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Terrorists or Freedom Fighters?
Dateline: Lebanon An Indiana reporter seeks answers (Web extended version)
Before the assembled reporters could ask the first question, Sheikh Nabil Kaouk posed one to us.
“How do you define a terrorist?” the Hezbollah leader asked.
When you’ve been officially labeled a terrorist group by the US government and you are visited by US and Arab journalists, apparently there is not much point in beating around the bush. So the interview at the Hezbollah compound in dusty southern Lebanon began right on point.
Despite his seizing of the initiative, Kaouk spent most of the hour speaking softly and politely. Wearing a white turban and beige and brown robes, he sat flanked by Lebanese and Hezbollah flags in his office near the village of Khiam. He smiled often and offered his condolences for the US suffering in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. We reporters, in Lebanon for a week as part of a Reuters Foundation and Stanley Center program bringing together US and Middle Eastern journalists, gathered around him on brightly colored couches. My seat was almost directly below a large portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini.
When the Sheikh brought up the definition of terrorism, I thought of an old bumper sticker that showed two silhouetted figures of armed men. Below the figures was the caption, “One is a freedom fighter, one is a terrorist. Can you tell the difference?”
“The A-Team of Terrorists?”
When it comes to Hezbollah, Arabic for “Party of God,” the Bush administration says it can indeed tell the difference. The US government links Hezbollah to the 1983 suicide bombing attack that killed 241 US troops in Beirut, and to hostage-taking, including the kidnapping and murder of CIA Station Chief William Buckley in 1985. The State Department has placed Hezbollah on its formal list of foreign terrorist organizations, and has demanded that Lebanon freeze Hezbollah’s assets. “Hezbollah may be the A-Team of terrorists,” deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage said in 2003.
As a result, Lebanon has refused to follow the United States’ demand to freeze Hezbollah assets. Most European countries have also resisted following the US lead in labeling Hezbollah a terrorist organization.
Perhaps those countries agree with the Sheihk’s own terrorism definition, which he eventually offered the assembled journalists: terrorism is the killing of innocent civilians. In fact, there is no agreed-upon definition of terrorism by the United Nations or other international groups, and even US law has some variations. But few would disagree with the Sheikh’s condemnation of attacks that lead to harm for non-military victims.
“But when you fight military occupying forces, that is not terrorism,” Kaouk said through an interpreter. Our visit presented an opportunity for Hezbollah to argue that its modus operandi has more in common with George Washington-esque freedom fighting than traditional notions of terrorism. Kaouk took care to point out that Hezbollah condemned the 9/11 attacks and criticizes the killing of civilians by insurgents in Iraq. “Whoever is resisting the occupation in Iraq may have started with patriotic aims, but other people have joined in with other goals,” he said. “In Lebanon, it was resistance with completely patriotic motives.”
Will Hezbollah Disarm?
Kaouk also defended Hezbollah’s response to United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, passed in September 2004, which calls for the removal of all foreign forces in Lebanon and the disarming of all militia groups there. The first part of Resolution 1559 was realized when Syrian troops and intelligence agents pulled out of Lebanon earlier this year, following mass demonstrations after the February assassination of prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Now, international attention has turned to the question of when—or if—Hezbollah will disarm.
From where we sat interviewing Kaouk, the borders of Israel and Syria are just a few kilometers away. Kaouk said that Lebanon has a continued need to defend its southern border from Israel, and Hezbollah’s force is necessary for that defense.
Many Lebanese agree. Ghattas Khoury, a Christian former member of the Lebanese parliament and a key organizer of the movement that led to a new coalition government after Hariri’s assassination, told our same journalist group that there was no rush for Hezbollah to disarm.
Khoury conspicuously awarded Hezbollah credit for driving Israel out of south Lebanon, and he said ongoing tensions may cause Lebanon to need Hezbollah’s military efforts again. “Peace with Israel will never prevail until we resolve the Palestinian issue,” Khoury said.
The Palestinian issue is not an abstract one for Lebanon, which is home to 300,000 Palestinian refugees whose families originally came here after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Many of them live, without the rights to vote or own property, in the cramped and battered Sabra and Shatila refugee camp in Beirut. We drove just a few blocks from the camp to meet with Hamas leader Usama Hamdan in his air-conditioned apartment.
“Taking People’s Land is a Terrorist Attack”
Accused terrorists are no slouches in the PR department these days. Sheikh Khaouk had the press meeting filmed for Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television cameras, and lined up for group photos afterward. The 40-year-old Hamdan, who seemed awfully calm for a man rumored to be targeted for assassination by Israel, served juice and tea and distributed business cards after the interview. Hamdan’s assistants also passed out a sheet so that the visitors could be added to the Hamas e-mail list—I’m not sure of the consequences if Hamas messages are victims of my spam filter.
Hamas, also known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, is the largest Palestinian militant Islamic group, formed with the goal of driving Israel from the occupied territories. To achieve that goal, Hamas has launched attacks that include suicide bombings, and has been responsible for the deaths of scores of civilians. Like Hezbollah, Hamas is a prominent member of the US State Department’s official list of terrorist groups.
Hamdan told us that he agreed with Sheikh Kaouk’s definition of terrorism, but added a key distinction on the targeting of civilians. After first claiming that Israel is targeting civilians for attacks and the United States is committing terrorism in Iraq, Hamdan said that “I believe that killing civilians in their homelands“—and here he tapped his forefinger on his chair arm for emphasis—”is terrorism. I believe taking people’s land is a terrorist attack.”
So Hamdan reminded us that Hamas publicly condemned the recent bombings in London, and he dismissed a question from a Palestinian journalist about whether Hamas would ever go so far as to poison Israeli water supplies. “Everyone knows that one who wants to kill could target schools and stadiums,” Hamdan said. “We did not do that, not because we couldn’t, but because we decided not to do that.
“The idea of resistance is not how many people you can kill. The idea is that he (Israel) is occupying your land because he thinks he can do that, so you need to let him understand that it costs him a lot to take your land. If we could do that without killing any people, that would be good. But he is killing our people. There are no limits to resistance, because it is your right to defend your land.”
Hamdan’s chilling hostility toward Israel was echoed by many others during our week in Lebanon, even by seemingly more moderate and apolitical Lebanese. Particular contempt is held for Israel’s prime minister Ariel Sharon, who commanded Israeli troops that stood by in 1982 while Christian militia members massacred hundreds of Palestinians in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camp.
Even though Sharon recently ended 38 years of Israeli occupation of Gaza, it galls many Lebanese and Palestinians that he ever rose to leadership of the country—and that the United States so conspicuously supports the Israel he leads. A concrete barrier a few feet from Lebanon’s border with Israel is spray-painted “Sharon the Dog.”
Israel’s supporters are no less contemptuous of the Hezbollah and Hamas record and their claims to be waging a legitimate struggle. “They are both terrorist organizations, period,” says Marcia Goldstone, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Indianapolis. “They both have blown people up at Passover Seders, discotheques, and coffee shops. That is terrorism.”
“They put out reasonable-sounding spokespersons in Western clothes who are presented as the organizations’ face to the world. But you can turn on CNN and see their true face: masked men with guns.”
Moving Toward Politics
Mark Sirkin, a professor at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and an expert on the contemporary Middle East, says that those Hezbollah and Hamas images may be changing. In Sirkin’s view, Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon and now Gaza is likely to be the impetus for both organizations to transition away from their violent legacies.
“They are moving toward a political situation rather than a military situation,” Sirkin says. “Hezbollah has already done this, and I suspect Hamas will be following this path too. There are likely some hotheads in Hamas who don’t want the war to stop, but I think the leaders want it to become a respectable political organization.”
If Kaouk and Hamdan are among those leaders with obvious political savvy, Ali Khasish, a foot solider in the armed Arab resistance, is less polished.
Khasish, a member of Hezbollah, showed us around the empty Al Khiyam prison camp where he was held for 11 years during the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon. Ali said that during his detention by the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army (SLA) militia, he was subjected to electric shock torture and beaten with sticks and chains. Ali said one interrogation featured his father being brought in and beaten in front of him.
Ali admitted he would like to seek revenge on his captors, some of whom are still in Lebanon, but his Hezbollah leaders forbid it. In Ali’s eyes, though, his suffering has led to a glorious result. Even though the Israeli border is visible from the prison walls, his homeland is once again in control of Lebanon. To him, the Hezbollah resistance was and is a noble cause that deserves praise, not international condemnation.
“We are not terrorists,” Ali said. “We are people who fight to free our nation.”
Fran Quigley, an attorney and freelance journalist living in Indianapolis, Indiana, was one of six Americans who participated in a weeklong journalism training course in Beirut, Lebanon, in September 2005. His story is based on field interviews conducted during the course.
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