Augustus Richard Norton’s Hezbollah was on the recommended reading list of one of our Lebanon hands at work. It’s a short history, at 199 pages including all of the appendices (afterword from 2009, key Arabic words, recommended reading list, index and acknowledgments), but it’s not necessarily a fast read. Norton has a very detailed writing style and the reader has to work some to stay on top of the author’s organization of topics and subtopics. That said, the book is still less than two hundred pages and very content-rich.
The main chapters cover the pre-history of Hezbollah, the founding of Hezbollah, the role of Israel in the “making” of Hezbollah, Shiite identity in the 21st century, terrorism/resistance/violence in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s decision to join the existing political structure in Lebanon, and the aftermath of the 2006 Israeli/Hezbollah war. This was the first book on Lebanon I’ve read, so in addition to benefiting from the history and political information, I was also interested in the information on Amal (the secular resistance movement and competitor to Hezbollah), the insight into where Lebanese Muslims look for religious leadership (Iraq, not Iran), the al-Sadr family tree, the history of Ashura celebrations, and the complicated connections amongst Syria, Iran and Lebanon.
Reviews of the title are mixed. A reviewer from Beirut points out many factual errors and Arabic language mistakes in a critical review at the Middle East Quarterly. This short review from Foreign Affairs is positive and representative of the reviews from the US foreign affairs community. This critical review from Dissent Magazine particularly takes issue with Norton’s analysis of the Israeli response to Hezbollah’s first strike in what became the 2006 war.
In summary, a reader with little to no knowledge of Lebanon and very little knowledge of the Arab-Israeli conflict could use this title as a good starting point for being able to understand Hezbollah (OK, at least to be able to put Hezbollah into some context). Whatever Norton’s shortcomings, the short length of the book along with the references and recommended reading list make it a good place to start.