This is an excellent although unusual book. It interweaves Jonathan Spyer's personal experiences as an Israeli reserve-duty tank driver and citizen with his expert analyses of the radical Islamic front in the Middle East and beyond.
The starting point for Spyer is the Second Lebanon War of July-August 2006. Late in the war, his tank unit was sent into South Lebanon on an ill-defined mission. Overnight one of the tanks developed a technical malfunction and the dimwitted command was given to tow the tank back into Israel. This meant the unit could not get back across the border under cover of darkness and would be exposed to Hizballah anti-tank fire after sunrise. That's precisely what happened. The Merkhava tanks were crawling along the valley beneath el-Khiam, when a Hizballah unit accurately fired Kornet missiles at their engine vents. One crashed into the engine of Spyer's tank and the crew was able to escape. However the second tank was less lucky. The missile traversed a gap above the engine and penetrated the driver's compartment. Spyer's friend Alon Smoha was killed.
Jonathan Spyer was motivated to write this book following this and other unnecessary deaths during this ill-conceived war. Israel inflicted massive damage on Hizballah, mainly through the use of air power, but Hizballah was able to rain down huge numbers of Katyusha rockets onto northern Israel until the very end of the war and so were able to claim `victory'. Israel entered the war without an adequate strategy for coping with this threat and its ground forces had undergone inadequate training and preparation. Soldiers died as a consequence.
Spyer reserves particular vitriol for the country's leaders who had let him and his fellow soldiers down. He describes the sophisticated, cynical outlook on life epitomised by the then Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert. "We thought of the politicians and the generals, and we imagined them with their clever smiles and their winks, never quite meaning the words they said, always winking to someone just out of your sight, always cleverer, always one step ahead, the ones who really knew, the ones in control. And then we thought of ourselves, poor dolts, in ragged uniforms on the Lebanese border, with Katyusha rockets screaming overhead."
Switching to the analytical strand of the book, Spyer explains how the radical Islamism of Hizballah and its Iranian patrons emerged to fill a vacuum caused by the defeats of pan-Arab nationalism and secular Palestinian terrorism. Pan-Arab nationalism took a hammering in the wars of 1967 and 1973, at which point the baton of resistance passed to the secular Palestinian terror factions. These went into decline following the PLO's expulsion from Lebanon at the hands of the IDF in 1982. Their last attempt to force change through violence was the Second Intifada of 2000-2005, but that ran out of steam and was suppressed.
The `muqawama' (resistance) is now in the hands of radical Islamists led by Iran and its proxies, Hizballah and Hamas, along with allies such as Sudan and Syria. Iran is a Shi'ite non-Arab state so taking lead of the muqawama against Israel gives it vital legitimacy in the eyes of the Muslim Arab world. Spyer notes how a radical faction within the Iranian leadership, led by Mahmoud Ahmedinajad and backed by Ayatollah Khamenai, now controls Iran and is pursuing both an aggressive foreign policy and a determined drive for nuclear weapons.
The book has other themes too. Spyer talks about his experiences as a masters student at SOAS in London, where he was mistaken for a young Arab and invited to meetings of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an emergent radical Islamist group. Out of curiosity he went along and was able to learn first-hand about the new Islamist ideology and how it viewed the West. This ideology eventually fed through into numerous terror attacks perpetrated by young British Muslims.
A fascinating episode occurred in 2007 when Spyer was able to join a group of foreign journalists on a visit to Lebanon. It's illegal for Israelis to travel to Lebanon, which technically remains at war with Israel, so this was a somewhat foolhardy enterprise. But Spyer was powerfully drawn towards revisiting the valley below el-Khiam where his tank company fell into such dire straits. He managed to make the journey down to and across South Lebanon with a couple of young Lebanese Christians. South Lebanon is a strange land, quite detached from the rest of the country. It's ruled by Hizballah and buildings are adorned with posters of Hassan Nasrallah and the Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenai. Hizballah men with guns and fast cars rule the roost. Christians in towns like Marjayoun and villages like Deir Mimas suffer in silence. Areas surrounding these villages were cynically used by Hizballah as Katyusha launch pads in 2006, so they were hit disproportionately by Israeli retaliation.
In summary, this is a stimulating book which sheds light on the modern state of Israel and the very threatening neighbourhood it currently has to contend with. It makes clear that for protagonists like Iran, Hizballah and Hamas, the struggle against Israel has little to do with West Bank settlements, and much more to do with reversing the perceived historical humiliation of the Islamic world at the hands of Israel and the West. Spyer's research into Islamism and his encounters with Islamists themselves show that their ideas about Israel bear little relation to reality and that seems to be the heart of the problem.
Predicting the future course of events is difficult, but Spyer notes that Iran, Sudan, Hamas-led Gaza and the Hizballah enclaves of Lebanon are all unappealing places to live. They are religiously oppressive and ruled with an iron fist. This is no great advertisement and it might yet prove their greatest weakness.