Inside Hezbollah

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MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad visited Lebanon this week. He toured the country's southern region, which borders Israel, a country Ahmedinejad has said should be wiped off the map. The visit was seen as a show of support for the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group, Hezbollah. The group fought a brief border war with Israel in 2006. Thanassis Cambanis covered that conflict as the Boston Globe's Middle East bureau chief. He later returned to Lebanon on his own, to learn more about Hezbollah and its supporters. His new book is called A Privilege to Die � Inside Hezbollah's Legions and their Endless War against Israel. Cambanis says even children in Lebanon are aware of the close relationship between Hezbollah and Iran.

THANASSIS CAMBANIS: The Mahdi scouts, the Hezbollah boy and girl scout organization, they actually were badges of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Iranian revolution, on their scout uniforms. And I would venture to guess that many of them do know who Ahmedinejad is and they think of him as one of the patrons of their Islamist society. Now, the thing to remember is that half of Lebanon loves Hezbollah and subscribes, but the other half hates them. So, that's the half that you might think of when you think of nightclubs in Beirut and cosmopolitan Lebanon. Those folks don't like Hezbollah's project, they don't like Iran, they view this symbiotic relationship between Hezbollah and Iran as the first step into something very alarming in their own society.

WERMAN: How much do you think Hezbollah's ties to Iran actually fuel the party's desire to fight a war with Israel. I mean did you speak with anyone who seemed to feel there was a direct cause and effect?

CAMBANIS: If anything I think Hezbollah brings more legitimacy to the idea of perpetual war than Iran itself does. Someone I talked to used the term �more Catholic than the Pope,� but the idea I saw in the community I spent the last three years in is Hezbollah supporters really hold to the ideals of the Islamic revolution. Ideals that Iran itself has moved away from as it's become increasingly preoccupied with its nuclear program, with holding power and with running a huge state. The animus towards Israel is deeply entrenched in Lebanese society. I mean this is a place that's been at war with Israel since 1948. And for the Shia in the south, there's been an unending cycle of war since 1982. And they genuinely want to keep fighting this war and it's not something that they're doing at Iran's behest. And if Iran stopped supporting their militancy, I believe it would continue.

WERMAN: How high do tensions run in Lebanon between those who support Hezbollah and those who don't?

CAMBANIS: The divisions are growing deeper. For a time, Hezbollah succeeded in really attracting a mainstream, sort of centrist wave of support. There's an increasing sense that Hezbollah is walking away from its roots as a national resistance organization and taking on a much more polarizing and extreme position on domestic issues. There was a sort of miniature civil war in May of 2008 and I think right now they are arming and preparing for an internal clash and they're hiring a lot of young thugs that I met patrolling the streets of south Beirut and these are not top-notch fighters getting ready to fight Israel, these are kids with pistols tucked into their jeans, popping wheelies on motorbikes and they are ready to crack heads with other Lebanese.

WERMAN: Now having been there for quite some time, what's it like for an American man being among all these Hezbollah loyalists? I mean it's a group that the US government considers a terrorist group.

CAMBANIS: Yeah, and it's a group that doesn't normally welcome outsiders. They're very suspicious and assume a lot of outsiders are there to spy on them. I got lucky because I spent the war in 2006 in the front line villages of south Lebanon and that's where I met men like Rani Bazzi who's a charismatic Hezbollah fighter who was obsessed with the jihad for good digestion as well as the jihad against Israel. And I met these people when we were all under fire together really in the heart of this war zone. So I was able to then go back and visit these same families over the next three years. I wouldn't say they completely felt that we shared the same values, but I think they trusted me enough that I would be able to tell their story.

WERMAN: Now, before we go on, you mentioned jihad against bad digestion. Explain what you mean by that.

CAMBANIS: Yeah, Rani Bazzi was obsessed with teaching his children what he saw as the chronically mandated diet for healthy eating and it was something that sounds a lot like macrobiotic eating. I mean vegetarians, [INDISCERNIBLE] light food, an odd and obsessive back to basics diet which I think was part and parcel with his whole world view. He also taught his kids how to fire mortars when they were [OVERLAPPING]

WERMAN: I was going to say. I mean here's a very holistic approach to eating and let's go load the mortars up now.

CAMBANIS: And that's Hezbollah's winning recipe from start to finish. They tell you what to do for fun on Saturday night and they give you meaning in your life and this endless war.

WERMAN: Did your time [INDISCERNIBLE] among the Hezbollah supporters change your perspective on the organization at all?

CAMBANIS: Absolutely. I mean this is not al-Qaeda, this is not the Iraqi insurgency. This is a group of people that are committed to a perpetual war, but they also really love life. They're not nihilists. The more time I spend with them, the more I understood why it is that they are such an integral part of their society. Why [INDISCERNIBLE] they're not going to go away. And frankly the surprise is to find how much of their support is actually won through persuasion and careful indoctrination rather than through intimidation and force.

WERMAN: Journalist Thanassis Cambanis's new book is called A Privilege to Die. Thanassis, thanks very much for coming in.

CAMBANIS: It was great to be with you, Marco.