The Disenchantment of the Left: Two Memories of the Palestinian Struggle
By Jihane Sfeir
Islamist leaders are often former liberationist or nationalist ideologues who after being disappointed by the failure of nationalism or Marxism, turn to Islam as a mobilizing force. More than a few sympathizers and members of the Lebanese Hezbollah were also former communists or belonged to Palestinian parties. One cannot ignore the ideological shift that happened in 1979, from leftist parties to groups motivated by political Islam. In order to consider this ideological transformation, in the following pages, I examine how the Lebanese Civil War impacted the transformation of two former Shiite Lebanese, pro-Palestinian fighters, Bassel and Nizar, and the nature of their political and military commitment to the Palestinian cause.
Three moments marked the lives of these two men: the 1967 defeat (al-naksa), the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, and the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. By looking at their testimonies of the war, I locate a series of ruptures, transformations and re-compositions that have marked the individual and collective trajectory of leftist fighters in order to shed light on how the aftermath of 1982 transformed their fight, their ideologies and their partisan commitments.
The Palestinian Revolution: A school of heroism for the left
If 1967 symbolized the Arab defeat to Israel, the battle of al-Karameh in 1968, sanctified and legitimized the Palestinian struggle. Thus, the arrival of the PLO leadership and thousands of fedayyis to Lebanon in 1970 consecrated the Palestinian revolution in that country. During this period, a multitude of militant experiences emerged from the left in Lebanon. The Arqub mountainous region in southeastern Lebanon became a base for PLO military actions and was known as Fatahland. The Lebanese National Movement (LNM), lead by the charismatic PSP leader Kamal Jumblatt, saw in the Palestinian movement an effective ally to carry out the national struggle. Freedom of action for the guerrillas became a rallying call for progressives.It was during the 1970’s that several hundred Lebanese joined the Palestinian revolution, using this opportunity to claim their rights. The testimonies of two former Shiite fighters shed light on this particular moment of the Lebanese civil war.
Bassel: From the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine to Hezbollah
Bassel was born in June 1958. His family came from a village in South Lebanon. He joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in 1974 when he was just 16 years old. Today, officially, he works in a media office affiliated to Hezbollah. When I spoke to him, he recalled his first years of militancy:
“I was living in Dahieh, in the southern suburbs of Beirut, in a very poor area. We felt close to the Palestinian refugees and we shared their cause. One day a friend of mine said that he was going to fight with the fedayyis and he left for Jordan to join the fighters. He was 12 years old.”
He then talks about the intimate relations between Palestinians and the Lebanese of Jabal ‘Amel. According to him, people of the south Lebanon who came to Beirut already understood the Palestinians, since the concept of refuge is a common one. He felt close to their cause and joined the PFLP as a teenager looking for something to believe in. He recalls the day of his enrollment:
“One day, I was with my mother to buy mana’ish. There was a crowd, I left without her realizing that I was no longer with her. I joined a group of friends from Chiah, all Lebanese. A truck was waiting for us and embarked us. The training camp was based east of Baalbeck. The first day I slept on my flip-flops. We were still children, and we were expecting the war. I was given a Czech Kalashnikov, a fatigues and shoes.”
For several years, Bassel fought with the PFLP, but the 1982 Israeli invasion put an end to his Palestinian struggle. He recalls:
“I was fighting with my comrades in the Bekaa, when we heard that the Israelis were close. We had no ammunition, so we ran to the fields and took off our military clothes. We were hiding for days, bitter and angry. We lost communication with our commanders and were completely lost. When we heard that the Palestinian fighters had left Beirut, we completely lost hope; for me, it was the end of my years of commitment to the Palestinian revolution.”
Bassel was unclear about how and with whom he had joined the Islamic resistance (Hezbollah). However, it was his experience with the Palestinian fighters that gave him the training to fight. He still carries with him the Mini-manual of the Urban Guerrilla by Carlos Marighella, a small book that he keeps next to a copy of the Quran. His experience in the PFLP during the 1970s was crucial to his continuing to fight under the Hezbollah banner.
Nizar: Memory for oblivion
Born in 1962, originally from a village in southern Lebanon, Nizar joined the Lebanese Communist Party at the age of 13. In 2009, he was working as a freelance journalist for the newspaper, al-Akhbar. Wounded during the war, he benefits from support from old comrades. Although he’s close to Hezbollah’s ideology, he is not affiliated with the party. He hardly recalls how the beginnings:
“At first, my ideas were not very clear and the political atmosphere was foggy. I was young and did not understand much. But I was a great admirer of Georges Habache and I had a fascination for the feda’iyyis. I was enthusiastic for their fight and when I was 15, I saw two films that marked me a lot: Kuluna fida’iyyun [We are all fedayyis] and 21hours in Munich. Even if I knew that this movie was Zionist propaganda, I saw the movie at least 20 times. It was showing at Cinema Pavilion in Hamra, every time I watched it I leave the theater with a desire to commit suicide.”
For Nizar, the 1972 movie caused him to join the Lebanese Communist Party. Before that he was only a sympathizer, reading and attending meetings when he could. On his turn to politics Nizar recalls:
“The climate at my home was not very politicized. My father was an admirer of Nasser, we used to listen to [the radio station] Sawt al-Arab, and I used to borrow the newspaper al-Muharrir from my neighbor, a leftist newspaper with pan-Arab leanings. My real commitment began at the secondary school in al-Zarif.”
At the age of 15, Nizar began to train in a military camp of the LCP. The photos taken during this period show a teenager in a Cuban para-military uniform, posing with his comrades-in-arms, all smiles in the Sannine mountain area. By the time of the 1982 Israeli invasion, Nizar was leading a brigade based at the National Museum. He remembers watching on television the election of Bechir Gemayel as president of the Lebanese Republic. For him it was the end. Total loss and annihilation. He says:
“Everything we fought for went up in smoke. We were in a state of despair. Our command was mute, telling us nothing. We suddenly found ourselves in hostile territory, the Israelis were in the city and we had no orders to fight back. After 1982, the fight no longer had the same meaning …”
Thus, Nizar was dragged into a “dirty” war. In 1984, he was hit in Tripoli during the fighting between the LCP and Tawhid, the Islamic Unification Movement allied with the PLO. He was shot in the head by a sniper and taken for dead. His body was thrown into a truck full of dead communist fighters. When he arrived in Beirut, he screamed while men were unloading the bodies of the dead fighters and he was rescued. He then spent several months at the hospital recovering. Gradually, he withdrew from both the armed struggle and the Communist Party, disappointed by his leaders and bitter because there was no recognition for his or his heroic comrades’ actions. In 1988, he took the initiative to engrave a commemorative plaque dedicated to his comrades who carried out an operation against Israeli positions in September 1982. He had the plaque placed in front of the Bustros Pharmacy in the Hamra neighborhood where the operation took place. With the same hope of preserving the memory of the left in 2008, he also initiated the publication of several opinion papers known as “Bila difaf” (without borders) penned by Joseph Samaha for the journal al-Yum al-Sabe‘. The disillusionment of his fighting and political commitment drove Nizar to record the memory of his and his comrades’ heroism. While he sees himself as a guardian of a militant memory, his melancholy of his former political activism reveals the vanquished memory of a lost fight.
This short analysis has aimed to shed light on leftist militant memory as a historiographic object in order to understand the overall disenchantment of the group, as a whole, and the transformation of its fight. As I have demonstrated, Nizar’s memory is melancholic, reflecting the loss of the left and the disintegration of the Palestinian revolution, but Bassel’s memory of the Palestinian struggle lives on through his commitment to Hezbollah. Ultimately, the greater aim of my research, out of which this short piece emerges, is to question the notion of a shared leftist memory—Lebanese and Palestinian—and the writing of its history as the singular temporality of the Lebanese Civil War, with the 1982 Israeli invasion as turning point.
 Laleh Khalili, Heroes and martyrs of Palestine: the politics of national commemoration, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2007.
 Nicolas Dot Pouillard, « De Pékin à Téhéran, en regardant vers Jérusalem. La singulière conversion à l’islamisme des Maos du Fatah », Cahier de l’Institut Religioscope, Genève, Suisse, numéro 2, décembre 2008.
 Hamit Bozarslan, Une histoire de la violence au Moyen-Orient : De la fin de l’Empire ottoman à Al-Qaida, La Découverte, 2008.
Jihane Sfeir is a historian of the modern Arab world, professor at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (Belgium) and director of the Observatoire des Mondes Arabes et Musulmans (OMAM). Her main publications focus on history and memory of Palestinian refugees. Her current research focuses on the manufacture, uses and practices of archives in Palestine and Lebanon.
Citation: Jihane Sfeir, The Disenchantment of the Left: Two Memories of the Palestinian Struggle, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 05.06.2018 https://trafo.hypotheses.org/9905.
Further articles in the series “The ‘1979 Moment’ in the Middle East” on TRAFO:
Amir Moosavi (2018), Looking Back at the “1979 Moment” in the Middle East
Behrooz Moazami (2018), The Making and Unmaking of the Moments: From the 1979 Revolution to the Arab Spring
Yvonne Albers (2018), Turning the Page: Reading 1979 in and through the Cultural Journal Mawaqif