Sheikh Qassem did not... wish to imitate the Iranian Islamic model in Lebanon too closely. Hizbollah itself accepted that Lebanon was a multi-confessional society and that what was appropriate for Iran was not suitable for Lebanon. Qassem had indeed developed relations with leaders of the Maronite Christian community in the country and saw the future as one in which each party and group sought to preserve this pluralistic model.(Thanks: L.)
This was all the more rational in that for a Shi'a group like Hizbollah, the most immediate enemies within its own society were not Christians, but radical Sunnis of the kind inspired by Saudi Arabia, for whom Shi'a are apostates and polytheists who (as in Iraq, Pakistan and formerly in Afghanistan) can be attacked and killed without compunction. Hence Hizbollah's hostility to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, including their adoption of the theory of the "clash of civilisations".
This tone of tolerance and flexibility did not, however, extend to the discussion of Israel or of Jews in general. The military struggle of Hizbollah against Israel was officially confined to their expulsion from Lebanon and was incomplete only because of Israel's continued occupation of a small part of southern Lebanon, the Shebaa farms, near the Syrian frontier. Sheikh Qassem, and military commanders of Hizbollah I later met, confirmed that they were helping Hamas and Islamic Jihad inside Israel and Palestine; but they appeared to want to limit their own (at that time sporadic) armed activities to the Shebaa issue.
However, there was no margin of doubt in the sheikh's view that Israel was an illegitimate state and that it should be abolished. This position was bolstered... by the deployment of quotes from the Qu'ran denouncing Jews and calling for a struggle against them.
I put it to the sheikh that this use of the Islamic tradition, in a context of modern political conflict, was racist, a point he evidently did not accept. An alternative, open and respectful, attitude to Jews can also be derived from other parts of the Islamic tradition, but this, like the racist reading, depends on contemporary political choice.
The next day I was taken on an intense field-trip by one of the Hizbollah military commanders to the key installations and battlesites of the Lebanese south. Beyond a certain stage, there was no sign of the Lebanese army or police, only Hizbollah roadblocks with the yellow flag of the organisation fluttering above. The Hizbollah flag was also much in evidence at Chateau Beaufort, the Crusader castle long occupied by the Israelis, as it was at Khiam, the abandoned prison used by the South Lebanese Army to detain Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners in terrible conditions. Khiam was abandoned in Israel's final departure in May 2000, with several thousand SLA taking refuge with their families in Israel.
Amid all these sites of killing and heroism, and the massed heaps of detonated Israeli military fortifications that dot the south, there was at first sight an air of near-normality, even optimism: in Marjayoun, the Christian district from which many SLA had come, shops and hairdressers were open and people strolled easily in the streets; some of the Hizbollah people were building homes near the frontier. We lunched in an outdoor country cafe by a river, within a short distance of the Israeli lines. "They will never dare to return here", was the refrain of my militant guide.
Towards the end of the day, my guides took me [to] a hill overlooking the Israeli frontier, and the town of Metulla. There, I sensed that another perspective, and another future, was equally contained within these seemingly peaceful hills.
From one roadside vantage-point, they had pointed to the still unresolved Shebaa area to the southeast. As we looked over to this Israeli town, with people clearly visible walking in the streets, the chief guide turned to me with an unambiguous message: "It took us twenty-two years to drive them out of here [Lebanon]... and it may take us up to forty years to drive them out of there [occupied Palestine]".
I long ago decided, in dealing with revolutionaries and with their enemies, in the middle east and elsewhere, to question their motives and sense of reality, but to take seriously what they stated to be their true intentions. Those words, spoken on the hill overlooking Metulla in 2004, were sincerely meant, and carried within them a long history of fighting, sacrifice and killing. In light of recent events, it would be prudent to assume that much more is to come.