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Hezbollah's Evolution from Militants to Politicians

ALEX CHADWICK, Host:

Professor, welcome back. How are things today?

FAWAZ GERGES: Well, things are the same. The bombing continues. Civilian casualties are accumulating, even though, I think, Israel is becoming more selective in its targets. Israel has been bombing Hezbollah targets all over southern Lebanon, and it also bombed some targets in and around Beirut.

CHADWICK: In what sense is Hezbollah a party as we would understand that word?

GERGES: Initially, when the group was founded, it was ideological. It was militant. It was reactionary. It was paramilitary. And it also was an underground movement. It has transformed itself, yet it still has one leg in the Lebanese political system. In fact, it has two members in the Lebanese cabinet.

CHADWICK: In your most recent book, Journey of the Jihadist, which is about militant Islam, you interview senior Hezbollah leaders who talk about their desire to practice politics. So what happened to that?

GERGES: Yet, at the same time - and this is the irony - it has a paramilitary wing which basically subscribes to a military resistance against the Israeli occupation. And it's this dual - dual purpose, that has really plunged Lebanon into an existential crisis, because the state itself, the Lebanese state, must have a monopoly on the use of force. In fact, Hezbollah is more powerful than the existing sovereign Lebanese state.

CHADWICK: Here's a quote from a big newspaper in Lebanon, the Daily Star. This is from four years ago in an interview with a Hezbollah leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the man who's speaking for Hezbollah today. He said then: If they, the Jews, all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.

GERGES: So it reflects the particular mindset that is very powerful, very dominant, within Hezbollah and other militant Islamic groups when it comes to Israel. But remember, this is an essentially political conflict. But of course, the political struggle, the political conflict between Arabs and Jews, has taken its toll in terms of politics, in terms of culture, in terms of rhetoric, in terms of sensitivity, and Nasrallah's quote is a case in point.

CHADWICK: Fawaz Gerges teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. He's speaking with us from just outside Beirut, in Lebanon, where he and his family are stranded at the old family compound. Professor, good luck there.

GERGES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.