Frontline World

LEBANON - Party of God, May 2003

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "Party of God"

A History of Hezbollah

Negotiating With Hezbollah

Lebanon Country Profile

Hezbollah, the Region and U.S. Policy




Interview With David Lewis: Negotiating With Hezbollah
When reporter/producer David Lewis set out to cover Hezbollah for FRONTLINE/World, he already had plenty of experience on big, difficult news stories -- like the floods in North Carolina in 1999, the domestic terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City and the first Gulf War. But Lebanon is a country of mind-bending contrasts, and in an interview with Web editor Douglas Foster in May 2003, Lewis noted that no amount of experience fully prepares a journalist for a story like this one. Even negotiating with Hezbollah for access was fraught with complications.

Roman Ruins at Baalbek

David Lewis taking in the Roman Ruins at Baalbek, Lebanon, November 2002.
Your story opens with shots of you wandering amid Roman ruins near a temple to Jupiter.

It was an odd place. The first thing that comes to mind when you're in it is how Lebanon has been a piece of real estate that various people have conquered over the years, from Romans to Ottomans to French to Israelis to Syrians. Lebanon has not exactly had a strong ability to govern its own affairs for thousands of years, and that temple represented this idea to me.

So you've got temples to Jupiter and Venus all around and nearby the old site of a Hezbollah training camp.

My tour guide was explaining how Elton John and Sting had played that temple, and then three minutes later he was pointing out up in the hills where Hezbollah used to have their training sites. He explained how you used to be able to hear the guns firing. In a land full of contradiction and weird things, things that smack you in the face, that was one of the weirdest.

Lewis sitting in an outdoor cafe

Lewis at a cafe in Beirut.
Had you been to Lebanon before?

No. I had worked on a film back in 1982 about the massacre that happened in the Palestinian refuge camps there, but I hadn't traveled to Lebanon for that film.

Was it a surprise to find life in Beirut -- once known as the Paris of the Middle East -- so urban and glamorous again?

There are several Beiruts. Part of Beirut is back to glamorous big-city life and part of it is not. I expected the Hezbollah ethic to control Beirut. I also expected the city to be much more of a shell. I had no idea that so much of it had been rebuilt in an absolutely spectacular fashion. The night life. Girls dancing on tables. Very open sexuality in certain parts of the city. The advertising, the clubs, the fashions that the women wear in certain portions of Beirut was a real surprise.

So you found Hezbollah ideology coexisting side by side with this "other Beirut?"

Lebanon is a very odd place. It's a functioning democracy "with an asterisk," as somebody put it to us. There aren't other countries like it in the Middle East. It's more like Israel than like the other Arab countries. There's constant whiplash. I would be downtown, drinking a cappucino, walking through these beautifully restored areas, smoking out of these hookahs, seeing these fashionable Versace stores. Then I'd get in the car and drive toward south Beirut. Literally three minutes away, I filmed graffiti on a wall that said, "Bin Laden, protector of the Arabs." Ten minutes away are the Palestinian refuge camps, which are the most awful places that you can possibly imagine. No running water, rats, just a horror show.

Lewis talks on his cell phone

Lewis in Balbek, Lebanon, talking with his Hezbollah contact to try to gain access to the party's activities and officials.
What are the relationships like now between Maronite Christians and Palestinian refugees?

Palestinians are very marginalized people in Lebanon. They don't have the same legal rights as Lebanese. They aren't citizens, they don't have Lebanese passports. They've been there since 1948, yet they do not have the same rights that Palestinians who are Israeli citizens have. There are whole sectors of the economy where they're not allowed to have jobs. They can't be lawyers, they can't be doctors.

They certainly can operate as businessmen in their own neighborhoods, but there are no great Palestinian success stories in Lebanon. In Shabra and Shatilla, the refugee camps where the massacre took place, Hezbollah trucks bring in water and Hezbollah social services are offered in those camps. You'll see the flag of Lebanon, the flag of Fatah and the flag of Hezbollah flying side by side.

What was the biggest challenge in doing this story?

It's just hard to be an American trying to do this kind of story. The week before I got there on my first trip, three American fast food joints were bombed. The first week I was there, an American missionary nurse was shot in the head and killed. It makes you nervous. You drive into neighborhoods (that have) huge posters of Ayatollah Khomeini and the leaders of Iran and Syrian leaders and the leaders of Hezbollah. Somebody came up to me, asked if I was American and then said in a very nice way, "Well, I hope all Americans die."

What did you say to him?

I waved, he walked away. What could I do?

What kinds of precautions did you take while you worked on the piece?

There were Lebanese people who were watching my back as best they could. I registered with the [U.S.] embassy. But all the American people that work at the embassy live inside a compound. Not only do they work inside, but they live inside this huge compound and only leave in armored Suburbans with armed guards. I was staying in a little hotel in a Christian neighborhood on my first trip, and then in a neighborhood in an apartment on my second trip.

Lewis looks at a book

Lewis looks at a book containing a photo of photo of an alleged airplane hijacker.
Had you planned to go twice to Lebanon in order to get the story?

No, I hadn't planned to go twice, but it's a hard story to get. It's not like you can just call up Hezbollah, which is on the U.S. terrorism list, and say, " Yo, dude, I'm on my way, I expect to see you." I was working through my contacts with a guy who was essentially a minor party official of Hezbollah who about six months before had set up access for me to see everybody and do everything. In the interim, unbeknownst to me, the head of the Hezbollah PR department -- yes, there is a Hezbollah PR department -- had changed, and he had lost his stroke, which he didn't bother to tell his sources, my protectors, my middlemen. When I got there the access that had been promised had essentially evaporated.

So what did you do?

I started off trying to make a slightly different film and looking for ways to get in with Hezbollah. They finally said on that trip, "Fine, we'll let you see whatever you want, there's just one small condition we have, that you sign this little piece of paper'" -- those were their exact words. You sign this little piece of paper that says you agree to be an objective journalist. No problem, I'm an objective journalist. I went back to the hotel, and a few hours later I got a fax in Arabic, which I had a friend translate, and it turned out to be actually a contract drawn up by a Lebanese lawyer that said, among other things, that they could fine me $30,000 -- without [my having] recourse to any argument or the courts -- if I did anything that they didn't like. What it boiled down to was editorial control.

I said, "Sorry, I'm not signing any contract." They said, "No contract, no access, and by the way, lots of European reporters have signed this." I pointed out that European reporters pay for interviews and that American reporters don't do that, and I wasn't signing anything.

That must have been a moment where your heart sank.

It was not a good moment. I said look, if you want me to be an objective journalist, you don't want me to sign this contract because that would be violating those traditions I'm supposed to uphold. When I left the country, I essentially commissioned someone to keep trying to get me access. Slowly but surely over a couple of months, she was able to get the issue of the contract removed and to get me access. I went back on the second trip very nervous, of course, that the rules would change again, that once I got there they'd say, ha, ha, you're here, now here's the contract again.

That's a long way to travel to hear "no" a second time.

Hezbollah were true to their word, and what they said went. When they said no to me, it meant no; when they said yes to me, it meant yes. They don't negotiate, they set the terms. I was really being interrogated about who I was, my background, what I believed, religion, what I thought of Israel. It was a real grilling and a real examination, and there were several versions of that experience.

What was your impression of Hezbollah's key leader, Sheikh Nasrallah?

I got into two events where he gave speeches. He doesn't give a lot of public speeches, and the people who were helping me said it's very rare for somebody to be able to catch two speeches in one trip. They thought that was just the bee's knees. Of course, I wanted an interview with him. The advantage was that I got an hour and a half with one of their leaders as opposed to 15 minutes of interview with Nasrallah. I was able to get much further and much deeper with Amar Mussawi, the deputy head of the Hezbollah Politburo.

Lewis and Sheikh Muhammad Hussein

Lewis interviews the man considered to be Hezbollah's spiritual leader, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah in Beirut.
That's an interesting contrast in your piece, between the militance expressed in the Nasrallah speech and this rather timid presentation by the parliamentary representative.

He certainly wasn't giving a speech for 5,000 people and chanting, "Death to Israel!" Hezbollah shows one face to certain people and another face to other people.

In his interview with you, Mussawi calls the United States a great country with a lot of good people. Were you surprised to hear him say that?

Yes, I was. The Hezbollah folks are very serious. There's not a lot of humor there. These are very disciplined people, and there's a great gap between when Sheikh Nassrallah gives a one-on-one interview -- where he's very cherubic with a nice smile -- and when he's giving a speech for 5,000 people. Since November or December, his rhetoric had really calmed down tremendously, but just in the last couple of weeks it's been cranking up again as the United States has been putting pressure on Syria and the war with Iraq came to an end.

But I was surprised when Mussawi said what he said about September 11, for example. The Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah -- regarded as the spiritual leader of Hezbollah even though he denies any official link -- also said, right after 9/11, that it was an unforgivable event and it goes against Islam and so on and so forth. So I wasn't completely shocked, but with Mussawi, there seemed to be even more of a sense of the possibility of compromise than I was expecting.

This other face of Hezbollah -- shown here as a legitimate political party -- may come as a surprise to some viewers.

Well, it certainly was news to me when I began to look into this story. I had no idea, for example, that Hezbollah has such a large number of MPs in the Lebanese parliament, democratically elected. ...

In a similar way, what went on in the schools was a surprise to me. To walk into a school and have hundreds of kids want to shake my hand and try and talk to me in English and all the smiling faces was a surprise. (These) kids walked past pictures of martyrs and suicide bombers as they came into the school.


Lewis and a Lebanese reporter

Lewis with Lebanese Agence France-Presse Lebanese reporter Hikmat Sharif at a store selling Hezbollah merchandise in Baalbek, Lebanon.
To see a Hezbollah hospital with an MRI and a CAT scan machine in it was another surprise. This is not al Qaeda, this is not guys hiding in caves, these are people that are, for better or worse, woven into the fabric of legitimate Lebanese society.

But there are many faces of Hezbollah, of course. They are a military resistance movement that controls the southern border with Israel and has thousands of men under armed guard. They are a political party. They are a social service organization that delivers the goods to thousands of its supporters. Hezbollah supports its former fighters that have been injured and the families of people who have died. It has hospitals and schools, newspapers and a radio station, and a satellite TV network.

There's also probably some kind of completely covert terrorist wing of Hezbollah that existed in the past, and probably continues to exist, that is separate from the above-ground military organization you see guarding the border with Israel and marching on Jerusalem Day. That terrorist wing, certainly nobody there was going to talk to me about that. The people who know don't say, and the people who talk don't know. So there are many pieces of Hezbollah to try to piece together.

What conclusion do you draw about the key question on the mind of many viewers: Does Hezbollah engage in terrorism today?

There's no definitive answer to that question. They clearly have sanctioned terrorism in the past, they clearly still sanction the use of suicide bombers. They don't regard suicide bombing as terrorism. When I asked Amar Mussawi what he thought of 9/11, he said, "No one should attack civilians, it's terrible, it's awful. If you've got a problem with a government, you shouldn't take it out on innocent civilians." When I immediately asked him, "OK, what about innocent civilians in Israel who are in a disco or in a bus?" he said, "Oh, well, that's different."

How did he describe that difference?


Lewis in a hotel in Beirut

Lewis looks over a contract Hezbollah initially demanded he sign to gain access to its organization.
He said that's an action/reaction thing. The Grand Ayatollah Hassam Fadlallah said to me, "They're not attacking Israeli civilians, they're attacking Israeli security." It's a hell of a rationalization if you're the relative of someone who's on a bus and somebody walks in with suicide bomb and blows you up along with your kids.

But are they still a terrorist organization? I don't know. Are they capable of it? Absolutely. They've made it clear that they're willing to use whatever techniques that they deem appropriate for whatever situations. If attacked, would they use terrorism? I sure think so.

What do you think is likely to happen to Hezbollah now?

Well, they won't go anywhere, like it or not. They're certainly going to continue to exist as a political party. Hezbollah is highly regarded as the cleanest, most effective political party in the country. So the central question is whether they are going to beat their swords into ploughshares. Initially Hezbollah only had swords, now they've got both swords and ploughshares.

Syria could wash their hands of Hezbollah. If they figure they can work a peace deal with Israel that is contingent upon trading in the Hezbollah card, Syria will trade that card in a second. What will Iran do? Iran will certainly stick it out as supporters of Hezbollah much longer than Syria because the power in Iran is held by Shiite clerics, the same people that run Hezbollah, essentially.

If there's a negotiated peace settlement and Israel gives up this tiny sliver of land on the border with Lebanon -- this is the Israeli presence that Hezbollah uses as an excuse for why they maintain themselves as a military organization -- there goes the excuse. If there's a settlement, Hezbollah will have no more justification for maintaining themselves as a state within a state. The next few years, then, are going to be a time of potentially great change for Hezbollah -- and for Lebanon.

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