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Middle East: Hizballah's Lack Of Structure Is Its Strength

Pro-Hizballah demonstration in Tehran in July (Fars) PRAGUE, August 8, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- As Hizballah resists almost four weeks of Israeli air and ground operations, many analysts are calling it the most effective Arab force the Israeli army has yet faced.

The militia has stockpiles of missiles and light arms and, perhaps most importantly, a highly mobile command structure that allows it to conduct a classic hit-and-run guerrilla war of attrition.

RFE/RL correspondents Charles Recknagel and Dominik Breithaupt spoke with Timur Goksel, the former spokesman of the UN monitoring force in southern Lebanon, to learn more about Hizballah's organization and tactics. Goksel now teaches at the American University in Beirut.

RFE/RL: Looking at the number of about 2,000 to 4,000 soldiers that fight for the Hizballah against 10,000 Israeli soldiers, it seems unlikely that the militia could keep up an effective resistance for long. What makes it so difficult for the Israeli army to defeat the Hizballah militia?

Timur Goksel: These people have been fighting the Israelis for 18 years in south Lebanon. People forget that. They already know the Israelis. And they fought them when they occupied Lebanon [Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 and maintained a buffer zone in southern Lebanon until 2000] and since then they have been preparing for a guerilla war again.

And they are a very experienced, very well-equipped guerilla army and they also believe in what they are doing. And they have the local support of the population and they are local people themselves, they feel like they are defending their own villages. So when you put this together you get a very strong army -- a guerrilla army, at least.

Lack Of Hierarchy Important

RFE/RL: A common strategy in wartime is to disrupt the command-and-control capability of the enemy. But Hizballah seems to have survived almost a month of heavy Israeli bombing. How does the militia remain effective on the battlefield?

Goksel: They don't work in military hierarchies or military command levels. They don't have anything like that. There is one leader in Beirut and all the other units in the field that are autonomous, they know what they are doing [by themselves]. They don't need communications, they don't report everything, they don't ask for orders, they know what they are doing.

There are small units of not more than 20 men and most are local people. They operate on their own, they don't need supplies. They are very independent. That makes it very difficult to catch them, of course.

RFE/RL: The organizational structure you describe is common to a secret guerilla movement. Yet Hizballah has been a highly public presence in Lebanon for over two decades, including now being part of the government. Could you describe the group's structure in more detail?

Goksel: Hizballah's political and social arm is very public [but] Hizballah's military is a very secretive organization. Even most other Hizballah people will not know who they [military members] are. They are extremely security-conscious -- extremely -- to the point of paranoia. Most people don't know who these people are because they never display themselves, they don't have uniforms, they don't have any bases, they don't work out of bases, they don't have supply depots. Therefore, it is a very secretive arm [and that is] because they have a very healthy respect for Israeli intelligence, which is always trying to track them down.

Nasrallah's Leadership

RFE/RL: How directly does Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the spiritual leader of Hizballah, control its military arm?

Nasrallah speaking in Beirut on July 12 (epa)

Goksel: Their structure is that only Sheikh Nasrallah is the supreme commander and there is nobody else between him and the field leaders. They removed all those [intermediate levels] years ago, because they felt like when you are organized as a military unit then it is very easy for Israel to detect you, because when you are [such a formal] organization you make noise when you move. So they removed all organization and they are working with a secret cell system, actually.

RFE/RL: But doesn't a secret cell system also present some disadvantages when it comes to launching coordinated operations on the battlefield? Is there no central planning?

Goksel: There are also predetermined operations. They have a lot of local autonomy but they will not launch an operation unless it is all part of a plan. There is local leader, there is a regional leader system, but they don't report to [any military headquarters in] Beirut. It is not cumbersome, there are no levels like in a normal army, [such as] companies, battalions, regiments, nothing like that. It is a very flat sort of organization, not a pyramid sort of organization.

RFE/RL: Do we know where Sheikh Nasrallah is now?

Goksel: I wouldn't know where he is and certainly they [Hizballah] are not advertising it. But I know one thing about that man: he never abandons his people. He is famous for that. The reason he became Sheikh Nasrallah [the leader of Hizballah] is because of his reputation for never leaving the fighters.

So, I can safely assume that he is with his own people. He never abandons them, that is not his style. That's why he became so famous and so adored within the whole of Hizballah, because he never leaves his people alone.

RFE/RL: There are reports that the Israeli army is trying to assassinate Nasrallah by targeting Hizballah compounds in southern Beirut and elsewhere. Would Hizballah fall apart if he were killed?

Goksel: If Sheikh Nasrallah goes, that organization is likely to come apart. Because, especially at a time like this, no [other] leader can emerge to keep this whole massive organization of social, economic, political, and military things together. Nobody can do that.

And there are some [competing] currents in Hizballah that Sheikh Nasrallah is keeping together. In my understanding, some of these groups might become more independent in their actions. And when you have people with guns and rockets [taking] independent action, then you are looking for trouble because you never know which way they will go. Because he is providing the central discipline and the central command.

Cutting Off Hizballah, Or Lebanon?

RFE/RL: The Israeli Army says it is bombing Lebanese infrastructure such as highways in order to cut supply routes from Syria -- and ultimately Iran -- which are suspected of rearming Hizballah. But is it possible to stop supplies from reaching the militia?

Goksel: More than [being] a strategy, that is a way of destroying the Lebanese infrastructure. That is not a strategy, that is an excuse to inflict maximum pain on this country. Because they [the Israelis] couldn't do it [stop Hizballah], they want the [Lebanese] people to stop Hizballah. And certainly [if the bombing is] to prevent the supply [of arms to Hizballah], it cannot do that. There are 300 kilometers of open borders. Are they going to watch every border crossing 24 hours a day? That is a "no go," but it is a good excuse to keep bombing.

Iran, Syria, And Hizballah

Iran, Syria, And Hizballah

Iranians demonstrating in support of Hizballah in Tehran on July 17 (epa)

'FOR THE SAKE OF LEBANON': The Islamic Republic of Iran has served as an ideological inspiration for Hizballah since the Lebanese militant group's creation in 1982, and Tehran acknowledges that it supports the organization morally and politically. "Yes, we are friends of Syria and Iran" Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah has said. "For 24 years we benefited from our friendship with Syria and Iran for the sake of Lebanon...." (more)


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