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
Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah
Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah; drawing by David Levine

1.

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…


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