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In Search of Hezbollah

Hizbollah: Rebel Without a Cause?

by the International Crisis Group
a briefing paper, July 30, 2003

Should Hezbollah Be Next?

by Daniel Byman
Foreign Affairs, November/December 2003

Hizballah of Lebanon: Extremist Ideals vs. Mundane Politics

a paper by Augustus Richard Norton
Council on Foreign Relations, 1999

Hizballah: Terrorism, National Liberation, or Menace?

a report by Sami G. Hajjar
Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, August 2002


Beirut used to be known as the Paris of the Middle East, and in the well-to-do Christian and Sunni quarters of the city, the capital of Lebanon still manages to cast a spell. The central business district—a battleground on the dividing line between Christian East Beirut and Muslim West Beirut during the Lebanese civil war—has been rebuilt by a construction firm whose largest shareholder is Lebanon’s prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, a billionaire entrepreneur. The cafés are thick with smoke and conversation in Arabic, English, and French, techno music blares from clubs until four in the morning, and everywhere there are women in miniskirts. The old, pre-war Beirut, the sophisticated world where it mattered to people to be seen, seems to have been resurrected.

But “Haririgrad,” as downtown Beirut is sometimes called, is hardly representative of the country. If you take a ten-minute drive to the city’s southern suburbs, a series of dingy, overcrowded slums, you will see another country, where hejabs are more common than miniskirts, liquor is hard to find, and you’re less likely to see posters of Prime Minister Hariri than of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the forty-four-year-old secretary-general of Hezbollah, the Party of God. A prominent Shiite cleric, shrewd militia leader, and political strategist, Nasrallah is admired throughout the Arab world for leading a campaign of resistance to Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon, which ended in May 2000, and for his successful dealings with the Israeli government. Most recently, after three years of on-and-off negotiations through a German mediator, Nasrallah persuaded Ariel Sharon to hand over 429 prisoners, as well as the bodies of fifty-nine Hezbollah fighters killed in combat, in exchange for freeing an Israeli businessman kidnapped by Hezbollah and returning the remains of three Israeli soldiers killed in Lebanon. The deal sparked a day of national celebration in Lebanon, and has been seen by some as a vindication of Hezbollah’s use of violence for political leverage.

Most of the residents of southern Beirut, where Nasrallah has his headquarters, are Shiites, who account for 40 percent of Lebanon’s population, outnumbering both Christians and Sunnis. Until the 1960s, Lebanon’s Shiites were a neglected, invisible community, oppressed by feudal landlords and disdained by their fellow Lebanese. Today, they are a rising political force, thanks in large part to the militant political movement Hezbollah. It is now a virtual state-within-a-state, with an army of several thousand men, an extensive social service network, a popular satellite television station called al-Manar (“the Beacon of Light”), and an annual budget in excess of $100 million, much of which comes from Iran, Hezbollah’s major patron.

The movement first emerged during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, in which between twelve and nineteen thousand Lebanese died, most of them civilians and many of them Shiites. Militant followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini, Hezbollah’s original cadres were organized and trained by a 1,500-member contingent of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, who arrived in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in the summer of 1982, with the permission of the Syrian government. For Iran, whose efforts to spread the Islamic revolution to the Arab world had been stymied by its war with Iraq, Hezbollah provided a means of gaining a foothold in Middle East politics.

Syria’s vehemently secular leader Hafez Assad, for his part, had no affection for Hezbollah’s religious ideology but keenly grasped its potential as a proxy militia. For Syria, whose principal goal has been to reclaim the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 war, Hezbollah is the only “card” it has to pressure its far more powerful neighbor. Unlike the leftist Lebanese forces that, until that point, had led the resistance to the Israelis, Hezbollah guerrillas could not be penetrated by Israeli intelligence. And in their discipline and willingness to die for their cause they had few rivals, as the world was to discover the following year, when members of the clandestine “Islamic Resistance” (a precursor to Hezbollah, which did not yet officially exist) launched a series of terrifying suicide attacks in Lebanon against American, French, and Israeli targets.

Following the bombings, the Western forces made a fast exit from Beirut; in 1985, faced with fierce resistance from Hezbollah fighters, Israel withdrew to a so-called security zone, a strip of territory along Lebanon’s southern border that soon became known as its “insecurity zone.” Over the next fifteen years, Hezbollah waged an efficient, disciplined, and popular guerrilla war against the Israeli military.

In May 2000, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak decided to bring an end to an occupation that had cost more than one thousand Israeli lives, and ordered a unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon. The withdrawal did not include a formal peace agreement with Lebanon, and the Israeli army continued to occupy the patch of border territory called the Shebaa Farms, which Hezbollah regards as part of Lebanon. But Lebanese Shiites (as well as a number of Barak’s Israeli critics) saw the withdrawal as a major Hez- bollah victory—“the first Arab victory in the history of Arab-Israeli conflict,” as Hezbollah often proclaims.1 It is an event that has helped make Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, one of the most important men in Lebanon.

Hezbollah now has some 100,000 supporters, about half of whom are party members. When Nasrallah raises his voice, the Lebanese pay close attention to what he says, whether or not they like him. Bashar Assad, Syria’s young leader and Hezbollah’s other major sponsor, is said to revere him.2 Although Nasrallah depends on Iranian arms and Syria’s support for his military operations, he has achieved a significant degree of autonomy from both parties, which may complicate future efforts to disband it. Hezbollah, which adheres to the principle of wilayat al-faqih, or rule by the Islamic jurist, regards Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as its ultimate leader, and maintains close ties to Iran’s leadership, especially to the hard-line clerics who helped organize the party in the early 1980s.3 It was Khamenei who reportedly influenced Hezbollah’s decision to maintain its armed wing rather than devote all its energies to Lebanese politics after Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000. But Hezbollah has long ceased to be an Iranian-controlled militia. (The last remaining Revolutionary Guards left the Bekaa Valley in 1998.) Although Hezbollah is believed to coordinate foreign policy matters with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the Lebanese and Western experts I’ve talked to say it reaches most of its everyday decisions without consulting Iran. Moreover, they say, Khamenei has never overruled Nasrallah.

Syria’s control of Hezbollah has also declined, and it is widely believed that Bashar Assad—a weak, inexperienced leader who has inherited his father’s airs but not his authority—depends more on Nasrallah’s “endorsement” than Nasrallah does on his support. For, in the eyes of many Arabs, Hezbollah has succeeded where Syria, which has long prided itself on being a redoubtable opponent of Israeli ambitions, has failed: in defeating Israel on the battlefield. Nasrallah is one of the most resourceful adversaries Israel has ever faced, and his successful guerrilla war against Israel in southern Lebanon has strongly impressed Palestinians and made him a hero in the Occupied Territories, particularly in the refugee camps.

Although Lebanese Shiites have often regarded the Palestinian population in southern Lebanon with suspicion, Hezbollah’s ties to Palestinian groups go back more than a decade. In late 1992, Israel expelled to Lebanon 415 leading members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and during the following year, they received training from Hezbollah in both combat strategies and the ideology of martyrdom. In the 1980s, Hezbollah had endorsed suicide attacks as a legitimate and efficient resistance strategy—and some experts argue that the group helped introduce the technique to Israel in 1993, while the exiled Palestinian extremists were in Lebanon.4

More recently, Nasrallah has deepened his party’s involvement in the second intifada. Hezbollah has offered logistical support and training in the use of explosives and anti-tank missiles to Palestinian extremists, particularly members of Islamic Jihad, and has attempted to smuggle arms into the Occupied Territories to various groups, from the Palestinian Authority to Hamas.5 In June 2002, shortly after the Israeli government launched Operation Defensive Shield, which culminated in the invasion of the Jenin refugee camp, Nasrallah gave a speech in which he defended and praised suicide bombings of Israeli targets by members of Palestinian groups for “creating a deterrence and equalizing fear.” Although he did not claim that Hezbollah had been directly involved in the attacks, he said, “We [Hezbollah] are trying to find a way for this weapon to become more developed, effective, and capable, leading the resistance movement in Palestine to a new and exceptional phase.” He continued, “This weapon is today the most powerful weapon the Palestinian people…could ever have.” Israeli officials have also alleged that Hezbollah is recruiting Israeli Arabs and trying to organize Iranian-funded terrorist cells in Palestine known as the Return Brigades, though no attacks have been tied to such a group.

Nasrallah’s struggle with Israel did not end with the withdrawal of Israeli troops. On March 22, hours after the Israeli assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, Hezbollah demonstrated its solidarity with the Palestinian group by firing more than sixty-five rockets at six different Israeli military positions in the occupied Shebaa Farms. The Israeli air force responded by sending warplanes into Lebanon and firing at suspected Hezbollah bases, reportedly foiling in one case a second Hezbollah rocket attack. According to Haaretz, the Israeli Defense Force has also placed Nasrallah, along with Yasser Arafat, on a list of targets for future assassinations.

Hezbollah has vigorously responded to other Israeli activity along the border. In January, a month after Israeli commandos killed two Lebanese men who had wandered into Israeli territory, Hezbollah guerrillas fired on an Israeli bulldozer which had crossed several yards into Lebanese territory to dismantle roadside bombs, and killed one Israeli soldier. As the Lebanese scholar Amal Saad-Ghorayeb underscores in her perceptive new book, Hizbu’llah: Politics and Ideology, Hezbollah views the conflict with Israel as “‘an existential struggle’ as opposed to ‘a conflict over land.’” In the words of Sheikh Naim Qasim, Hezbollah’s deputy secretary-general, “Even if hundreds of years pass by, Israel’s existence will continue to be an illegal existence.”

Although Hezbollah has denounced attacks on Western civilians—Nawaf al-Musawi, the party’s foreign minister, told me in no uncertain terms that he viewed September 11 as an act of terrorism—it makes an exception in the case of Israel. As Nasrallah puts it, “in occupied Palestine there is no difference between a soldier and a civilian, for they are all invaders, occupiers and usurpers of the land.” When Nasrallah was asked whether he was prepared to live with a two-state settlement between Israel and Palestine, he said in interviews with both Seymour Hersh and me that he would not sabotage what is finally a “Palestinian matter.”6 But until such a settlement is reached, he will, he said, continue to encourage Palestinian suicide bombers. Israel has found him to be a credible, although exasperatingly tough, negotiator. (Nasrallah has voiced similar respect for Israeli leaders, praising their determination to get back their soldiers’ remains. “These values are our values too,” he told his followers after the recent prisoner exchange.) It is clear, on the other hand, that he thrives on ambiguity about his intentions toward Israel, and enjoys the confusion it sows across Lebanon’s southern border.

  1. 1

    See, for example, “Hezbollah 2, Israel 0,” by Israel’s former defense minister Moshe Arens, Haaretz, February 16, 2004. “It is Hezbollah’s second victory over Israel,” Arens wrote of the recent prisoner exchange. “Its first victory over Israel was when Ehud Barak decided to pull the IDF out of southern Lebanon.”

  2. 2

    By contrast, Bashar’s father, the late dictator Hafez Assad, held Hezbollah officials at arm’s length, punishing them harshly when they defied his wishes. In 1987, when Hezbollah refused to hand over its bases in West Beirut to Syria, Syrian troops killed twenty-three Hezbollah fighters.

  3. 3

    According to the International Crisis Group, in its briefing paper “Hizbollah: Rebel Without a Cause?,” the Lebanese cleric Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah was considered Hezbollah’s spiritual leader through the early 1990s but has distanced himself from the party’s leadership in recent years. Fadlallah, who was the first cleric in the Islamic world to condemn publicly the attacks of September 11, is believed to agree with Hezbollah on most political issues but diverges on religious doctrine. According to some reports, he has emerged as a rival to Hezbollah for influence in the Lebanese Shiite community, although some experts believe he remains a mentor to members of Hezbollah.

  4. 4

    According to Christoph Reuter in My Life Is a Weapon, the first suicide attack in Israel took place in April 1993. Jessica Stern also suggests Hezbollah taught suicide bombing to the Palestinians in Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill (Ecco, 2003), p. 47.

  5. 5

    In 2002, Israel intercepted a ship carrying arms that had embarked from Iran with a Hezbollah-trained crew, the so-called Karine A shipment; Hezbollah agents have also tried to smuggle wea-pons into the West Bank via Jordan.

  6. 6

    Seymour Hersh, “The Syrian Bet,” The New Yorker, July 28, 2003.

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