Georgia Southern University professor Dr. Krista E. Wiegand is one of the few American researchers to actually visit and speak to members of the militant Lebanese Islamic group Hezbollah, which is currently embroiled in large-scale fighting with the Israeli Defense Forces.
Her experiences have run the gamut. At her first encounter they confiscated her research and subjected her to a lengthy interrogation. On a later trip, however, she was able to interview a leading cleric face to face -- most remarkable given the fundamentalist group’s general attitude toward women.
Because Hezbollah is officially considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., U.K, Israel and Canada, Wiegand has not been in contact with the group since her first two research trips. But she agreed to share her experiences and photos of Lebanon with Connect Savannah in an e-mail exchange, as well as her thoughts on the current situation.
Connect Savannah: What first brought you to Lebanon, and then among Hezbollah?
Dr. Wiegand: My first trip to Lebanon was in 1994 when the country was still devastated by its civil war, which had just ended a few years before. My best friends from college are Lebanese-Americans and they invited me to visit Lebanon with them so that’s what initially brought me there in 1994. During that first trip, I was so affected by the war-torn environment that I decided to further research Lebanon more in depth to better understand the causes of war, particularly in the Middle East.
I first met Hezbollah officials in the summer of 1995 when they confiscated surveys I was collecting in Lebanon for use in my Master’s thesis. They interrogated me for several hours rather than me being able to get my surveys back.
I met with Hezbollah officials in the summer of 2000 in order to access restricted areas controlled by Hezbollah in the south of Lebanon immediately after the Israeli withdrawal from that region.
In addition to interviews with Hezbollah officials, a former Hezbollah guerrilla spent a full day with me and my translator driving over 300 miles in the south of Lebanon visiting former Israeli military posts, Israeli prisons where Lebanese prisoners were held, and villages that had lived under Israeli occupation for two decades and are now being bombed.
I lived in Lebanon from 1997 to 1998, teaching political science at Notre Dame University and spent several summers there, most recently in 2002 to study intensive Arabic at the American University of Beirut. I had also received funding to do further research with Hezbollah that summer, but due to my concern about the Patriot Act and notification that I was listed on a CIA watch list, I chose not to contact Hezbollah at that time and have not done so since then for the same reasons.
Connect Savannah: It seems that recently Lebanon has resumed its old role as a relatively cosmopolitan Middle Eastern nation. Entirely true? If so, is it also true for the Hezbollah-influenced areas or is there a pronounced difference?
Dr. Wiegand: Lebanon started resuming its role as a stable, prosperous country as early as the mid-1990s once reconstruction was in full swing. By 2000 Beirut was mostly rebuilt and one of the most beautiful cities in the world. After the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon, Hezbollah actually played a significant role in improving infrastructure and services in that region of the country.
If there is a distinction among regions in Lebanon, it is primarily class-based. It’s no coincidence that Hezbollah is dominant in poorer regions of Lebanon so yes, there is a pronounced difference.
Connect Savannah: Is this accurate that Hezbollah actually “controls” these areas? Is there actually no meaningful government presence in these areas?
Dr. Wiegand: Yes, Hezbollah actually does control certain areas of Lebanon, particularly southern suburbs of Beirut near the airport where much of the Israeli bombing has occurred, southern Lebanon, and the Baalbek region in the east near the Syrian border. A few years ago the government tried to change the route of a major road in Hezbollah-controlled south Beirut and Hezbollah basically told them no, it wouldn’t happen, so it didn’t. You know you’re in Hezbollah-controlled areas because of the presence of Hezbollah flags everywhere and billboard sized paintings of the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, leader of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979.
Connect Savannah: If the Lebanese government collapses, then what?
Dr. Wiegand: I doubt that the Lebanese government will collapse since this is not a civil war but a conflict against an enemy all the different parts of the government want to stop from attacking Lebanon. What is more likely to happen is that Hezbollah will be “kicked out” from the government, meaning they would lose their two cabinet seats and 35 parliament seats shared in a coalition with another Shiite group, Amal.
Connect Savannah: In your view is the Syrian connection to Hezbollah as explicit as the U.S. government indicates?
Dr. Wiegand: I have always considered the Syrian connection to be overblown and not as explicit as the U.S. government claims it is. What I’m certain of is that Syria does allow arms and Iranian military trainers to travel via Syria into Lebanon to assist Hezbollah.
Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria, is not the powerful leader that his father Hafez al-Assad was and he is not even Sunni or Shiite Muslim, but Alawite. The primary reason he assists Hezbollah is due to Syria’s shared perception of Israel, particularly due to the disputed Golan Heights territory, taken by Israel from Syria in 1967 during the Six Day War.
So no, the Syrian government is not pulling Hezbollah’s strings and Bush’s comment to Tony Blair at the G8 conference to that effect seems like a major misperception.
Connect Savannah: The Iranian connection?
Dr. Wiegand: As a Shiite Muslim group, Hezbollah has very strong historic relations with Iran, the dominant Shiite Muslim country in the world. The early leaders of the group were directly inspired by the Islamic revolution of 1979 and particularly by the teachings of the Ayatollah Khomeini.
Since the group’s founding in 1982, Hezbollah has received direct funding, training, spiritual guidance, and political support from Iran. Though Hezbollah leaders are independent in their tactical decision, they really cannot make major decisions about strategy without input from Iranian leaders.
Financially, Iran provides Hezbollah with an estimated $100 million in aid every year.
Connect Savannah: What is the real gauge of Lebanese public support for Hezbollah? Are their seats in the parliament an accurate reflection of that support?
Dr. Wiegand: Despite the end of the civil war in Lebanon in 1991, sectarian divisions remain fairly strong, as do sectarian support for political parties. Therefore, Hezbollah has significant support among Shiite Muslims in Lebanon, along with Amal, another Shiite political party, but they have very little support by non-Shiites.
The only time that Hezbollah was relatively popular with all religious groups in Lebanon was in the summer of 2000 when Israel withdrew from south Lebanon since it was believed that Hezbollah played a major role in “liberating” Lebanese territory. The parliament seats held by Hezbollah shared in a coalition with Amal reflects the proportional representation of Shiites in Lebanon, which now represent up to 40 percent of the population.
Connect Savannah: Is their level of public support likely to go up or down after weeks of Israeli airstrikes?
Dr. Wiegand: There are already many reports of both Shiite and Sunni Muslims increasing their support for Hezbollah primarily because they want to stand with the group that is resisting the country attacking Lebanon.
At the same time, there are many groups in Lebanon, primarily non-Muslims who are fed up with Hezbollah’s continued military engagements against Israel and therefore place direct blame on Hezbollah for starting this conflict.
Connect Savannah: Hezbollah insists the capture of the two Israeli soldiers was itself payback for Israeli detention of Lebanese citizens. Your thoughts?
Dr. Wiegand: It is important to note that this is not the first time that Hezbollah has captured Israeli soldiers. It is also important to point out that the Israeli military has captured hundreds of Lebanese fighters, some Hezbollah, others non-Hezbollah, who are currently held in Israeli prisons.
What most people don’t realize and the news so far has not mentioned is that Israel has negotiated Lebanese prisoner releases in exchange for Israeli soldiers held by Hezbollah on a number of occasions. In fact my Hezbollah guide during my visit in the summer of 2000 in south Lebanon had just been released four months earlier after 11 years in an Israeli prison. His release occurred due to German mediated negotiations between Hezbollah and Israel. So there is a precedent for Israel giving in to Hezbollah demands so it is not surprising that Hezbollah would expect any different from Israel this time.
Obviously the Israeli government chose not to consider this option this time. Israel’s choice of massive force against Hezbollah and Lebanon is likely due to a few reasons: the dual pressure they feel in Gaza by Hamas, who also captured an Israeli soldier several weeks ago, to signal to Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah -- Israel’s main nemeses -- that Israel will not tolerate any threat to Israel, and to increase domestic support for the relatively new Israeli government and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a former military officer.
Connect Savannah: In your photos, Hezbollah’s anti-Semitism is blatant. Tell us more about Hezbollah’s attitude toward Israel at the grassroots level.
Dr. Wiegand: In my interviews with Hezbollah officials, they consistently pointed out that Hezbollah is not anti-Jewish, but anti-Israeli. They claim that they respect the Jewish faith and have no problems with Jews, just with Jews in the holy land. Yes, they believe that the state of Israel should not exist, but they have no intention of using force to destroy the state themselves.
Rather, according to my sources in Hezbollah, Hezbollah has been working with people inside Israel, not just Hamas, but anti-government Israelis themselves to help implode Israel. Evidence of this strategy came out a few years ago when a Jewish Israeli citizen was arrested for treason because he was supporting intelligence to Hezbollah.
The signs refer specifically to Hezbollah’s success in defeating the Israeli military in the summer of 2000. The Jewish star of David is used as a symbol for the state of Israel and the Israeli military.
Connect Savannah: My understanding is that overall Lebanon is much less conservative than most Muslim nations. But certainly the Hezbollah areas must have been more conservative, and hence more wary of you as a woman.
Dr. Wiegand: It is true that Lebanon is both less conservative and more conservative than other Middle Eastern countries, depending on what part of Lebanon one is located. In Hezbollah-controlled areas, women are mostly veiled. When I met with Hezbollah I did not need to wear a veil, but I did dress conservatively.
During my interview with a sheikh at Hezbollah headquarters in Haret Hreik district of Beirut, which was destroyed last week by Israeli bombs, the sheikh never looked at me while talking, but instead focused on my male translator. Shiite Muslims also do not shake the hands nor touch any women to whom they are not married, so I had to remember not to put my hand out when meeting Hezbollah representatives.
Overall, I was treated very well during my visits and meetings with Hezbollah. They admitted they were very impressed with the audacity of a female American researcher to contact them directly and meet with them so that made them respectful of me.
Connect Savannah: Do you know anyone currently in Lebanon? If so, what have they told you about what’s going on?
Dr. Wiegand: Yes, I have several friends still in Lebanon, including one of my best friends and her three young children, who I heard from this week. They have fled to a resort town up in the mountains, but she is still scared, particularly regarding the trauma of the bombs for the children.
My other Lebanese friends there have reported that they are at a loss for words and are shocked that their beautiful country is being destroyed again after 15 years of reconstruction.
Connect Savannah: But at what point does that all come down to Hezbollah’s continued indiscriminate attacks on Israeli population centers? Certainly that can’t be justified.
Dr. Wiegand: In terms of Hezbollah’s bombing of civilian areas in Israel, there is no justification in any sense, just as there is no justification for Israel to bomb civilian areas in Lebanon or any other military for that matter. Despite the resolve of both Hezbollah and Israel to defeat the other, civilians are the losers in this war on both sides. ç
Dr. Krista E. Wiegand is publishing an article about Hezbollah’s involvement in the political system in Lebanon and continues to teach courses on terrorism and political violence at Georgia Southern University.
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