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Friday, December 30, 2005

The Two Faces of Hezbollah

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Lebanon's militant political group Hezbollah (Party of God) has become a global brand name. But for Hezbollah _ and those who must deal with the group _ the overarching question is, "What's the brand?" The United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and the parliament of the European Union all designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, and not without some evidence.

The U.S. government blames Hezbollah for numerous acts that nearly defined Middle East terrorism in the mid-'80s, including: the Beirut truck bombings in October 1983 that killed 241 U.S. Marines; the April 1983 U.S. Embassy bombing in Beirut that killed 63 people and a second bombing of the U.S. Embassy that killed 22 people in September 1984; and the 1985 hijacking of Rome-to-Athens TWA Flight 847 in which a U.S. Navy diver was killed (the man convicted for the murder was just released by German authorities after serving 19 years in prison).

Hezbollah denies involvement in any of these attacks.

The United States also claims the group carried out a series of kidnappings of Westerners from 1982 to 1992, including the torture and killings of CIA station chief William Buckley and U.S. Army Colonel William Higgins; and the abductions of American journalist Terry Anderson and the Archbishop of Canterbury's special envoy, Terry Waite.

Most experts and observers agree that Hezbollah is a complex organization. In a 2003 report, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group wrote: "Fully penetrating Hezbollah's decision-making process is almost impossible. The movement enjoys a highly effective regimen of internal discipline and concealment."

In addition to its militia, Hezbollah has a full-scale multimedia operation including a media relations department (ironically, when I arrived there to conduct interviews, I was not allowed to videotape and managed only to take this photo).

Still, Hezbollah's media wing is savvy. It publishes a monthly magazine called Qubth Ut Alla, (The Fist of God) and runs television network Al-Manar (The Lighthouse) and radio station al-Nour (The Light).

Hezbollah also maintains an aggressive program of charitable work, including building schools and hospitals for the Shia community in Lebanon.

And though it defines itself through opposition to Israel and the U.S., it has also condemned the 9/11 attacks and spoken out against some of the beheadings by insurgents in Iraq.

Hezbollah, made up of Shia Muslims, also says it has no connection to Osama Bin Laden's Al Qaeda (dominated by Wahabist Sunnis who consider Shias heretics).

In an interview at their businesslike media relations office in west Beirut, Director of Foreign Media Hussein Naboulsi tries to clarify for me some of the enigma that is Hezbollah.

"Hezbollah is Hezbollah," he says, "there's no change in its definition. It's a political, religious party created as a reaction to Israel's invasion [of Lebanon] in 1982. Politically it's represented in both cabinet and parliament, and considered by all to be a legitimate party. But if you're against Israel, the U.S. administration labels you as they want."

Israel is uncompromising on its view of Hezbollah. Reached for comment on Hezbollah's emergence as a political force in Lebanon, Jeremy Issacharoff, deputy chief of the Israeli embassy to the U.S., said, "Israel's position regarding the blatant terroristic nature of Hezbollah is well known and needs no further elaboration."

Despite the terrorist allegations, many in Lebanon, especially among the majority Shia community (an estimated 40 percent of the population) consider Hezbollah a resistance movement. Some even regard Hezbollah as liberators that forced Israel to retreat from southern Lebanon in 2000.

"This organization should be considered the most patriotic in Lebanon," says Naboulsi. "We fought the Israelis and forced them to leave. Hezbollah sacrificed 1,800 martyrs and thousands of wounded soldiers for the sake of this country _for the sake of dignity and honor of this country."

Because of that perception, Hezbollah is the only faction in the country allowed to keep weapons, ostensibly as a buffer against Israeli incursions. Naboulsi says the militia has earned the right to be armed.

"Fighting the Israelis is not a picnic; it's blood spilled. It's not a reward in a festival," he says, his voice rising with emphasis. "No one can take that mission unless he has faith _ extreme faith and loyalty to this country."

Now Hezbollah is deep into several phases of another mission: that of becoming a credible and viable political entity in the fractious sphere of Lebanese politics.

The first time it got involved in the political process was in 1992, winning 12 seats in the 128-seat parliament. But in an alliance with the Shia Amal party, it nearly doubled those numbers in the 2005 general election by taking 23 seats.

Hezbollah was also given cabinet posts when it cast its lot with the current alliance of parties forming the Lebanese government.

"There's a great ambition," says Naboulsi, "We want to see real reform in Lebanon. But that reform should begin with a just electoral law _ not based on sectarian factors, but proportional representation. In proportional representation, I win and you win. Everybody has a seat in the parliament. It's good for all Lebanese."

But not all Lebanese agree. The current Lebanese democracy is based on a decades-old practice of what's called "consensus politics," a complicated formula in which Lebanon's different ethnic and religious factions are apportioned specific government slots, regardless of their makeup in the total population. Christian groups, particularly, are concerned that changes in the electoral law could lead to dominance by a Shia or Muslim alliance.

Theocracy Hezbollah has said in the past that it would like to see Lebanon become a theocratic state in the model of one of its primary funders and supporters: Iran. But it has quietly backed off a bit from those statements recently, perhaps in hopes of appearing more conciliatory.

And it may need to be, to offset what may end up being a costly political position for these days: that of providing full support to its other primary financial supporter, Syria.

Hezbollah actively opposed what was dubbed "Cedar Revolution," the democratic outcry following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Along with international pressure, the events led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops after nearly 30 years in Lebanon.

"The Syrians played a key role in the stability of Lebanon, putting an end to the civil war," says Naboulsi. "And Syria really supported the resistance which ended up forcing the Israeli enemy out of Lebanon."

But being that outspoken has a price. Some Christian parties want to see Hezbollah disarmed (something already called for by United Nations resolution 1559) and may have used that threat, some say, to push Hezbollah and the Amal party to support an expanded U.N. investigation into the Hariri killing _ something that they both initially opposed.

The government is still in a deadlock, near collapse. But Hezbollah is rumored to be a key player in an unlikely alliance with a longtime foe: former Lebanese general Michel Aoun, a staunch anti-Syrian who recently returned from 15 years of exile in France, following the Syrian troop withdrawal.

Naboulsi says Hezbollah reached out to Aoun first.

"Even when Michel Aoun was in Paris and no one dared to speak to him," he says. "We were the first to begin the open dialogue. You can't make other sects your enemy."

If Aoun's supporters and Hezbollah make a deal to get the government running again, it could provide Hezbollah with more credibility. It would also seem to demonstrate a commitment beyond its own interests and that of Syria's, to a unified Lebanon.

"Hezbollah is an essential part of Lebanon which no one can ignore," says Naboulsi. "It's the biggest party of the biggest sector of the population and because of consensus democracy, no one can form a government without our contribution."

And for its own political base, Hezbollah's anti-Israeli, anti-American rhetoric is part of the appeal. Hezbollah has called for the destruction of Israel and even offered to open up a second front against the Israelis during the Palestinian intifada.

As for the U.S. designating Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, Naboulsi is matter-of-fact: Any future dialogue is doubtful.

"The American government has labeled us as terrorists," he says. "They say they don't negotiate with terrorists _ and neither do we."
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