Paintballing with Hezbollah
Is the Path Straight to Their Hearts
Protective masks sit on the counter moments before they’ll get splattered with paint.
Almost a month after the game, I am driving in an unmarked SUV along the heavily guarded Lebanese-Israeli border, where Hezbollah, Israeli, and Lebanese Army patrols are joined by 12,000 UN peacekeepers. The Boss is at the wheel. In the weeks following the paintball match, we’ve developed something of a rapport. So he humors my earnest curiosity as I ask questions about the specifics of the group’s battlefield tactics. He is fully aware that I am asking these questions because I will be writing about him and his comrades. My impression is that although he knows that this sort of thing is strictly banned, he figures I’m harmless enough
to drive me to some abandoned positions, or explain, from his point of view, how an ambush of Israeli officers in 1994 went down. After removing the batteries from our mobile phones to avoid eavesdropping and tracking devices, we set off southbound on a rainy winter’s day.
As we pass through a Lebanese military checkpoint intended to keep foreigners from sniffing around one of the world’s tensest borders, he talks tactics, first insulting both sides’ strategies in the paintball game—a lack of discipline and unwillingness to modify plans, the antithesis of the Hezbollah way. As an example, he points to a bend in the road just inside the former Security Zone, which Israel had occupied for more than 20 years.
“That’s where an Israeli tank almost ran me over,” he says, describing a patient ambush he’d set in the late 90s. “But we couldn’t move or make a sound, because the tank wasn’t our target.” Then he points to another bend in a road a few hundred meters away: the site of the action.
As we approach the border, on the other side of the fence we encounter an Israeli military patrol milling around with their Humvees in the distance. The Boss rolls down his window.
“Hellllooooo there,” the Boss shouts in English to the startled soldiers, who whip around in surprise. He follows this with a hearty “Fuck you!” and we speed off. Once we’re far enough away that I stop worrying about getting shot, I ask him what he really thinks—personally—about his Israeli enemies.
“They are well trained and tough,” he says. “They fight hard and defend their land and people. I respect them as enemies. They work with their hands, they fight for themselves, and they take care of their own people, so they’re much better than the Saudis.” He goes on: “Saudis are the worst people alive. They claim to be the most religious Muslims and were given the greatest gift of any nation by God himself. Do they protect Muslims with this money? Do they feed the poor? Build a culture? No, they spend it all on cars and whores. I hate them.”
This is coming from a guy who, during our paintball match, answered Soha’s question about military tactics by muttering, “Sometimes when you hold the gun in your hands, it shows you things.” Clearly, we’re making some progress; he’s much less menacing today. As we continue our tour of the border, he tells me how to properly execute an ambush (stay hidden and let five chances to attack pass before you take action) and about Hezbollah’s first rule for its fighters: “We’re taught not to get killed,” he says. “They teach us our lives and training are too valuable to waste.”
He shows me rocket-launching sites so well concealed that I can’t see them until we’re standing on top of them and describes how, during battle, the rocket teams travel by bicycle to avoid detection. It’s exactly the kind of detailed tactical description from a legitimate military source I’d hoped to obtain by setting up the paintball battle.
Still, as the tour goes on, I probe for a deeper understanding of how the Boss feels about his adversaries. His shooting-the-rope “Yahoud” joke was offensive from just about any perspective, but in a normal Lebanese context, it wasn’t a total anomaly. By and large, folks in this part of the world tend to conduct themselves with a gleeful lack of political correctness. The IDF recently had to deal with revelations that a sniper team who had participated in the assault on the Gaza Strip in 2008 had also made t-shirts featuring a visibly pregnant Muslim woman surrounded by crosshairs. one shot, two kills was emblazoned underneath.
Regardless, one side’s bad behavior doesn’t excuse the other’s, and I’m still curious as to whether there’s any delineation between resistance and racism in the minds of fighters like the Boss. So I push him on the real goal of Hezbollah. Liberate and protect Lebanese land, or keep the fight going until all the Israelis are gone? I ask him to consider a scenario in which the Palestinians have cut a two-state deal, and the Israelis withdraw from the tiny parcels of land claimed by some factions as Lebanese. Would he feel obligated to continue fighting despite all that (likely impossible) progress in the region?
“If all those things become true, then the Resistance stops being a national obligation and turns into a religious question,” he answers. “As Muslims, we feel a religious duty to liberate Jerusalem. But these sorts of questions can be addressed in many ways, while occupation can only be addressed with resistance.”
He then says that Israelis have yet to learn that they can’t win a war in Lebanon because they’re fighting people with a homeland. In his view, having actual land to defend is critical. And for all his bravado about Hezbollah’s abilities, he points in the direction of Israel and eloquently summarizes a subject few Middle Eastern militants would dare address.
“If the war is fought 500 meters that way, the resistance could never win,” he says. “We couldn’t beat the Israelis there, not on their land, by their homes.” I’ve never heard an Islamic militant ever admit that Israel is Israeli land. He continues by pointing out that in 1982, 50,000 trained and well-equipped Palestinian troops couldn’t keep the Israelis out of Beirut for a week. But by his count, less than 1,000 Hezbollah fighters did the job alone for 34 days in 2006. “Palestinians can’t fight because they have no homes to defend. There would already be a Palestine if it weren’t for the Palestinians.”
In light of this revelation, I press him on what he thinks could stop this cycle of violence in the south. What if the Israelis left Lebanese lands, made peace with the Palestinians, and never threatened Lebanon again?
“Some guys would consider violence the solution to the religious questions, like liberating Jerusalem. But doing so would mean the end of the Resistance,” he says.
“So, peace?” I ask.
He thinks for a second. “Sure,” he replies, without much conviction in his voice.