The Spider’s Web: A Display of Hizbollah's War
I could not leave Beirut without having visited the Spider’s Web exhibition at the museum opened by Hizbollah in Dahieh, the Hizbollah-controlled suburb of southern Beirut that commemorates its war efforts against the Israelis. Once you arrive in the Haret Hreik neighborhood of the Dahieh district, you know it. It does not matter if you have seen Beirut ten times already or if it is for the first time.
It is a large poor neighborhood reflecting the social and economic situation of the people living there. I have seen more poverty in a 30-minute tour of the area than in almost all of my stay in Hamra, a neighborhood that used to be mainly Christian decades ago and now is mainly occupied by Muslims. I knew I couldn't take pictures inside the area without the permission of Hizbollah. Since I wanted to avoid giving them explicit information about myself, I decided I was lucky to be able to tour the area and see the museum and thus shouldn’t risk getting into trouble. I was advised not to take pictures from the car - something I usually do – because Hizbollah is everywhere. I admit I still wanted to do it but then I thought that with the tense situation I should just respect their rule. I left my camera in the bag and just watched the people, the destruction and the reconstruction sites managed by Jihad Al Binna – which is one of Hizbollah's many organizations that takes care of the Shias.
From what I saw, the destruction is extensive. Regardless of how much money Hizbollah has and the men that it has at its disposal to work for them, it will still take them a long time to rebuild. I saw the mosque where Sheikh Fadlallah apparently has his office and since it is Ramadan there were many people outside and around it. In the whole area there were pictures of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Musa Sadr, Hizbollah's yellow flags, some Amal flags and pictures of the martyrs. The area was controlled by Hizbollah-men instead of police, as one would normally see in the rest of the capital. All these men that to me looked like police but weren't had walkie-talkies. They see those who enter the area and can transmit the information to the others. It is a clever way of keeping an eye on people that look out of place here. We finally arrived at the museum, the driver parked and we went to the entrance. A lady stood there and she searched my bag. You get searched almost everywhere in Beirut so it is understandable. But this lady who was very traditionally dressed had some grace when doing it.
At first, one needed permission to visit the museum but not anymore. The museum is actually made up of two or three big tents and is comprised of a prayer room, an operation room and the like, and it has a cubicle for the Al-Manar TV station showing that even if the building was hit, Israel did not succeed to stop it from broadcasting. This is because Hizbollah planned the attack months in advance and thus had time to move Al-Manar.
The museum has a movie room with an Israeli tank inside a huge opening in the ground, a Merkava and on top of it on the wall a screen where they put a short movie about Hizbollah’s glorious battle and victory against Israel. Inside the museum, I saw pictures of Israeli soldiers who were either dead or dying, weaponry taken or left behind by Israel, caskets, uniforms and many pictures.
Is it a propaganda instrument? No doubt about it. Is it cleverly made? Yes it is. For an outsider seeing images of bodies from either side creates a sense of rejection and sadness; also when I saw toys of the Lebanese children I thought that maybe those children did not survive.
But I know there were children who died and were injured on the Israeli side as well. Hizbollah displays a picture of Israeli children writing messages on the missiles that were then launched at Lebanon. This is far from being a black-and-white situation. But they made it look this way and they build this distorted image of the Israeli Zionist imperialism since the 1980s. The movie focuses on key images, like Hizbollah fighters getting ready to enter the battle, Israeli tanks being hit and desperate Israeli soldiers crying. A man standing near me at the exhibition said to me: “Look, the Israeli soldiers are crying!” and I could hear pride in his voice. At the end, a few of them even clapped because Sheikh Nasrallah declared victory. This was not a victory unless one considers the destruction it brought upon the country and the death of over 1,000 people a victory. It was a catastrophe for Lebanon and it pushed the Shias into a corner politically. It was a gross miscalculation, but then again Hizbollah is not about to admit it in front of the whole world.
This museum is there to give confidence to the Shias. As with any piece of propaganda, it is half true and half lie. It is true that Hizbollah did well as a guerrilla force and I am not discussing the legitimacy or the rightness of its acts but merely its capabilities on the ground, and it took Israel by surprise. On the other hand, Hizbollah cannot defeat Israel. Israel restrained itself this time. It did not want to solve the problem of Hizbollah for Lebanon, a country that considers Israel to be its enemy. They wanted to see Hizbollah pushed from the border and to a certain extent they succeeded in doing this. If there will be another confrontation initiated by Hizbollah, Lebanon would be crushed like a bug in a matter of days. Not in weeks but days. Hizbollah knows it or at least should know this at the leadership level; but at the people level they need to work on confidence building and this museum is part of this self-assurance building process. When it comes to the Lebanese Shias, the problem is not Israel. They took it up as their destiny to fight Israel but it is not the core issue. The issue is the lack of trust between the Shias as a community and the state of Lebanon. It is enough to see what their neighborhood looks like to understand that the Shias have been literally ignored and forgotten by the Lebanese government. Not only this government but by all governments thus far. When Hizbollah appeared and because of its ideology, its discipline and intelligent leadership, they took over the Shia community. Amal is still there and it is important but Hizbollah gets the headlines. Then they started fighting Israel in order to protect themselves when the state was present and active in Beirut and surroundings but not in the Bekaa Valley or in the South of Lebanon.
The question is: Would so many people still follow Hizbollah if the state took a real interest in them? Hizbollah offers free education, free healthcare and paychecks to thousands of people in the country. Hizbollah reconstructs their homes and pays the rent. Hizbollah is whenever and wherever the Shias need them to be while the state is nowhere to be found. Under these circumstances it is not that the masses agree 100% with Hizbollah’s ideology, objectives and its way of handling politics but they feel compelled to do so or be isolated. It is easy to blame Hizbollah propaganda but in the end, we need to think what could or even better what should the state do in order to somehow balance this takeover of the Shia community by Hizbollah.
Aside from their allegiance whether it is of profound conviction, necessity or a mix of both, Shias in Dahieh and in the South are warm, hospitable people. They tend to be suspicious of others but they are still friendly.
After visiting the museum I saw a white Nissan Sunny parked right across from the car I came with. The men were looking straight at me and at the driver. I knew from the very minute I saw this nice, clean car that these men belonged to Hizbollah's security force. Someone and it could have been anyone told them to come and check if everything was all right. I got into the car and we drove. No one approached me but they were there, and they wanted me to know they were there. Minutes later, I asked the driver who happened to be a Shia if these were indeed Hizbollah men. He laughed and said that yes they were. It is how they manage the neighborhood. They keep an eye or at least try to do so on all people who enter their space. All in all, the trip to the suburb of Dahieh was a good wakeup call that taught me when I talk about the Shias and their support of Hizbollah, I also need to remember their poor relationship with the state before criticizing a whole community for the deeds of some.