Hezbollah, Arabic for “Party of God”, is also known as Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine, the Organization of the Oppressed on Earth and as the Revolutionary Justice Organization (Global Security, p. 1). Hezbollah (also Hizbullah and Hizballah) is a Lebanese social, political and paramilitary organization founded in 1982. Hezbollah’s historical and political background was the Israeli Defense Force’s presence in Lebanon (1982-2000), the Lebanese Civil War (1979-1990) and the plight of Arab Palestinians, many of whom had fled to Lebanon, where their presence “changed the historical balance between Muslims and Christians” (Bennett, 2005, p. 214).
In the war, Lebanon’s various religious communities vied for power and Hezbollah was established as by Shi’a to strengthen their traditionally weak political position, with help from Iran and Syria. Committed to making Lebanon an Islamic state, to the liberation of Israeli occupied territory (which it claims means dismantling the Israeli state) Hezbollah was named a terrorist organization by the USA in 1994.
One scholar describes the organization, which has seats in Parliament and in the Cabinet, runs a large social welfare program, as “a moderate, mainstream political party” (Harik, 2007, p. xiv). Harik says that Hezbollah “is considered a legitimate resistance force all over the Arab and Muslim worlds” (p. 7). Azani discusses Hezbollah as a “social protest movement” (2009, p. 1). This raises the question whether the US is correct to label Hezbollah a “terror organization” and why it does so? Harik says that no one has ever proved that Hezbollah has ever attacked a civilian (p. xiv) or that it was responsible for attacks on US personnel (p. 193). In responding to these questions, what follows examines the history of the organizations, its aims, programs and activities and why the US regards it as a terrorist organization.
The Shi’a in Lebanon
Modern Lebanon was created after World War I, when the Great Powers defeated the Ottoman Empire and divided the Middle East among themselves as League of Nations mandates. These newly created states were to be given independence when they were considered ready for self-determination. The Lebanon became a French mandate. Lebanon was religiously diverse, with Christians in a small majority, followed by Sunni Muslims, followed by the Shi’a. Under four centuries of Ottoman rule, the Shi’a were suspected being Iran’s fifth column. Consequently, the community was “impoverished and underdeveloped” (Norton, 2009, p. 12).
Under the French, an attempt was made to share power between the main communities. The Marionite were given the Presidency, the Sunni the office of Prime Minister, which left the Shi’a with the Speakership, a “position with far weaker constitutional powers” (Norton, p. 12). This was based on the 1932 census, which, says Norton, was “the last official census ever conducted in Lebanon” (p. 12). This arrangement continued after independence in 1943. The Shi’a community in Beirut was very small; most lived in the south and in the Beqaa valley. Azani says that the “political awakening” of the Shi’a began in the 1960s and 1970s, led by Imam Musa al-Sadr, “a Shiite cleric with the characteristics of a religious and political leader.”
Born in Iran to a Lebanse family he studied at the great centers of Shi’a learning (p. 48). From 1959, al-Sadr was Mufti of Tyre and “in less than two decades he succeeded, with strenuous activity, charisma and high rhetorical ability, in organizing the Shi’a community, characterized for hundreds of years by passivity and isolationalism, and in mobilizing it into collective activity for the realization of social and political goals” (pp. 48-49). The influx of Palestinian refugees into South Lebanon upset the traditional power of the Shi’a elite in the region.
The increasing politicization of Shi’a leaders in Iran impacted their role in Lebanon. From the 1970s, the number and influence of clerics increased, with al-Sadr and the future founder of Hezbollah, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, leading a movement that wanted to bring about an Islamic revolution in Lebanon, following the Iranian revolution of 1979.
The Lebanese Civil War and the founding of Hezbollah
On the one hand, the Shi’a in Lebanon were finding their political voice, encouraged by co-religionists in Iran. On the other hand, the security situation in Lebanon was deteriorating. The tradition of good relations between communities was breaking down with Christians being depicted as pro-Israeli, while Muslims were aligned with the Palestinian cause. April 13, 1973 a Christian paramilitary group ambushed a Palestinian bus in retaliation for the killing of a Christian earlier that day (Bennett, 2005, pp. 213-5).
Fighting began between different communities, Sunni, Christian, Druze and Shi’a. In 1976, unable to stop the fighting the President asked the Syrians and other Arab leaders to “end the war.” Bennett remarks that as a result of the civil war, the word “Shia” entered the Western vocabulary (p. 215). The revolution in Iran would reinforce the word’s presence in the media. It was in the context of the civil war that Hezbollah was founded. The Palestinian Liberation Army was raiding Israel from across the border. Al-Sdar mysteriously disappeared in August 1978 (Norton, 2009, p. 29). This led to Israel invading Lebanon in June 1982, and to Hezbollah’s formation.
From the start, committed to liberating Palestine, Hezbollah also raided across the border. However, its immediate aim was to end Israel’s presence in Lebanon. Between spring 1983 and the summer of 1985, Hezbollah “launched an unprecedented wave of suicide bombings which included an attack on the US Embassy and US Marine branches in Beirut in October 1983 and the US Embassy annex in Beirut in September, 1984” followed by the taking of Western hostages, according to Global Security (p. 1).
Hezbullah’s Aims and Structure
The organization’s Consultative Council has 12 senior scholars at its head and a Directing Council under its Secretary-General.. The organization’s charter sets out three objectives:
1. to expel the Americans, the French and their allies definitely from Lebanon, putting an end to any colonial entity.
2. to submit the Phalanges [Christian militia] to a just power and bring them all to justice for the crimes they have committed against Muslims and Christians.
3. to permit all the sons of [Lebanese] people to determine their future and to choose in all liberty the form of government they desire. [Hezbollah] call[s] upon them all to pick the option of an Islamic government, which alone is capable of guaranteeing justice and liberty for all. Only an Islamic regime can stop any further attempts at imperialist infiltration (Richardson, 2006, pp. 83-4).
Hezbollah and Israel
From 1978, a UN force was deployed in Lebanon to oversee the withdrawal of Israeli forces under Security Council Resolution 425. However, it was not until 2000 that Israeli troops were completely withdrawn. Until then, Hezbollah carried out attacks on Israelis targets. After the withdrawal, Israeli continued to launch missile strikes and raids into Lebanon and Hezbullah “in retaliation, launched rocket attacks in Northern Israel on an almost regular basis” (Bajpai, 2006, p. 594). According to Global Security, Hezbollah “operates against Israel in four main way”:
1. brimging terrorists and collaborators through the border crossings usinf foreign documents.
2. setting up a terrorist organization inside Israel and Judea, Samaria and the Gaza strip.
3. cross-border operations – smuggling weapons and terrorists
4. financial support for Palestinian organixzations and groups.
Others do not use the word “terrorist” but represent Hezbullah’s activities as legitimate resistance to Israel, which has defied UN Resolutions to withdraw from all occupied territory. Bajpai writes, “even after its formal withdrawal from Southern Lebanon in 2000, Israel engaged in frequent military incursions” (p. 594). In 2004, the UN called for the disbanding and disarming of all Lebanese militia (Resolution 1559). However, in the elections of 2005, Hizbollah won 14 seats (out of 128), and was awarded 2 cabinet posts.
By 2008, Hizbollah had eleven out of thirty cabinet seats (Council on Foreign Relations, p. 1). In the 2009 election, it lost a seat but still received 10 seats in the 30 members Cabinet. Hartik says that Christians have supported Hezbollah, which makes it harder for “its enemies to float the fundamentalist stereotype of a raging gang of religious fanatics whose main aim was to put enemies of the faith to the sword” (p. 79).
Other Christians are outspoken in criticizing Hezbollah as the stooge of Syria and Iran and as setting itself up as a state within the state (Azani, p. 231). As well as carrying out military or terrorist action, depending on the commentator’s perspective, it spends millions on welfare and education work, funded by Iran. In 2006, Hezbollah’s operatives crossed the Israeli border and captured two IDF soldiers. This came a month after Palestinian operatives had captured an Israeli soldier (Global Security, p. 1). In response, a 34-day war followed during which Israel launched air strikes, killing “56 citizens including 37 children” (Bajpai, 594). As a result of this war and Hezbollah’s resistance, its popularity within the Muslim world increased.
The war ended with a UN brokered cease-fire and another Resolution calling for the disarming of all militia. Hezbullah did succeed in preventing a full-scale invasion. The Global Security report on Hezbollah states that in addition to funding from Iran and help from Syria, the organizatuon engaged in fund-raising around the world (p. 2). The report makes no mention of its extensive social program but the Council on Foreign Relations however describes it as a “major provider of social services” (Council on Foreign Relations, p 1.)
Acts Attributed to Hezbullah
In addition to the acts mentioned above, according to CFR, Hezbollah lists the 1985 hijacking of TWA flight 847 and the attacks in Argentine on the Israeli Embassy (1992) and on a Jewish community center (1994). Azani refers to links with other organizations across the globe. He lists an attempt to destroy US ships in Singapore in 1995 and arrests of members in 1997 for planning an attack in a US Embassy. The 9/11 Report said that Al-Qaeda operatives train at Hezbollah camps (p. 203). He refers to other arrests made in 1999 and in 2001 when plans to attack targets in South and North America were foiled. He says that the global network is spread across forty countries and every continent, including Europe where activists have also been arrested.
In Germany, two charities funding the organization were shut down (p. 205). However, Hartik points out that while Western attention focuses on its “guerilla activities” in the Lebanon it is social welfare activities that attract support, making it in her view a “mainstream” organization. It has achieved more in this field, she says, than any other party (p. 81). On the other hand, it has refused to disarm. After 2001 and the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in NY, the US has repeatedly asked Lebanon to shut Hezbollah down and to close bank accounts. Lebanon has refused to do this, claiming that Hezbollah is not a terrorist organization, which Syria also denies. Syria is one of four countries considered “state sponsors of terror” by the US State Department. In April 2010, reports began circulating that Syria had given SCUD missiles to Hezbollah. Syria denies this.