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The Party of God; Hezbollah's dramatic rise from ragtag band to regional powerhouse—A Book Review by Jonathan Finer ’09

The following book review appeared in the Washington Post on April 22, 2007.

The Party of God; Hezbollah's dramatic rise from ragtag band to regional powerhouse
By Jonathan Finer ’09

HEZBOLLAH

A Short History

By Augustus Richard Norton

Princeton Univ. 187 pp. $16.95

Twenty-five years ago, Hezbollah was a ragtag religious militia, founded under the thumb of Israel's long occupation of southern Lebanon and struggling against stronger rival groups for the hearts and minds of Lebanon's Shiite underclass. Today, Hezbollah is a political party, a social-service organization and a military power that emerged from a hard-fought standoff with the Israeli army last summer as the dominant player in Lebanon's politics and perhaps the most formidable nonstate actor in the Middle East.

Augustus Richard Norton's timely Hezbollah chronicles that dramatic evolution and its sweeping implications for the region and beyond. His lucid primer is the first serious reappraisal of the radical Shiite group since last summer's war shattered six years of relative calm on one of the world's most volatile frontiers.

Like many tales told in the Arab world, Norton's thin volume (at fewer than 170 pages of main text, it is CliffsNotes-esque, down to its black-and-yellow cover) begins and ends at the dinner table. The opening aperitif is a sumptuously described feast in a Lebanese farming town soon after Israel pulled out of its self-declared security zone in south Lebanon in 2000; the dessert course is a ritual iftar spread to break the daily Ramadan fast in Cairo at the close of the 2006 war. In between, Norton traces Hezbollah's establishment with the help of its Iranian and Syrian patrons; its triumph over its rival, the Shiite movement Amal; its gradual embrace of electoral politics; and the ascension of a charismatic cleric, Hasan Nasrallah, as its leader.

A former U.N. military observer in Lebanon who now teaches at Boston University, Norton has written a book rich in reportage, particularly for a work by an academic. He concludes with an overview of the 33-day conflict that began on July 12, 2006, after Hezbollah fighters stormed across the Israel-Lebanon border, ambushed an Israeli patrol and captured two Israeli soldiers. Days later, Israel launched an assault that leveled much of southern Lebanon even as Hezbollah rained Katyusha rockets on northern Israeli towns.

Norton's stated purpose here is to counter the "simplistic stereotypes" about Hezbollah with "a more balanced, nuanced account of this complex organization." It is a worthy but daunting goal. Analysts have long (and vainly) agonized over even how to describe the group dispassionately. Calling it a political party (Hezbollah is Arabic for "party of God") ignores Hezbollah's pioneering use of terrorist tactics such as the suicide bomb. Dubbing it a mere militia discounts the fact that it holds about a quarter of the seats in Lebanon's parliament. Both versions are rooted in truth.

For the most part, Norton's account is careful and judicious. Hezbollah's opponents will chafe at the dearth of Israeli and American voices and at occasional passages that sound sympathetic to the group (Norton notes, for example, the "stunning success" of the "daring raid" that triggered the recent war). Hezbollah's followers, meanwhile, may object to Norton's portrayal of that conflict as, at best, a Pyrrhic victory since it uprooted a quarter of Lebanon's population and inflicted $4 billion worth of damage to its infrastructure.

For the American reader, Hezbollah is a topic particularly worthy of attention. As of Sept. 10, 2001, Hezbollah had killed more U.S. citizens than any comparable group (most notably more than 240 Marines in a 1983 suicide bombing in Beirut). Its influence now resounds throughout the Iraq war. Insurgents there employ ever more lethal versions of the roadside bombs that once targeted Israeli convoys in southern Lebanon. And followers of the firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a relative of one of Hezbollah's founders, have used the Hezbollah blueprint, with its Iranian-backed militia and loyalty-inspiring social services.

But the most remarkable aspect of Hezbollah's rise, in Norton's view, is that it transcends the region-wide sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shiites that the Iraq conflict has sparked. Sunni demonstrators in Egypt and Saudi Arabia now sport Nasrallah T-shirts. When I left Israel for Amman at the close of last summer's war, my driver, a Lebanese Arab Christian, said he had hated Hezbollah all his life, but no longer. By standing up to Israel, he explained, the group had "given all Arabs back their dignity."

But toward what end? The main shortcoming of Norton's book is that it begs weighty questions and leaves them largely unanswered -- a function, perhaps, of its limited breadth and scope. A more critical account might ask, as Hezbollah's Lebanese rivals have, if its emergence has enhanced or enfeebled the Lebanese state. After the war, Norton writes, one veteran local analyst concluded, "Any hope for a true national unity in Lebanon has again become a dream." If so, the reader is left wondering, how should Hezbollah's 25-year project be judged? •

Jonathan Finer, a Washington Post foreign correspondent currently on leave, covered the Israel-Hezbollah war last summer.