The story of the Lebanese resistance has long followed the Hezbollah narrative — unsurprising, given the party’s martial exploits of the early 1990s, when it came to dominate the effort to force Israeli troops from the country.
But last month, there was a poignant ceremony held in South Lebanon that briefly recalled another facet of military resistance against Israel’s occupation of the south, in the early 1980s, led by the remarkable, yet largely forgotten, Mohammed Saad. Born in 1956, the son of a poor grocer in Marakeh, Saad was a disciple of Imam Musa Sadr, the charismatic Iranian-born cleric who helped mobilize Lebanon’s Shia community in the 1960s and 1970s.
In the wake of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, a resistance movement began in the villages around Tyre, an area that became known as the “arc of resistance.” Although Saad was the leader of the Amal resistance, he little looked the part of an influential military commander. He had narrow shoulders, a skinny physique and was described by one contemporary as “child-like” in stature. With his thick mane of wavy black hair, thin moustache and a scraggly tuft of beard on his chin, his appearance more resembled an American beat poet from the 1960s than a charismatic guerrilla commander. As hit-and-run attacks began to extract a mounting toll on the Israeli occupiers, they lashed back with punitive raids against the villages of the area. Resistance became a community effort. When Israeli columns were seen approaching a village, the warning was broadcast from the mosque, allowing resistance fighters to escape to their hideouts while women blocked the roads with burning tires and hurled stones and saucepans of boiling oil at the Israeli soldiers.
On one occasion, the Israelis learned that Saad was in Kfar Sir and surrounded the village with troops. Saad ran into a house and without saying a word to the startled family climbed into a pair of pajamas he saw lying on a bed. When Israeli soldiers banged at the front door, Saad himself opened it, dressed in the pajamas. The soldiers said they were looking for Mohammed Saad. The wily Saad turned to the family inside and said “Mother, they’re looking for someone called Mohammed Saad?”
“Never heard of him,” the mother replied, and the soldiers left. At the beginning of 1985, the Israelis began a phased retreat to a strip of territory along the border. Their withdrawal was marked by a brutal “iron fist” campaign against the villages of the south, marked by random executions, bulldozing of houses and mass arrests.
On March 2, 1985, Israel staged one of their biggest raids against Marakeh, but Saad and Khalil Jerardi, a top lieutenant, had already escaped. Two days later, Saad and Jerardi were holding a meeting on the first floor office of the Husseiniyah religious center in Marakeh when a bomb — planted by the Israelis during the earlier raid — ripped through the building, killing both men and 10 others.
Three months later, the Israelis had pulled back from the villages around Tyre to the border strip they would occupy for another 15 years. By then, Amal was embroiled in a savage war against the Palestinians. The “war of the camps” would sputter on for three years, sapping Amal of a number of its best military commanders and fighters. With Amal having lost some of its resistance impetus after Saad’s death, and sidetracked by the camps war, Hezbollah was able to expand its influence in the deep south, slowly transplanting its rival as the dominant Shia voice in the area.
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of Saad’s assassination, hundreds of people from Marakeh and the surrounding villages gathered on March 7 at Marakeh’s sports ground. Tough-looking men with stubbly haircuts, thick beards and rough calloused hands, and women clad in colorful headscarves, others in full-length black shadors, gathered beneath walls adorned with giant pictures of Saad and other deceased Amal resistance men whose names today are familiar only to the southerners.
A sheikh delivered a eulogy, calling Saad and his comrades “symbols of justice against murderers and killers.”
But this was very much a local affair; there was no representation from the senior ranks of Amal. Instead, the remarkable exploits of the resourceful Saad live on only in the memories of aging southerners, and in the few blurred and faded photographs of Amal “martyrs” tacked to street lights and walls in the villages of the former arc of resistance.
NICHOLAS BLANFORD is the Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and The Times of London