'New Yorker' Writer Warns of Hezbollah's Radicalism

Despite fine-tuning its rhetoric for Western ears, Hezbollah is a "very, very radical, anti-Semitic organization," says Jeffrey Goldberg, staff writer for The New Yorker, who spent much of the summer of 2002 in Lebanon reporting on the group. Just back from northern Israel and Gaza, he holds virtually no hope that Hezbollah will disarm.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

New Yorker writer Jeffrey Goldberg has just returned from a reporting trip to the Middle East. He was in northern Israel and Gaza. On previous trips he spent a good deal of time in southern Lebanon, meeting with the leaders and members of Hezbollah. I asked him if he hears anything different in Hezbollah's rhetoric during this conflict.

Mr. JEFFREY GOLDBERG (Writer, The New Yorker): What they're getting better at is adjusting their rhetoric for Western ears so as not to sound anti-Semitic. And they've been more careful, I've noticed lately. Maybe people aren't asking them these questions but even when they're asked, as you did, you know he's using now a traditional Palestinian rejection as formulation about Israel. I'm not going to say I recognize Israel's right to exist. I'm going to acknowledge that it exists, which of course is not the same thing. And it's not exactly a recipe for long term calm and peace in the region.

BLOCK: And it goes far beyond that. I mean, in your travels in southern Lebanon, you found very explicit signs of exactly how Hezbollah sees Israel and sees the Jews.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Literally, one of the signs. There was a billboard that they had planted about ten feet from the Israeli border. And it was a billboard that had a blown-up photograph of a Hezbollah fighter holding the severed head of an Israeli commando, and basically threatening all sorts of, you know, vile acts to come against Israel.

It's a very, very radical, anti-Semitic organization and we need to acknowledge that. Because if we acknowledge that, then we'll understand what the long term hope is or not is for disarmament and for Hezbollah to join the political process in Lebanon without arms.

BLOCK: Is there a hope that that could happen?

Mr. GOLDBERG: No. Probably not. I should never say never. But in 2002, when I spent much of the summer there, there was a debate at the time in Western circles. Is Hezbollah becoming part of the political process or will it maintain its core identity as a Jihadist organization? And there were big splits in the community of people who study these things. And a lot of people thought that they were going to give up their arms. They were going to stop this.

Of course, they didn't. And so I'm surprised now when people look at this organization today and say well, now they can disarm. They have no incentive to disarm. If anything, they've come out less powerful on the ground, obviously, at least for the moment, because they've been degraded. Their weapons have been degraded and their fighters have been killed.

But they come out empowered. They come out as the vanguard, as the leading edge of the Islamic fight against Israel. I can see no reason why they would want to give up their arms.

BLOCK: You hear Hezbollah described often as a state within a state in Lebanon and I wonder whether that actually understates their strength at this point?

Mr. GOLDBERG: It's not a state within a state. It's a state that controls a state. They don't control it in the same way that al-Qaida controlled the Taliban, but they certainly have a veto power over its progress, as we have just seen. They invited Israeli attacks that have set back the country I don't know how many years, and it's sort of interesting because the Bush administration for one has argued that the Cedar Revolution of Lebanon, the democratization process in Lebanon, is proof that the Middle East is progressing toward democracy and greater freedom.

And I was always struck by that, because the Bush administration argument seemed hollow. It just seems to me that all this talk of Lebanon as being on the road to democracy is a bit premature, to say the least. You can't have a viable democracy when a terrorist militia has functional veto power over the acts of your government.

BLOCK: When you talk to people, Shiite Muslims in the south of Lebanon, do they share Hezbollah's views about Jews, about Israel? Would that be widespread?

Mr. GOLDBERG: Hezbollah itself, Hezbollah's ideologues, have very advanced and convoluted and complicated theories about Jews. I was in Bint Jbail, the town that people are talking about, one of the centers of the fighting. I was there four years ago, and you don't pick up that sort of European style anti-Semitism. By European style, I'm talking about the archaic sort of European style, fascist anti-Semitism.

You pick, obviously, a great deal of resentment about Israel. There is not that same quality, the average person, that same quality of Iranian style theocratic anti-Semitism that one finds in the ruling councils of Hezbollah. You have resentment toward Israel, but I think many of the people there would be happy, and have been happy, to live in peace with Israel a few miles to the south.

BLOCK: They would be?

Mr. GOLDBERG: It's been a pretty good six years in the south of Lebanon since the Israeli withdrawal in 2000. Business is booming. When I was there, building was going on like crazy. People were making money. It wasn't a bad life there, and I think Israel had receded from many people's minds as a problem. Israel had withdrawn behind an internationally recognized boundary, and they were done with it. It's not analogous to what's going on in Gaza or the West Bank, where the lives of the Palestinians and Israelis are deeply intertwined.

The people of south Lebanon, I think to some degree had forgotten about Israel. And certainly one could argue that Israel, especially its military establishment, had forgotten about Hezbollah. The past six years have been a strange period where one organization, Hezbollah, was building up for something, the Israelis were ignoring it and I don't think the average Lebanese person in the south or in Beirut fully understood what was coming.

BLOCK: Was there, do you think, a serious miscalculation on the Israeli side?

Mr. GOLDBERG: Yes. There are tactical miscalculations, obviously. I think that Israel is in a position right now - I mean, I think the government of Israel is in a position right now where it might not survive. You have another aspect here, which is very interesting, which is that you have a government whose platform has now been taken away from it.

Ehud Olmert and the Kadima Party were elected to do one thing, to disengage from the West Bank as Ariel Sharon had disengaged from Gaza. Pull out Jewish settlers, bring the lines back in. That's dead. That's not going to happen any more. The Israeli people have recognized the futility of unilateral disengagement.

So combining these two things - the fact that you have a ruling party that has no platform anymore with the fact that many Israelis believe that both tactical and strategic miscalculations were made in this war - and you have a recipe for longer term instability in Israeli itself.

BLOCK: It would bring down this government, you think?

Mr. GOLDBERG: I think there's a good chance that many people in the army will lose their jobs over this. I mean, it's a fascinating thing that the asymmetries here are manifold. By technical standards, Israel did very well in one sense. They probably killed 25 to 30 percent of all Hezbollah fighters. They probably destroyed hundreds of rocket launchers. They certainly destroyed the infrastructure of Hezbollah, and yet it's consensus in Israel that Israel lost this war because Nasrallah is still alive and he comes out of his bunker and he says we won.

BLOCK: Jeffrey Goldberg, thanks for coming in.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Thank you.

BLOCK: Jeffrey Goldberg is a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. He just returned from a reporting trip to Israel and Gaza.

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