HEBBARIEH, Lebanon: Hussein Izzat Atwe, the man who single-handedly fired rockets at Israel last week, grew up in the Hasbaya town of Hebbarieh in south Lebanon.
He matured far from his mother’s embrace, who perished in 1977 when he was only 9. She was killed by an Israeli shell during the holy month of Ramadan. Some years later, he would be a prisoner of the Jewish state, having sworn to avenge his mother’s death and those of other southerners who had fallen prey to Israeli strikes.
Hebbarieh is one of several towns known to have fought alongside Palestinian militants against the Israeli occupation, and has enjoyed political diversity, overshadowed by the historical presence of al-Jamaa al-Islamiya, to which Atwe belongs, and leftist forces including the Lebanese Communist Party.
During the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon from 1982 to 2000, a number of Hebbarieh’s men were imprisoned in Israeli jails.
Some of them spent up to 10 years in the infamous Khiam prison. Atwe was one of them.
An academic and spiritual leader, he fired rockets at the Jewish state last week, as Israel launched an air offensive against the Gaza Strip, killing over 170.
Lebanese Army Intelligence found traces of six rockets in the village of Mari in Hasbaya, three of which had been fired toward Israel. Only one projectile was reported to have landed in Israel, according to its army.
Sources told The Daily Star that a sixth rocket had failed to fire and exploded, wounding Atwe, who was arrested by the Internal Security Forces in Al-Bire Hospital, where he was receiving treatment for severe burns.
Atwe’s brother Sheikh Abdel-Hakim said his brother, a university professor and the imam at a mosque, was aware of his actions and only wished to help Palestinians.
“The aim behind this operation was to help the residents of Gaza, after he saw the remains of children and the destruction of homes and what the Israeli enemy was committing – massacres and human rights violations,” Abdel-Hakim told The Daily Star.
“He wanted to offer something to the people in Gaza, and he carried out this act with that aim.”
According to Abdel-Hakim, Atwe was raised to believe in the resistance, as towns in south Lebanon have been historically subjected to Israeli violations.
The brothers’ grandfather was a revolutionary who stood up against the French during the mandate years, and their paternal uncle had died fighting them. Their father was a defender of Arab causes and opposed the actions of the Israeli state.
Atwe was a member of Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya and its military wing, the Fajr Brigades, which was formed in Sidon in response to the Israeli invasion of 1982.
He conducted a series of reconnaissance operations at the time, and was arrested by Israel and sent to Khiam prison. He was released soon after, however, because of his young age.
“Hussein had forged a strong relationship with Hezbollah at an early age because he was fighting the Jews, and he was something of a military guide in the area, and participated in 2006,” Abdel-Hakim said, adding that Atwe was not sectarian by nature.
Photo albums show Atwe training with al-Jamaa al-Islamiya. Residents take pride in one photo in particular. It shows him posing with the assassinated Hamas leader Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi in 1992, a time when over 400 Palestinians had been ejected from their lands and had settled in the Bekaa Valley town of Marj al-Zouhour.
Atwe would often visit them and offer his services.
As an academic, having studied ethics at university and earning both a Master’s degree and a doctorate, he would keep his gun close by, ready to fight the Israeli state, his brother told The Daily Star.
“He was able to work in all fields, as an academic and a university professor, a sheikh, an orator and a military trainer. His main concern was Al-Aqsa Mosque [in Palestine] and liberating the Shebaa Farms and the Kfar Shuba Hills from the Zionist enemy,” Abdel-Hakim said.
His master’s thesis was about psychological warfare during the life of the Prophet Mohammad.
Abdel-Hakim says that on the morning the rockets were launched, neither he nor his family were made aware of his brother’s plans.
“He was eating with us during iftar and then left, and we didn’t see him until later, at the hospital. This was a secret operation.”
While Atwe was expert enough to train others in rocket launching, something had gone wrong that morning, Abdel-Hakim explained.
The family cannot visit him unless they obtain permission from the military court. Atwe’s file was transferred to lawyer Tarek Shandab.
While the family has not received any calls from Hezbollah, they received the support of Sheikh Bilal Shaaban, secretary-general of the Islamic Tawhid Movement, Abdel-Hakim said.
“ Lebanon is a nation that has been subject to Israeli aggression since the latter occupied Palestine, and some of its land is still occupied, so it is the Lebanese people’s right, according to the ministerial statement, to resist the Israeli enemy,” he said, adding that the government should praise individuals like his brother, rather than imprison them.