirmation for the Lebanese that the US had given Israel the green light for its latest military adventure in Lebanon.
Look back in time and it is not difficult to see how. Did the Hizbollah not train the suicide bomber who drove his explosives-laden truck into the US Marine base in Beirut on 23 October 1982, killing 241 young Americans? Did it not suicide-bomb the Israeli occupation army three times within the following 12 months? Did it not take scores of Westerners hostage between 1985 and 1988? Had it not been founded by that most anti-Western Iranian cleric, Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, former Iranian interior minister? "Yes, I created them - the Hizbollah are my children," he told me in Tehran in 1991, his crippled hand, destroyed by a letter bomb, bouncing on the desk in front of him.
But America's declaration of war on the Hizbollah, like its entire Middle East policy, was directed by Israel; and it failed to grasp that - like the PLO and Hamas and Islamic Jihad - Hizbollah was Israel's creation, the inevitable result of the Jewish state's occupation of Arab land. For Clinton and his pro-Israeli advisers in the White House and the State Department, the very name of Hizbollah was associated with the elimination of almost every CIA station chief in the Middle East in the first suicide bombing of the US embassy in Beirut, on 18 April 1983, with the names of kidnapped journalist Terry Anderson - held for almost seven years in Beirut basements - and with William Buckley, the abducted CIA station chief, and kidnapped US Colonel William Higgins, both later murdered by their captors. America's attempt to free its hostages in Lebanon by sending arms to Iran (and the profits to the Contras) almost brought down the Reagan administration. Here, surely, was a worthy enemy upon whom to declare war in company with Israel.
What Washington did not choose to comprehend and what Israel typically ignored was that the Hizbollah against whom Mr Peres went to war 11 days ago had over the past five years changed, chrysalis-like, into a different creature, equally ferocious in pursuit of its aims but shrewdly planning for a role in the new Middle East, as a mainstream political party in a rebuilt Lebanon. Hizbollah is no longer demanding an Islamic revolution throughout the region. As its present leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, has frequently hinted, though never publicly said, its war against Israel will end once it achieves its ambition of driving the last Israeli soldier out of Lebanon, an aspiration which fits neatly into the policies of Hizbollah's other mentor, Syria.
Hizbollah - "terrorist" enemy of the West and kidnapper extraordinaire - has turned itself into the "Islamic Resistance", an organisation of guerrilla fighters against Israeli occupation in Lebanon whose change, though still under way, is symbolised by its eight elected members of the Lebanese parliament. The metamorphosis is neither complete nor exact. But Hizbollah is today the world's most efficient guerrilla army, the only Arab force to break the occupation of the most powerful nation in the Middle East.
In 1982 Iran sent revolutionary guards to train Lebanese Shiites who wished to fight the Israeli invasion army. Thanks to the targeting of civilians in that offensive invasion, there was no lack of recruits.
Mohtashemi was an original adherent to Khomeini's concept of spreading Islamic "revolution", believing that Lebanon's transformation into an Islamic state would follow the collapse of Iraq, against whose soldiers revolutionary Iran was gaining ever greater victories on the desert battlefronts. Sobhi Tofeili, a young cleric from the Bekaa valley, led an inner circle, a consultative council or majlis as-shura, whose headquarters the Israelis tried and failed to hit on their first Beirut raid 11 days ago. That group included Abbas Moussawi, a Shiite cleric in his early thirties who was trained in the Iranian city of Qom, and the tough young commander of Hizbollah forces in southern Lebanon, Hassan Nasrallah.
Lebanon had become, in the words of Sayed Mohamed Hussein Fadlallah, who was to become the spiritual guide to the movement, "a lung through which Iran breathes", a channel through which the young Iranian clerics around Mohtashemi could exert their power on an international scale in the last years of Khomeini's life. Once the Americans came to Beirut, to "protect" the Palestinians after they had been massacred by Israel's Christian Phalangist allies and to prop up the Israeli-installed Phalangist government, the Iranians added to the Hizbollah's tasks a new and violent role: to act as an arm of the Iranian intelligence services. A war between the security services of both East and West would be fought out in Beirut.
Within Hizbollah, the Iranians organised a number of satellite groups intended to strike at Western interests, to kidnap Western citizens and eliminate the West's intelligence abilities in the Middle East. The bombing of the American embassy took out the eyes of the CIA. The suicide bombing of the US Marines six months later took out America's claws. William Buckley, the CIA station chief, was seized. Imad Mougnieh, the leader of the Islamic Jihad group which claimed the kidnapping of more than 20 Westerners, later told me that Buckley had been carrying documents connecting him to the arrest of Shiite Muslim sympathizers of Iran who, under Amin Gemayel's Phalangist regime, had "disappeared" in 1993. They were in fact murdered after torture in the basement of the Lebanese ministry of defence. "Buckley was running Gemayel's arrest operations," Mougnieh told me. "He was responsible for hundreds of deaths."
In 1985, American intelligence tried to strike back. Paid from the funds of the Saudi intelligence service, Lebanese surrogates left a car bomb outside Fadlallah's home. It killed 85 civilians but Fadlallah escaped. Then Col Higgins, attached to the UN in southern Lebanon, was kidnapped. Officially he was an international truce observer but, as Higgins boasted to UN colleagues, he had "a dual political role", travelling to Tel Aviv each weekend to brief US embassy security personnel on the situation in southern Lebanon, who in turn passed on Higgins' information to the Israelis. Among some UN battalions, Higgins was regarded as an intelligence officer - one European UN unit was warned not to associate with him - and when the Hizbollah heard this, it arranged his kidnap. His captors later issued a videotape of Higgins dead, hanging from a rope in an unidentified room.
In the years to come, Hizbollah would try to distance itself from the US Marine bombings, although Abbas Moussawi, who would take over the movement in the late Eighties and try to "mainstream" it into the Lebanese political system, conceded that Hizbollah had indeed attacked the American forces. "Hizbollah did not come into existence through conferences, but through jihad [holy war] and acts of martyrdom," he told me.
"The great achievement of Hizbollah in this period was that, by way of two martyrdom
operations against the US
Marines and French paratroopers, it evicted America and the multi-national forces from Lebanon."
Within a year of our conversation, the Israelis targeted Moussawi. An Israeli helicopter gunship fired a missile into his car in southern Lebanon, burning alive Moussawi, his wife and five-year old son. If the Iranians could take out the eyes of the CIA, the Israelis thought they could cut of the head ofHizbollah. But within hours,Hizbollah's consultative council elected Nasrallah, the southern military commander, as secretary general. He was a man who knew how to fight a guerrilla war, having directed the series of ambushes and suicide bombings that sent the Israelis reeling back from Beirut to Sidon and then to Tyre between 1983 and 1985.
Nasrallah would continue Moussawi's transformation of Hizbollah, encouraging its newly elected members of parliament, organising humanitarian assistance programmes for the Shiites of the south and the southern suburbs of the capital. Hizbollah opened a television station, even a press office. And because it continued to fight the Israeli occupation in the south, it was the only militia in post-war Lebanon to be allowed to keep its guns. Its money - Hizbollah guerrillas receive around $350 (pounds 230) a month - came from Iran. Its Milan anti-tank missiles and Katyusha rockets and ammunition came through Damascus. And still the intelligence war continued.
In 1995, a bomb was left near Imad Mougnieh's home. It killed one of his brothers and several civilians but Mougnieh was not at home. Lebanese intelligence later arrested several men for the killings, one of whom said he had been trained by Israeli Shet intelligence operatives near Nazareth and had arrived in Beirut via Israel's occupation zone in southern Lebanon.
Across that occupied zone, Hizbollah was now making mass attacks on Israeli troops and their Lebanese allies, cutting down Israeli occupation troops at the rate of one or two or sometimes even six a week. In response, the Israelis would target the civilians of the south, firing tank shells into the homes of Shiite villagers. In retaliation, Hizbollah would fire Katyushas into Galilee. In this conflict lay the seeds of last week's bloodbath.
The transformation of Hizbollah throughout this time merely reflected the change in Tehran. After Khomeini's death, Mohtashemi's influence declined, his newspaper was threatened and then closed, his job as interior minister gone. As power passed to the younger and more tolerant religious leadership of Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, so Hizbollah commenced its transformation.
Yet its tenacity remained. Nasrallah once tried to explain to me why his young men were prepared to kill themselves attacking Israeli troops. Life could be compared to a sauna in which a man was hot and thirsty and tired, he said. The man knows that through a door there is a cool room with classical music and cocktails. Opening the door was the act of martyrdom. Was it not easy to open the door?
Hizbollah counts well over 1,000 `martyrs', several dozen of them suicide bombers, men who left behind videotapes of their last words, gifts for their parents, letters telling their mothers and fathers not to grieve.
Many of these men were brought up in the hill villages of southern Lebanon, in the very communities where the Iranian exiles from the Shah who would lead Khomeini's revolution were then preaching in the mosques. Mehdi Bazargan, Khomeini's future prime minister attended college near Tyre. Bazargan's future deputy, Sadeq Tabatabai, visited Tyre each year. So did Ayatollah Mohamed Beheshti who became Iranian minister of justice, and Sadeq Qotbzadeh, Khomeini's foreign minister. One of the founders of the Jebel Amal college at Tyre was Mustapha Chamran, later Iranian minister of defence. One of his pupils there, a Lebanese electrical engineering student called Mohamed Saad, would later become a leading explosives expert for the Islamic resistance leader Khalil Jerardi. Both Saad and Jerardi attended prayers at the same mosque as Beheshti.
Thus did this small corner of southern Lebanon become the heart of both the Hizbollah and the Iranian revolution. It would always be defended and any crime committed against it would always be avenged.
And in the very centre of this triangle of Shiite villages lies a scruffy hamlet of three streets, a dozen dingy shops and a little mosque. In 1978, the UN placed a battalion headquarters there. It is a place called Qana.
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