February 19, 2016
War within a War - Hezbollah’s continued anti-Zionist mobilisation and the media crusades against it
Over the past week, the news media have made noise about the unlikely but certainly not unwelcome prospect of an end to the Syrian war. If the general attack on the Syrian state does end, however, it will not likely bring an end to every arena of conflict in Syria. Among those arenas is that of the much-discussed Kurdish liberation movement. Less commonly discussed are Syrian liberation efforts against Israel waged in occupied Golan Heights. In this arena, the substance of colonialism and resistance are being shaped for the future. It is an arena worthy of serious attention, as it informs other aspects of the war, the region, and the information in circulation.
For starters, those Syrian liberation efforts in the Golan account for much of the context of recent propaganda targeting Hezbollah in the Western press. For unbeknownst to far too many Western observers, including those on the left holding a professed interest in the movement against Israeli settler-colonialism, Hezbollah has continued to focus on building a popular movement against Israel even in Syria, where its presence has been controversial.
In order to get a sharper sense of this context—of both Hezbollah’s continued anti-Zionist mobilization and the media crusades against it—it is helpful to begin with Israel’s latest high-profile assassination carried out in Syria.
Israel’s assassination of stalwart Arab resistance figure Samir Kuntar, carried out on December 19th, 2015 in Jaramana of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, was part of a larger Israeli effort to annex the Golan territories once and for all. Since the beginning of the war in Syria, Israel has viewed the consequent destabilization of the country as the perfect opportunity to fulfill these long-held plans. Annexation has been prepared among Israeli state policy-makers, real estate developers, and segments of the Israeli population.
As recently as October of last year, that “there is a building boom quietly underway” in occupied Golan. The report further noted that there has been established in Israel an “aggressive development goal” for the territories. In charge of these efforts is Israeli minister Naftalie Bennett, who made the promise to “introduce a plan…involving ‘several hundreds of millions of shekels’ to create jobs, housing, schools and transportation in the sprawling, green Golan Heights.” Bennett declared the war itself a “rare opportunity”—one that would in its initial stages be realized through “10,000 new residents…in five years.”
Running counter to the Israeli operation, the Syrian Arab Army and allied Lebanese Hezbollah have been building a national Arab resistance network—of which Kuntar was a crucial part—in these very territories. If Israel’s aim is to remove Arabs from Golan Heights, a principal aim of the SAA and Hezbollah throughout the war has been to remove Israel from Syria for good and for final.
What exactly was Israel trying to accomplish by assassinating Kuntar? Here it is helpful to look into the background of Kuntar himself. The assignment of Kuntar, working with Hezbollah, to an emerging anti-Zionist front in the Golan Heights marked an effective attempt to resurrect and rekindle the ideals for which Kuntar stood for almost his entire life, namely pan-Arab solidarity. It is the nascent movement in Syria embedded in those ideals—at least to the extent they emphasize unity between sects at a time when imperialism is promoting and fomenting divisions between them—that Israel and allied states, ranging from its backer the United States to the Arab Gulf states, hope to destroy.
Samir Kuntar was born to a Druze Lebanese family in the village of Abiya in Mount Lebanon. Although the son of a relatively affluent family—his mother a homemaker and his father a chef stationed in Saudi Arabia—the privation he witnessed in the Palestinian refugee camps inspired indignation inside him from a young age onward. In Kuntar’s own words, as part of an conducted with Chen Kotes-Bar for :
At age 13, Kuntar joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP); members of the organization picked Kuntar up by car on a daily basis for guerrilla training sessions. In short time, Kuntar was running sophisticated resistance operations against Israel. His first major task ended in arrest at the hands of Jordanian mukhabarat, as he and his comrades had been captured while attempting to cross into Israel via the Jordan River. After 11 months in Jordanian prison, Kuntar was released in 1978. Roughly one year later, he embarked with the Palestine Liberation Army upon the mission that would gain him notoriety in both Israel and the Arab world, carrying a reputation for horror in the former and for heroism in the latter.
The operation, named after Gamal Abdel Nasser, ended tragically in the death of a four-year-old girl, Einat Haran. According to Kuntar, the intent of the mission was to enter Israel by sea and swiftly take hostage three or four adults for the purposes of an exchange and the release of Arab political prisoners held by Israel. Kuntar further discussed the details of the ill-fated mission with Kotes-Bar:
Through the trial and the subsequent sentencing, Kuntar became the target of an obvious frame-up, with the prosecution claiming that he smashed the young girl’s head with the butt of his rifle. In response to this claim, Zvi Sela, who spent time with Kuntar while serving as Chief Intelligence Officer of the Israel Prison service, upheld firmly his belief in the accuracy of Kuntar’s story, ,
While serving in Israeli prison, Kuntar solidified a reputation among the Arab masses as a symbol of vigilant resistance to Zionism. He enrolled in a program to take online course with the Open University of Israel,
When Kuntar was finally released from Israeli prison in 2008, it was on account of Operation Truthful Promise, the cross-border raid carried out in 2006, during which several Hezbollah soldiers captured two IDF solders. Hezbollah’s original name for the operation was “Freedom for Samir Kuntar and His Brothers.” On July 16, 2008, Hezbollah returned the bodies of the captured IDF soldiers in exchange for Kuntar and four Hezbollah prisoners. Upon release, Kuntar was the subject of an elaborate welcome-home ceremony in Lebanon attended by Hezbollah General-Secretary Hassan Nasrallah. He also visited Iran, where he paid respects to the infamous Hezbollah Imad Mughniyeh, and Syria, where he received from President Bashar al-Assad the Order of Merit (the highest possible Syrian honor) for his anti-Zionist commitment. The Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas in Gaza, memorialized Kuntar.
Flash forward to 2012, as disaster loomed over Syria as the result of a large-scale and sophisticated proxy war launched by a coalition of NATO-aligned states and Israel assumed its role in the war on the Golan Front, along the border with the southeastern tip of Syria. This development provided Kuntar, working under the provision of the Hezbollah commanders who negotiated for his freedom in 2008, with justification to enter Syria. In late 2012, Kuntar took up a position of command within the nascent Syrian National Defence forces, formed with the coordination of and support from the Syrian Army. His mission was to cultivate a to Israeli presence in occupied Golan by training and equipping local Syrians.
On July 1st, 2015, Kuntar appeared on the pan-Arab television station about the current state of affairs in occupied Golan. He and his co-panelists challenged the notion that the anti-Zionist campaign coalescing in occupied Golan was specifically Shi’i on account of Hezbollah involvement, or specific to any sect for that matter—the campaign was, Kuntar noted, a Syrian one. As such, a rebuke to the sectarian logic the war in Syria has seemed to take, in accordance with the classic imperialist strategy of divide-and-conquer. and
This series of events should speak well enough to the political tradition to which Kuntar belongs and to the movement he wanted to build. Although less overtly communistic in his politics than some of his comrades, Kuntar nonetheless places firmly in the history of secular pan-Arabism defined significantly by anti-Zionism and anti-imperialism, the principles through which his bond with Hezbollah was forged. While Israel becomes concerned over the material networks formed on a military basis, it undoubtedly fears the popular component most, along with any possibility that pan-Arab ideology lead back to socialism. After all, Israel and its allies have spent many years trying to undermine any movements that could potentially pose a challenge to imperialist control of regional resources, (especially those in the past that have declared resources the property of the people). The status of support for this resistance from the Ba’ath Party in Syria, which historically represents a vacillating bourgeois tendency tendency in Arab nationalism, will be largely contingent on Syria’s geopolitical position. But Kuntar noted in his that the resistance in Golan has been set and could not be reversed even if Israel assassinated him.
With principles of pan-Arab solidarity, foundational for regional unity against imperialist predation, the Druze Kuntar’s relationship with the Shi’i Hezbollah may be seen as organic, in defiance of the fear-mongering propaganda campaign Israel has been promulgating towards Golani residents that the resistance campaign is a cover for the forced establishment of Shi’i hegemony.
In light of heavy sectarian incitement since 2011, Nasrallah’s own rhetorical output has relied increasingly on the theme of unity between the sects. To carry out this message, Nasrallah has often relied on pan-Arabist history, themes, and tropes. When condemning Saudi Arabia for its war on Yemen, , Nasrallah shamed the Saudi leadership as Arabs, pointing out their hypocrisy for naming a military operation against Yemen a “storm,” but never having taken anything close to such action on behalf of Palestine. Thus, pan-Arab solidarity has constituted the ideological grounds on which the Syrian National Defense Forces have been cultivated. And so it was this kind of impulse that Israel was seeking to stymie with the assassination of Kuntar, an operation that mirrored the assassination-by-drone-strike carried out by Israel in occupied Golan against Jihad Mughniyeh (the son of the famed Imad) and other Hezbollah operatives in January of 2015.
These assassinations are one side of a “carrot-and-stick” policy, a revolving door of intimidation and enticement, pursued by Israel in occupied Golan, as stated in an important survey of Israel’s history in Golan (which has been offering important reportage and commentary unavailable to the majority of English-speaking audiences). The report states that Israel has on the one hand been assassinating and arresting resistance leaders in the area, and on the other hand offering a series of appeasements in order to co-opt ordinary Syrians living there. But Israel has faced a problem: with each assassination of a resistance leader, popular sentiment only swings further and more forcefully towards the option of confrontation with Israel.
The current Israeli policy in occupied Golan was codified in 1981, when a bill called the “Golan Decision” was passed in the Knesset declaring Golan Heights part of “historic Israel.” From the Madrid “peace” talks in 1991, all the way through the 2000 Camp David accords and the 2007 negotiations in Turkey, Golan became a supposed obstacle to “peace” between Israel and Syria. A frequent reference point in official diplomatic peace attempts between Israel and Syria has been the “land-for-peace” formula. Invariably, the negotiation attempts failed, and Syria continues to refuse the legitimacy of Israel as a matter of official policy.
This refusal explains in part Israel’s actions throughout the war on Syria, as it has bombed Syrian Army or allied positions “hundreds of times,” . Despite increased Israeli military pressure throughout the war, the Syrian government has persisted in its position on Israel. Faisal al-Makdad, Deputy-Foreign Minister of Syria, told that current Israeli objectives are to force Syria to give up its role in Palestine and Lebanon; he reiterated that Syria would not give up more territory.
Armed sectarian rebel outfits have proliferated at the Israel-Syria border along the Golan. Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda outfit in Syria, has an especially firm stronghold there, and Daesh maintains an outpost right at the border. Israel has been citing the Syrian Army’s preoccupation with combatting these armed groups as sound justification for future Israeli rule of the area, arguing to both the United States and citizens of Golan that the Syrian state is far too fractured to secure the Golan. The Syrian state has been destroyed, the Israeli argument goes—there will be no liberation, so it is time to stop waiting.
Only aspects of this story have made it to Western press. For example, on January 13th, 2016, on how “Golan residents find their loyalties tested.” Samaha’s story did contain one of the more devious tactics Israel has been employing in an attempt to gain loyalty from residents: in order to participate in local municipal elections, the occupied Syrians must become Israeli citizens, an option the vast majority of Golan residents have refused since the beginning of Israel’s occupation of the area. As Samaha writes, “according to a Syrian intelligence source, only 667 Golan Syrians have taken the Israeli nationality since 1981 to date.” published
But contrary to the picture painted in Miqdi’s attitude reflects the wider spirit through the Golan now: despite Israel’s mixed approach of strike-and-assuage in order to push Syrians in occupied Golan towards Israel, the pro-Syrian sentiment among Golan residents, the general desire to return to Syria as Syrians, only continues to grow as the organizational capacity of the Syrian National Defence Forces and Hezbollah improves. and in for that matter, Israel is not simply taking advantage of an opportunity in the form of the war in Syria. Rather, it is actively creating the opportunity by supporting and nourishing the sectarian armed groups with which the Syrian Army finds itself preoccupied. The most intriguing confirmation of this fact came when Israel arrested Druze resident Siqdi Maqdt for “espionage, aiding the enemy during wartime, supporting a terrorist organization, and contact with a foreign agent.” His specific offense was to document through photographs and written reports Israeli contacts with members of Jabhat al-Nusra, information he allegedly passed along to Syrian intelligence officials. Maqt had a resistance history of his own, having spent 27 years between the years 1985 and 2012 in jail on “terrorism” charges. Upon arraignment, Maqdt delivered a simple message to reporters:
Hezbollah’s successes in occupied Golan have certainly played a role in the recent push against the organization emanating from the propaganda engines of the US-led bloc in the Middle East. This bloc includes most prominently Israel and Saudi Arabia, their long-term alliance—historically shrouded in dissimulation practiced by both states—an increasingly public affair bolstered by ever-accumulating shared near-term interests in the capitalist-imperialist order.
On December 24th,2015, the staunchly Zionist publication celebrating perceived gains made by Israel in a context extending well outside of the territories of the Golan Heights, within wider Arab opinion. “Kuntar killing boosts Israel’s image among anti-Assad forces,” the headline boasted. The article took note of a Syrian journalist, Faisal al-Qassem, whose disapproving Facebook memorial for Kuntar allegedly “generated tens of thousands of likes and shares.” The article also remarked with satisfaction that al-Qassem compared the “’patriotic’ yet murderous” regimes, taken to mean Arab republics such as the Syrian one, unfavorably with “the so-called ‘treacherous’ Arab governments that look out for their citizens,” taken to mean the Gulf states.published an
The article further conveyed a message from “a Syrian activist who is affiliated with the southern front of the Free Syrian Army,” who allegedly tweeted: “Thank you to the Israeli heroes who killed one of the most wicked terrorists, the murderer of children and babies. Samir Kuntar, rot in hell.” This elation constituted but one part of FSA output on the matter of Kuntar’s death. On December 24th, 2015, the same publication shared that “members of the Free Syrian Army” released a video on YouTube taking credit for the killing of Kuntar and denying Hezbollah’s claim that Israel was behind the strike. Referring to Hezbollah as “the Party of Satan,” the FSA members asserted that Hezbollah’s claims about Israeli culpability for Kuntar’s death were in fact propaganda claims intended to downplay the achievements of the FSA.
These mixed messages from the FSA—on the one hand, merely celebrating Israeli involvement in Syria for the Kuntar killing, and on the other hand, claiming to have carried out the Kuntar killing in fulfillment of Israeli aims—are par for the course from an organization that functions under a generalized umbrella header without a centralized command structure and without a clear set of political principles. The history of the FSA in southern Syria has, however, been punctuated by reports about contact and even coordination with the IDF. In September of 2014, that FSA members were making entreaties to Israel that the IDF establish an “anti-Assad no-fly zone” in order to “win the hearts of all Syrians.” In April of 2015, the same newspaper that the FSA was now sending Israel well wishes for its annual “Independence Day,” going so far as to hope openly that Israel celebrate its 68th anniversary at an Israeli embassy in Damascus.
Such reports coincided with that Israel would seek to outfit, in occupied Golan, a proxy force on the order of the South Lebanon Army—the organization with which Hezbollah found itself entrenched in combat in South Lebanon until Israel’s forced withdrawal in 2000. The scattered nature of these reports perhaps casts aspersion in many different directions and upon many different claims, chief among them the claim that Israel really is growing in popularity generally throughout the Arab world and that its on-the-ground positive image is not limited simply to the FSA and allied militias.
But one component remains certain: a hallmark of Israeli strategy is to divide Arab opinion, first of all by turning opinion to say that Hezbollah “today poses the most serious threat to Israel.” On January 14th, sentiments long ago circulated by Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, that Israel prefers the “Sunnis” to the “Shi’ites.” This sectarian framing is a cover for the real point, which is geopolitical: Israel would like to increase relations with the Gulf states, as the two entities share a closeness with the United States and an animosity towards Iran. (Indeed, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon : “If I have to choose between Iran and ISIS—I choose ISIS.”) article quotes Dore Gold, director-general of Israel’s foreign ministry: “Clearly there’s been a convergence of interests between Israel and many Sunni Arab states given the fact that they both face identical challenges in the region.” The price for this alliance will be continued hostility towards the Palestinian cause on behalf of the Gulf monarchies. its most formidable enemies in the region. The identities of those enemies should be clear, despite countless efforts to obfuscate the issue. IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot recently went
True to the needs of this network of interests, a new atrocity-focused “humanitarian” media campaign emerged to target Hezbollah specifically, as opposed to the usual target of these campaigns, the Syrian Army. In one sense, the campaign came as part of a routine, but one example of a larger media habit around Syria in which one round of humanitarian crisis follows another, each additional breakdown demanding with it yet another round of outrage, of calls for some new form of management and intervention, with structural issues like capitalism and imperialism occupying conversational worlds well outside those inhabited by the think-tanks, NGOs, and social scientists in which discursive hegemony around the war is cemented. (Since think-tanks, NGOs and social scientists are crisis managers, it follows that they have a class interest in crises to manage; consequently, there must be democratic pedagogy dedicated to training media consumers to investigate the funding behind campaigns that apparently appear organically out of the ether.) In another sense, the campaign came as the newest addition to the imperial tradition of atrocity propaganda, which reached infamous heights in 1990 with the of Nayirah al-Ṣabaḥ.
Within the first week of 2016, the major US news conduits were reporting that Madaya—a Syrian town near the Lebanese border—was under a hunger-inducing siege so severe that residents were being reduced to eating leaves. Photographs of starving people—many of them later proven to be false and some of them taken from contexts outside of Syria—were furnished by anonymous activists and run on prominent Internet sources ranging from (known for running roughly sixty-second clips on complex subject matters) to . Everywhere the culprit was the same: the “Shi’ite militia” Hezbollah had cut off Madaya and insisted on using starvation as a weapon of war.
The campaign has caught on in presses aimed at Arab audiences. to Madaya as a “concentration camp where Hezbollah starves people to death,” proposing parallels between Hezbollah and Nazis. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood—one of the major forces in the Syrian uprising, especially in the early stages—tweeted out an of Hassan Nasrallah hiding snake-like behind a young civilian with a target painted on his chest. The image was notable for mirroring one of Israel’s most heavily employed psychological operations during its 2006 war with Hezbollah, which Nasrallah “hiding while Lebanese civilians are killed by…explosions” and “the Hezbollah leader behind three bound Lebanese civilians.” The image was, therefore, an appropriate visual for the emergent political relations of the Levant.
Before even addressing the specifics of what we know about the situation in Madaya, it is possible to flag this media campaign as explicitly political in its aims, a far cry from a neutral and purely altruistic bout of awareness-raising. After all, as an ongoing site civil and international proxy war, starvation and siege is all too common throughout Syria. One such siege has been inflicted upon the northwestern towns of Foua and Kafayra. Journalist Eva Bartlett, who has reported from Syria extensively over the past two years, to to the plight of these towns as far back as August of 2015. Journalist Leith Abou Fadel that he and others had worked extensively to bring wider attention of Foua and Kafayra, to no avail. The reason for the lack of receptiveness is clear: Foua and Kafayra are mostly Shi’i towns, their humanitarian crises unambiguously caused by the anti-government rebel forces, including Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. Their plight is not politically expedient.
In its to media allegations, Hezbollah pointed out that these very organizations control Madaya. The relative lack of attention brought to this fact in the flurries of tweets and news articles produced in English about Madaya is perhaps upon first glance rather curious considering how these two organizations had carried out a joint campaign of massacre and forced conversion against Druze populations after their armed takeover over Idlib. Upon a second glance, the omission should not be so surprising, as Ahrar al-Sham has been given editorial by , where it modeled itself as a “moderate” organization.
Another claim by Hezbollah related food prices in Madaya. On October 18th of 2015, Hezbollah claimed, “tens of trucks” delivered food aid to the besieged town. The armed groups running the town proceeded to monopolize the food supply and hike the prices. On January 15, addressing the high food prices—the aspect of Madaya’s siege that makes it “different from Fuaa and Kefraya,” in the words of the article—while still pinning the blame on Hezbollah and refusing to consider the accusations against Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the other armed groups controlling Madaya. published an
The and the —openly advocate for military intervention in Syria. The White Helmets, publicized as a civilian network, operates largely in Video has circulated on the Internet allegedly showing White Helmet members assisting in an execution. article additionally pinned blame on the United Nations, labeling the institution at the very moment it was preparing more food aid to go into Madaya “complicit” with the government in Damascus, leading to the unstated conclusion that moral responsibility for the humanitarian crisis of Syria should fall elsewhere (say, the United States or its preferred NGOs). Significantly, the article’s main source of information is the Syria Campaign, an NGO funded by oil and gas industry billionaire Ayman Asfari, himself a Syrian exile based in Britain. The Syria Campaign manages several other projects; at least two of them—
Conspicuously missing from most English-language discussion of Madaya is the extensive evidence that lends credence to Hezbollah’s claims. There exists video footage featuring testimony from Madaya residents corroborating exactly what Hezbollah has been saying: that is, the anti-government fighters fully control the town’s food supply and charge outrageous prices for the most basic of food items. Even released by the features Madaya residents yelling at anti-government rebel fighters, “You are not hungry! We are!”
A ground from Madaya in further corroborates claims against the rebels. Madaya residents confirmed that the armed groups control the distribution of food. In addition to Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra presence, the report stated, there is to a lesser extent a presence of the Free Syrian Army and Daesh, the relationship between each of the organizations complicated by the fact that their membership all come from the area. Furthermore, many families wish to leave the town hosting roughly 23, 000, but are prevented from doing so by roughly 600 armed men. One interviewee told the newspaper that members of the armed groups know the family backgrounds of townspeople and commit acts of revenge.
Hezbollah’s official statement also made the claim that a ceasefire agreement had been worked out the rebels in Madaya, but that “external backers” gave orders to stay put. Who are those external backers? This is the kind of question that the better part of Western coverage of Madaya—indeed, the better part of Western coverage of Syria in general—seems designed to ignore or suppress. Humanitarian crises multiply, demanding a reinvigorated emotional response, while the political roots of the crises remain off-limits, or in the case of Madaya are inverted outright. Goebbels would be proud, really.
As the popular Syrian resistance to Israel, supported by Hezbollah at logistical levels, continues to spread in the occupied Golan, anti-Hezbollah propaganda will continue to flourish in parallel. The prospect of a Syrian front of resistance to Israeli rule clearly worries Zionist state planners for short-term and long-term reasons. On a short-term basis, a successful Syrian resistance will thwart Israeli ambitions to annex Syrian territory. On a long-term basis, it will threaten Israel’s broader regional agenda, particularly on a front Israel had long counted on to be quiet.
As increased attention has been rightly paid to the Palestinian struggle among activist communities in the West over the past decade, it remains crucial to remember a few points. First, that Israel is not exclusively a threat to the Palestinian people—its policies aim to achieve hegemony over the region as whole, slaughtering the heirs to Samir Kuntar by name and face and slaughtering countless other Arabs as a matter of simple imperial course. Second, that Israel’s efforts to destabilize will only sharpen as its political relations with the Gulf States strengthen in a set of bonds. Those bonds are still overwhelmingly formed under the directive of US imperialism. It was not long after Saudi Arabia had announced its “final” decision to invade Syria before and saying it required approval from the “US-led coalition.” This ought to remind us clearly as to the hierarchy of power in the world and allow us to shape our resistance efforts accordingly.
A timely reminder:: Seymour M. Hersh on the chemical attacks trail back to the Syrian rebels, 17 April 2014
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