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The Tinderbox of the Middle East

Prof Augustus Richard Norton speaks tonight on Hezbollah’s rise in Lebanon

Augustus Richard Norton, a professor of international relations, speaks tonight at the Barnes & Noble at BU.

Hezbollah — the Lebanese-based group known as “Party of God” — is routinely portrayed in the U.S. media as a terrorist organization, a source of suicide bombers, and an unrepentant advocate of the destruction of Israel. None of that is inaccurate, but it’s far from the full picture, says Augustus Richard Norton, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of international relations and an expert on political movements in Lebanon. Norton cites the substantial social and economic programs Hezbollah runs for the large Lebanese Shi’i community and its increasingly powerful role in Lebanese domestic politics.

Norton recently published Hezbollah: A Short History (Princeton University Press), which details the organization’s rise in Lebanon from a small militant group to a strong political force. He will speak about his new book tonight at Barnes & Noble at Boston University.

“Hezbollah is not well understood,” Norton says. “If we imagine it as a small, conspiratorial group that can be erased very easily if only we could find the right way to do it, we’re deceiving ourselves. It is deeply embedded in Lebanese society, and it’s emerged as the strongest group in the Shi’i community in Lebanon.”

The history of Hezbollah is inextricably intertwined with that of Lebanon, which is to say that it’s very complicated. Lebanon has 18 recognized sects participating in its government — when it has a functioning one — and the largest is probably the Shi’a, the smaller of the two major Islamic sects. The Shi’a make up about 12 percent of Muslims worldwide, but probably about 35 percent of the Lebanese population, says Norton, mostly in the southern part of the country and in the southern suburbs of Beirut. There, as elsewhere, they are generally in the lower class.

In the 1970s, the strongest Shi’i group in Lebanon was Amal, and its enemies were the Palestinian militias then based in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah had its first tentative beginnings in 1982, the year Israel invaded southern Lebanon and began an occupation that lasted until 2000. Led by a young cleric, Hasan Nasrallah, Hezbollah didn’t become a force in southern Lebanon until the mid-1980s. Buoyed by Lebanese opposition to the Israeli occupation, and with funding from Iran and later support from the Shi’i government of Syria, which used it to counter Amal’s strength, Norton says, Hezbollah grew quickly.

“Officials from Hezbollah readily admit that without the occupation, they couldn’t have become a strong, vibrant organization,” he says. “Israelis say the same thing, that they created Hezbollah. The late Yitzhak Rabin [Israeli prime minister from 1974 to 1978 and from 1992 until his assassination in 1995] said the same thing to me in the 1980s. Without the context of the invasion and without the outside support, you would have seen a different trajectory.”

Norton learned much of Hezbollah’s history firsthand. He went to southern Lebanon in 1980 to work for the United Nations, leading a special monitoring team. An Arabic speaker, he soon established a relationship with various political leaders, especially Daoud Suleiman Daoud, one of the leaders of Amal. “He was a very well-known leader in south Lebanon, a very courageous guy,” Norton says. Daoud, who was assassinated in 1989, gave Norton an entrée into the Shi’i political world. By 1982, Norton was teaching at West Point, but he returned to southern Lebanon right around the time of the Israeli invasion. He started focusing his academic research on the political mobilization of the Shi’i movement in south Lebanon, and he has kept up his contacts over the years.

Hezbollah came to the attention of many Americans last summer after its operatives crossed the Israeli border and kidnapped two Israeli soldiers. Israel struck back, bombing Hezbollah positions and much infrastructure in Lebanon. “My feeling was that if the Israelis, who were clearly provoked, had hit Lebanon hard for four or five days and sort of made a lesson and then stopped, they would have put Hezbollah in a very difficult position,” Norton says. “There was a lot of anger among Lebanese about what Hezbollah had done, and they were getting criticism from Jordan and Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But I predicted at that point that the longer the war lasted, the stronger Hezbollah would be, and unfortunately that’s what happened. The Israelis were trying to undermine their support, but it’s worked out to be the opposite.”

Norton says that many of the people he knew 25 years ago who had supported Amal, professionals who were not particularly religious, now have switched their loyalty to Hezbollah. “And we need to understand that — because if we don’t understand the social groups, we are not going to get very far,” he says.

Hezbollah isn’t just a force in the Arab-Israeli conflict — it’s also a major player in Lebanese politics, and as it grows in importance, politics in Lebanon will become more unstable. “No single group can dominate the Lebanese political system,” Norton says. “It’s a very complicated country. I think there needs to be a compromise, because there’s been a stalemate going on for months. If there isn’t and this keeps going on, you get to a critical period. The presidential election is in October, and if they can’t break this impasse, it might be a little like the situation in Iraq, and that’s inherently unstable.”

That said, “people in Lebanon don’t want to become another Iraq — which is in many ways similar to Lebanon in its sectarian complexity,” Norton notes. “They don’t want to go there. And people still remember the civil war; it only ended in 1990, and many people lost family members.”

Augustus Richard Norton will discuss his book Hezbollah: A Short History and sign copies tonight, May 1, at 7 p.m. at Barnes & Noble at Boston University in Kenmore Square.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at tmcneil@bu.edu.