Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Lebanon crisis: extra-credit reading

At work today I made a big effort to clear my desk of the last three months' worth of accumulated papers. Print-offs of newspaper articles; photocopies of journal articles or book chapters; things that have been sent to me. Lots unread, some half-read, some read and marked with highlighter and scribbled notes which were obviously meant to remind me to reference the article somewhere - I just can't remember where or why now.

A particular problem are the nice people at the American Resource Centre at Helsinki University. Every month they send out an email with a link to webpage that list abstracts of various articles in news magazines and academic journals that may be of interest. You tick a little box on the page next those that interest you and two days later an envelope full of perfect copies appear. It's research for the terminally lazy, and of course encourages you tick the boxes of things that aren't vital to your work, but interesting nonetheless. Then after someone has so painstakingly xeroxed them and posted them to you, of course you have moral obligation to read them and hence the "to read" pile just gets higher.

Anyway - somewhere amongst the piles of paper and dustballs I found the following: Lebanon: Finding a Path from Deadlock to Democracy By Julia Choucair published by the Carnegie Endowment; and "The Hizballah Training Camps of Lebanon" by Dr. Magnus Ranstorp of St. Andrews University and the Swedish National Defence College. It's a chapter from a book The Making of A Terrorist. I've read and heard so many opinions about Hezbollah (or Hizballah if you prefer - probably dependent on your Arabic accent!) over the last week its good to read some good old fashioned, in-depth academic analysis on the group. Not that there is anything dull about the subject, but you know what I mean.

I will reflect more on Ranstorp piece later, but crucially he charts the centrality of Iran to Hezbollah, whilst noting that the relationship is not a vertical one - it is one of partnership rather than master and servant. And secondly he explains the long history of Hezbollah's war with Israel, not only carried out in the Israeli-occupied Southern Lebanon through the 1980s and 90s but also through many probes and attacks within Israel itself using variously Palestinian groups as proxies or sympathisers with Western passports. None of this will be big news to Middle East politics train-spotters, but it is all there in one handy package.

Choucair's paper is an excellent primer on, or reminder of, the complexity of Lebanese confessional politics, and in particular she explains Hezbollah's popularity amongst the Shi'a of Lebanon. Essentially they are seriously under-represented within the political system where parliamentary seats are basically carved up amongst the many religious groups on the basis of the last national census, which was taken in 1932! A trade-off has never been made, so they keep 'their' private army until they get a better position politically within Lebanon. How the current crisis will change this remains to be seen.

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