As of this writing, a war of words is heating up between Israel and Hezbollah that may lead to yet another round of armed conflict between the two. Hezbollah recently threatened to carry out overseas operations against Israeli interests in order to avenge the assassination of its military commander, Imad Mughniyeh, last year in Damascus; the Israeli government, for its part, has warned Hezbollah that a steep price will be paid if it dares to proceed. Will Hezbollah make good on its claims and risk bringing the wrath of the IDF down on Lebanon’s already battered southern villages and the Shi’ite quarter in Beirut? True, predicting the course of events in the Middle East is difficult, if not impossible. When it comes to Hezbollah, however, one can play it safe by assuming the worst—or at the very least, by being wary of rosy predictions. And there has been no lack of those: Ever since Lebanon’s “Party of God” (a literal translation of hiz’b ‘Alla) stopped hijacking planes and taking Westerners hostage, chronic underestimation of its intentions and capabilities has been the norm among journalists, policy analysts, and even Hezbollah experts.
One such widely acknowledged expert is Augustus Richard Norton, whose book Hezbollah: A Short History is essential reading for anyone interested in the subject. Norton has earned his reputation as an authority on Hezbollah, having conducted research in Lebanon for more than two decades and authored several volumes on that country in particular and the region in general. During the 1980s, when Hezbollah first emerged, he was a U.S. Army officer and military observer for the United Nations near the southern Lebanon border with Israel. In 1993, he became a tenured professor of both international relations and anthropology at Boston University. Like all good academics, Norton strives here for an objective view of his subject: “The purpose of this book,” he writes in the prologue, “is to offer a more balanced and nuanced account of this complex organization” than has been provided before. He mostly succeeds. His short history is not a polemic, after all. He does not grind an axe, nor does he serve as a Hezbollah apologist, as some sympathetic Westerners have been wont to do. On the contrary, the book is long on facts and refreshingly short on opinion. Moreover, the new 2009 paperback edition includes an afterword that corrects some of the mistakes in the first edition.
In this short but dense volume, Norton documents in detail how and why Hezbollah was founded in South Lebanon in the crucible of civil war, and he goes on to explain the group’s role during that war and how it emerged as the champion of Lebanon’s ideologically fractious Shia community. Like Hamas, Norton shows, Hezbollah acquired much of its support by providing social services such as education and medical care to parts of the country long neglected by the state—even as it waged a proxy war against the “Zionist enemy” to the south. During the last decade or so, however, Hezbollah has attempted to show a more moderate face to the world, following the laws of war a bit more than Hamas and a lot more than al-Qaida. Yet if Hezbollah may be described as “restrained” in comparison to some other terrorist groups, it is hardly moderate in any objective sense, a fact of which Norton is well aware. Indeed, he points out that toward the end of Lebanon’s civil war in the 1980s, Hezbollah’s kidnapping spree made the country so dangerous for Westerners that the U.S. State Department prohibited using American passports to travel there until 1997. And if some analysts have split hairs over whether it is in fact a guerilla organization or a terrorist group, Norton’s account of the source of Hezbollah’s notoriety—its slate of kidnappings, murders, hijackings, and car bombings, usually against civilian targets, and some as far away as South America—should lay to rest any questions of that particular debate’s relevancy.
Nonetheless, there are some problems with Norton’s book, which the benefit of two years’ worth of hindsight have brought squarely into light. Aside from its exhaustive research and wealth of detail, it offers a valuable lesson on the misunderstanding that permeates most Westerners’ assessments of Hezbollah—a misunderstanding with dangerous implications for foreign policy in the Middle East.
Michael J. Totten is a freelance foreign correspondent and popular blogger specializing in the Middle East.