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Thursday, October 18, 2007

HIZBULLAH'S SPECIAL FORCES 2















November - NOX magazine

A year after Hizbullah kicked Israel in the proverbial balls, the Lebanese resistance movement has brought out a computer game for wanna-be fighters to take on the Israelis in a partial re-enactment of the 34-day war.
To find out more about Special Forces 2: The Tale of The Truthful Pledge, Hizbullah invited Nox to meet with the game’s project manager in Beirut’s southern suburbs at Bayt al Ankabout (‘House of the Spider’), a museum to the recent war that gets its name from an expression: a spider’s web is not as strong as it looks.
The bunker shaped museum is a testament to what Hizbullah’s secretary general, Sayeed Hassan Nasrallah, called the party’s Nasr min Allah (‘Victory from God’) against the Israeli invasion, proving that the Middle East’s most powerful army could be successfully resisted. As the saying goes in Lebanon, “Hizbullah won because it didn’t lose, and Israel lost because it didn’t win.”
Spoils of war litter the grounds of the ‘spider’s house’, with the entrance to the museum flanked by a partly buried Israeli tank and an artillery piece. Inside there is a brief history of the war, infamous statements by Bush, Rice, Olmert and co., pictograms of Israel’s war arsenal, photos of the conflict and its devastation, captured Israeli gear (including a bust-up iPod), and a guide to identifying Israeli army regiment badges. The pièce de la résistance of the exhibit is an Israeli tank at the bottom of a crater with a small cinema set-up around it.
Fuad Rastoum is waiting in a large, sparsely furnished security shed. A middle-aged and softly spoken man, Rastoum has the rather curious title of Executive Manager of the Hizbullah Central Internet Bureau, the department in charge of website development and creating Hizbullah’s latest computer game, which comes four years after Special Forces 1 hit the shelves.
Rastoum says the idea of developing a computer game came from a child. “It was like a flash: America is issuing games so why don’t Arab countries do it?”
Indeed. Washington has gone as far as bringing out a game, America’s Army: Empower Yourself, Defend Freedom (2002), which was deliberately aimed as recruitment tool to encourage youths to join the under-manned US armed forces. America’s Army is just one of dozens of other shoot-‘em up games in which Arabs are portrayed as the baddie-terrorist, with (take your pick) Special Forces, Delta Force, Navy Seals, the US Army etc. battling it out in what is more often than not a desert against bearded Arabs in jalabas, kaffiyehs and flip-flops. One only has to see images of Hizbullah’s fighters decked out in camouflage, night-vision goggles, and M-16s to realise that these crude generalisations are far from reality. And secondly, just for the record, Lebanon has no desert.
“If a child plays these games they grow up seeing Arabs as terrorists. We felt there should be an opposite to fight this current,” says Rastoum. “When the US invents these games it is because their mentality comes from hegemony, to control the world. They don’t believe in the independence of other countries,” he adds.

Hizbullah's Fuad Rastoum at Bayt Al Ankabout (PC).

A partly submerged Israeli tank forms part of Hizbullah's Bayt Al Ankabout exhibition in the Southern suburbs of Beirut (PC).

So why doesn’t Hizbullah produce games on other countries getting slapped around, such as through the eyes, and via the trigger fingers, of an Iraqi or Palestinian resistance fighter? Or a hypothetical game that takes on the US if Washington decides to attack Iran?
“Hizbullah has one enemy, the entity of Israel. Hizbullah doesn’t see other countries as enemies. And a game about the US attacking Iran? The Iranians could do it themselves,” he says.
Special Forces 2 however, says Rastoum, is about educating the Lebanese youth about the Israeli war machine and learning how to use resources effectively. “We want a child to grow up as a man who will not be meek before his enemy,” he says.
It is also about partly re-creating the 34-day war, and depicting southern Lebanon. A six-stage game, The Tale of The Truthful Pledge is your standard 3D shoot-‘em up and roll play scenario, set in the battlefields of last year’s war.
Photographs were taken of the major battle sites – Bint Jbeil, Taybe, and the south’s numerous valleys – and then converted to 3D graphics.
“Anyone from Bint Jbeil would recognize his town when playing the game – they can see the football pitch, the hospital…” says Rastoum.
The game starts, as the war did, with the capture of the two Israeli soldiers, once the player has fired off a rocket and secured the area to make the seizure.
One level, set in Bint Jbeil, requires the player to prevent the Israelis from placing the Israeli flag on the town’s football pitch, where Nasrallah in year’s past had given a speech. “The player then goes to the hospital to purify it from the Zionists,” says Rastoum.
A next stage is to re-enact one of Hizbullah’s most notorious stunts in the war, hitting an Israeli navy boat with a rocket. But as the navy vessel was far out at sea, Rastoum says they had to create a virtual island for the player to get to, “purify,” collect a rocket launcher and then fire at the target.
Other missions require firing off Katyusha rockets at Israeli settlements, but Rastoum says you don’t see where they strike.
Such a move was not intended to downplay the violence of the game, which was questioned by some of the foreign media.
“Questions are asked repeatedly about whether we think this game encourages violence,” says Rastoum. “Children living through the horrors here, especially last July, saw buildings hit by one-tonne bombs collapse in front of them. The Israelis are teaching the children hatred, not us.”
The game has quite clearly hit a mark with the Lebanese. In the month since the game was launched – timed to coincide with the anniversary of Harb Tamouz (the July war) on August 14 – some 25,000 copies of the $10 game have been sold and, most likely, additional thousands have been copied and sold on through Lebanon’s rampant counterfeit market.
The bureau is now working on a multi-language version of Special Forces 2 in English, French and Farsi, but internationally marketing a Hibzullah game does have its problems.
With the party designated a terrorist organization by the US government and most countries weary of being labelled “terrorist lovers,” the game has faced the same resistance as pro-Hizbullah TV channel Al Manar. The channel, which had its studios pummelled to dust last summer, is on the US Terrorist Exclusion List, and is banned on Australian, Dutch, French and Spanish satellite providers for allegedly “inciting violence”.
“Because this is a Hizbullah game we will not be allowed in the US. We will be banned for sure in other places. There are always pressures applied by Zionist organizations around the world, they are powerful,” says Rastoum.
Copies are making their way around the Middle East though, with individuals allegedly smuggling in copies to peddle to Palestinians in the beleaguered West Bank and Gaza Strip.
After all, as Rastoum says, “It’s just playing a game in a virtual world, pulling the trigger on the Israeli enemy.”

Box - Gaming in the Middle East

Hizbullah is not the only group to have brought out a computer game to take on their enemies. In 2002, Damascus-based games producer Afkar Media brought out Under Ash, which views the Palestinian Intifada through the eyes of Ahmad, a Palestinian teenager resisting the Israeli occupation. Based on reality, players have to harness their stone throwing skills.
The sequel,Tahta al-Hisar (Under the Siege), was brought out in 2005 and is based on the second Palestinian uprising. The company’s latest is Al Quraysh, a strategy game that tells the story of the first 100 years of Islam's history from the viewpoint of the Bedouins, Arabs, Persians, and Romans.
Last December, a Lebanese gamer in France known as Ziad El-Hajj brought out The Battle for the Serail, which requires players to kill soldiers, battle with militia men in the US embassy’s lobby that are supervised by political leaders Walid Jumblatt, Saad Hariri, Samir Geagea and current PM Fouad Siniora, and in the final stage storm the Lebanese parliament (Serail) and kill “all the traitors and thieves” in Siniora’s government.
Pro-government media linked Hizbullah to the game, but the party denies any involvement. “The game really hurt us somehow,” says Hizbullah’s Fuad Rastoum. “Some started blaming Hizbullah, but it is an independent thing.”
The concept of El-Hajj’s game is not that different from the Global Islamic Media Front’s 2006 free online game Quest for Bush, aka Night of Bush Capturing, where players navigate various missions that include “Jihad Growing Up,” “Americans’ Hell” and “Bush Hunted Like a Rat.” In the final stage, players fight the president. As Bush famously said in his challenge to the Iraqi resistance in 2003: “Bring it on.”

- PHOTOS BY PAUL COCHRANE

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