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In Search of Hezbollah-II

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: Mundane Politics vs. Extremist Ideals

a paper byAugustus Richard Norton
Council on Foreign Relations, 1999


A visitor trying to discover who controls Lebanon’s south, the heartland of Lebanese Shiism, soon finds that Hezbollah flags fly from the wreckage of demolished tanks abandoned by the Israeli army when it withdrew from Lebanon in 2000. The smiling face of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the prominent Shiite cleric who is Hezbollah’s political leader, is ubiquitous, and posters of Hezbollah’s “martyrs”—guerrilla soldiers who died fighting Israeli occupation troops—hang from utility poles along the main roads. These images are sometimes accompanied by detailed descriptions of the fighters’ final “operations”—guerrilla ambushes on Israeli troops and military installations, occasionally in the form of suicide bombings. (Although Hezbollah is notorious for having developed suicide bomb attacks in the 1980s, the group has used the tactic sparingly, unlike Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The last known Hezbollah suicide attack in southern Lebanon was in 1995).1

But “Hezbollahland” is more than a shrine to Shiite martyrdom. It is also central to the party’s efforts to increase its following through civic activities, the promotion of Islam, and charitable work. Jihad al-Bina, the party’s Iranian-subsidized construction company, has repaired thousands of houses destroyed by Israeli raids in southern Lebanon. And though the region remains poor, its economy is slowly improving, thanks to support from Iran and donations from well-to-do Shiites. The arid hills are now dotted by white mansions, built by Shiites who made their fortunes in Africa and the Gulf states and who have returned home, many of them pouring money into Hezbollah’s large welfare system.

At least 100,000 Lebanese children attend Hezbollah-run schools, and several hundred thousand Lebanese (including a significant number of Christians who live in predominantly Shiite areas) receive health care in Hezbollah’s four hospitals and fifty health clinics. As many as half a million Lebanese—Palestinians in several of Lebanon’s miserable refugee camps among them—get their drinking water from water tanks provided by Hezbollah. And an estimated 35,000 to 50,000 Lebanese Shiites work on farms and in small businesses, shopping malls, hospitals, and other enterprises run by Hezbollah. For many of these people, Hezbollah is also a source of interest- free business loans and advice on everything from child-rearing to the cultivation of olives.

Hezbollah’s ideology of permanent resistance and martyrdom can be found in these social programs in both subtle and more pronounced ways. The Hezbollah-run Hospital of the Martyr Salah Ghandour in Bint Jbeil, for example, is named after a Hezbollah fighter who in 1995 drove a car rigged with explosives into an Israeli convoy, killing himself and twelve Israeli soldiers; at the hospital’s main entrance there are two buckets for donations labeled “services” and “resistance,” respectively. In Hezbollah’s fifty state-approved secondary schools, which are mostly in the south and the Bekaa Valley, Lebanese youths are instructed in party doctrine and play games designed to reenact Hezbollah battles against Israeli soldiers in south Lebanon.

Unlike the madrasas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the curriculum includes a solid grounding in the sciences, social studies, and to some extent literature. (As Sami Hajjar has noted in “Hizballah: Terrorism, National Liberation, or Menace?,” Hezbollah has a high regard for Western advances in science and technology, and some of its members are “graduates” of Western schools who “use their knowledge in the service of the party’s social, medical, and information activities.”) But students also spend four to five hours each week learning about the pillars of Islam as interpreted by Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei, and there is an emphasis on jihad, both spiritual and military. Some children take part in Hezbollah parades. In all these activities, the Israeli withdrawal is presented as a historic defeat by Hezbollah’s Islamic resistance—a defeat that has empowered the Shiite community as never before.

For the first time, the Shiites here feel they have some power,” said my translator, a Palestinian Christian woman who is a Lebanese citizen and was educated in the United States. The biggest irony of the long civil war between Shiites, Sunnis, and Christians, she said, is that the most oppressed people have emerged with the most political power. “We used to laugh at the Shia. We saw them as riff-raff,” she said. “Well, look who’s had the last laugh.”

As a result of its political gains, Hezbollah now has a growing stake in the stability of southern Lebanon. Timur Göksel, a retired UN official in Beirut who was senior adviser and spokesman of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon for twenty-four years, thinks that Nasrallah is aware that Hezbollah’s survival in the future depends on its electoral success, and that “he’s not going to play with fire” by dragging Israel into a war that neither Syria nor Iran wants him to fight. Nevertheless, Göksel adds, the passion for battle runs high among Hezbollah fighters in the south.

Hezbollah depends on volunteer fighters to staff its military wing in southern Lebanon. Although the party also enlists new members through its schools and party organizations, the main places of recruitment are local mosques. Some Lebanese Shia join Hezbollah as early as age fifteen, and would-be recruits must show a high degree of intelligence, zeal, discipline, and motivation. Once a volunteer fighter has joined the military force, he receives training in guerrilla warfare and other military skills from Hezbollah leaders. There have been reports in the Western press, and by anti-Syrian Lebanese Christians with ties to the Israel lobby in Washington, of large Hezbollah training camps in southern Lebanon and elsewhere. But most Hezbollah experts I have spoken with say that much of the training takes place underground—in basements, caves, and in the mountains—through small, highly mobile units, to avoid detection by Israeli intelligence. In a recent article in the Daily Star, an English-language newspaper in Beirut, Nicholas Blanford, a journalist who has covered Hezbollah for many years, noted that “Hezbollah long ago abandoned its training camps in the Bekaa to deny targets to the Israeli Air Force.”

In addition to reminding Israel that “the resistance” is alive, Hezbollah’s intermittent attacks along the Israeli border provide these young recruits with an opportunity to fight. For the most part, their actions are aimed at the small patch of disputed border territory—called Shebaa Farms—still held by Israel. Covering about ten square kilometers near the Lebanon–Syria border, Shebaa Farms has remained in dispute since the Israeli withdrawal. Israel says it is Syrian territory that will only be returned in a comprehensive peace settlement with Syria; Hezbollah and Syria maintain that it belongs to Lebanon.2

But Hezbollah has also launched rocket attacks in response to Israeli operations in the Occupied Territories. At the height of the Israeli invasion of the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank in 2002, Hezbollah fired rockets into northern Israel. It recently did so again, following the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and may mount another attack should Israel take military action against Syria as Sharon has threatened.3 And if Israel assassinates one of Hezbollah’s leaders or another prominent leader of Hamas or Islamic Jihad,4 or proceeds with Sharon’s recently announced plan to build nine hundred new houses in the Golan Heights, Hezbollah’s activities on the Israeli border could become more intense. At least some Hezbollah fighters say they would welcome a new offensive. My Hezbollah guide in the south, a lean, rugged man who fought the Israeli army for seventeen years, told me: “When I’m late coming home for dinner, my wife no longer has to worry that I’ve become a martyr. But I miss those days. There was a real joy in fighting together.” As for now, he says, “We’re just waiting for Sharon to make a mistake. We are ready.”

Thanks to Ariel Sharon, who masterminded the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and to Ehud Barak, who ordered Israel’s withdrawal, Hezbollah now controls Lebanon’s border with Israel. Hezbollah’s recent prisoner exchange with Israel, in which the party secured the release of 429 Arab political prisoners, including 400 Palestinians, in exchange for returning a single Israeli hostage and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers kidnapped in December 2000, showed how important this control continues to be. To the astonishment of many Israelis, Sharon’s cabinet approved the exchange, even though it did not include the body of a fourth soldier, Captain Ron Arad, a pilot whose plane was shot down by the Amal militia, a rival Shiite group, in 1986, and whose capture was arranged by Mustafa Dirani, one of the prisoners released by Israel. Israel’s interest in Arad may provide Nasrallah a means to obtain the release of yet another prisoner, Samir Qantar, a Lebanese Druze serving a 542-year sentence for killing three Israeli civilians during a 1979 raid in northern Israel.5 Despite the recent hostilities between Hezbollah and the Israeli military on the border, Qantar’s case is now “under review,” and he is expected to be released by Israel later this year in exchange for new information about Arad. (The negotiations are being handled principally by Iran, which also hopes to get back the remains of four Iranian diplomats abducted by the Israeli-backed Phalange in Beirut in 1982.)

Shortly after the kidnappings in October 2000, the Israeli army built a large military outpost at Sheikh Abad on the border with Lebanon. It is covered in layers of coiled barbed wire, through which it is all but impossible to see the soldiers inside. On the day I visited the Hezbollah encampment just opposite, there was a strong wind, and the flags of Israel and Hezbollah almost touched. A young Hezbollah fighter wearing a Calvin Klein shirt and jeans and carrying a walkie-talkie manned his post. He looked bored but insisted he wasn’t. “Would you like to throw a stone?” he said, referring to the popular Lebanese activity of throwing stones at the Israeli side.

But Hezbollah has more than stones at its disposal. The group has hidden an unknown number of Iranian-made Katyusha rockets, perhaps as many as nine thousand, throughout south-ern Lebanon. Some of these rockets reportedly have enough range to reach Israel’s industrial center at Haifa. Israel has said that it will not tolerate the continued presence of Hezbollah or its arsenal along the border. The official reason they give is that the Israeli government fears unprovoked rocket attacks on Israel’s northern settlements. But analysts suggest that Hezbollah has also developed enough firepower to become a factor in Israel’s own military strategy toward Syria and Iran, which have come under increasing threat since September 11. As Amir Oren, a military affairs columnist for Haaretz, points out, “Hezbollah’s rockets have a deterrent effect. They create a balance of ter-ror on the entire northern border of Israel.”

So far, clashes between Hezbollah and Israel since the Israeli withdrawal in 2000 have resulted in only four civilian casualties (one Israeli, three Lebanese).6 For the hostilities that do take place, it is a case of reciprocal, painstakingly calibrated combat that one Lebanese analyst described to me as a “complex poker game.” That dangerous game has “rules” that both parties have for the most part respected since 1996, when the so-called “April Understanding” was reached between Israel and Lebanon, in consultation with Syria and then United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher acting as broker. The parties were hastily brought together following Israel’s “Operation Grapes of Wrath,” a fifteen-day raid into Lebanon in response to Hezbollah rocket attacks in northern Israel. Some 400,000 Lebanese were displaced during the raid, and 154 civilians were killed—100 of them in Israel’s shelling of a UN base in the ancient village of Qana.7 The agreement, which was not signed, called for a cease-fire on the Israel– Lebanon border and urged both parties to avoid attacking civilians. (Although Hezbollah was not party to the talks, it agreed to “honor” the accord.) These stipulations complemented a cease-fire agreement between Israel and Syria that had been in effect since 1974.

  1. 1

    Christoph Reuter, in My Life Is a Weapon, cites a 1999 count by the Israeli army, according to which out of 1,500 Hezbollah military operations in the 1990s, only one was a suicide attack, although Jane’s Foreign Report has recently suggested that Hezbollah may have collaborated with Hamas for the first time in a joint suicide attack last year on a seaside restaurant in Tel Aviv. See Jane’s Foreign Report, March 25, 2004.

  2. 2

    See the first part of this article in The New York Review, April 29, 2004. The Shebaa Farms are a thin, unpopulated strip near the Golan Heights of almost no strategic value, comprising less than 2 percent of Lebanon’s land mass—if, in fact, they even belong to Lebanon. The farms were under Syrian control when they were captured in 1967, and though an Israeli demographer, Asher Kaufman, has shown that residents paid their taxes in Lebanon during the French Mandate, few Lebanese remember it was ever theirs. Syria, for its part, insists that Shebaa is Lebanese, so that Hezbollah can continue fighting Israel on its behalf.

  3. 3

    According to a report in the Israeli paper Yediot Aharonot, June 6, 2002, Sharon told Colin Powell that Israel may have to “send Syria back to the Stone Age.”

  4. 4

    At a well-attended memorial service for Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in Beirut’s southern suburbs, Nasrallah—standing beside Hamas’s Damascus-based leader Khaled Meshaal—declared: “We are under your [Hamas’s] command. I say to our brothers in Palestine: We in Lebanon are with you. Be sure that your blood is our blood and your sheikh is our sheikh. We share the same destiny and this means that our fight is one.”

  5. 5

    Haaretz has covered the Qantar case extensively. See especially Ze’ev Schiff, “Bend It Like Hezbollah,” January 25, 2004, and Zvi Bar’el’s many articles on the subject.

  6. 6

    Israel has also alleged that Hezbollah organized the March 12, 2002, ambush by Palestinian guerrillas on a settlement in northern Israel that killed six Israelis, but the attack was claimed by the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

  7. 7

    While Israel insisted that the bombing of Qana was a mistake, a comprehensive UN report concluded otherwise.

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