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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

A Hizbollah primer

Although Hizbollah has recently dominated the news for its recent war with Israel, the group is one of the most well-established modern terrorist organizations in the world. Its history dates back to the early 1980s, when it pioneered many of the methods that have been adopted by other groups, such as al-Qaida and Islamic Jihad.

By Jessica Ashooh and Michael Donovan for CDI (29/08/06)

Prior to 11 September 2001, Hizbollah could claim credit for taking more American lives in a single attack than any other terrorist organization. In October 1983, at the height of the Lebanese civil war, a truck laden with explosives smashed into the multinational force barracks in Beirut, killing 241 US Marines. A suicide bombing at the US Embassy in Beirut followed the next year in 1984, leaving 17 dead.

However, since the conclusion of the civil war in 1990 and the end of the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000, Hizbollah has evolved in purpose and scope, taking on major political and social roles in postwar Lebanese society and becoming the foremost representative of Lebanon’s large and impoverished Shiite population.

The organization is a full political party in Lebanon’s consociational democracy and is currently represented in the national government by two cabinet ministers and 14 members of parliament (out of 128 total). This hybrid nature renders the group a difficult target in America's war against terrorism, particularly since there is not agreement between the United States and its closest allies in Europe on whether Hizbollah even constitutes a terrorist organization.

In the context of the tormented political and social upheaval endemic to Lebanon in the 1980s, the advent of Hizbollah was not remarkable. At the time, more than 30 militia groups were locked in combat and the addition of yet another might have gone unnoticed. Many of these groups reflected the nihilism that characterized the disintegration of the Lebanese state. But Hizbollah distinguished itself from rivals, such as the Amal movement, with a definite platform and a vision of a Shiite Islamic state.

However, in recent years, this vision has been somewhat complicated by the group’s pragmatism regarding the realities of politics in Lebanon. Although it has initiated de facto Sharia law in some of the heavily Shia areas that it controls, Hizbollah’s leadership has recently stated that it does not want to impose Islamic law throughout all of Lebanon. This can be seen as something of an adolescent “identity crisis” in the group as it ages and adapts to changing political realities. Its priorities at this time seem to be to gain as much legitimacy and popular following as possible in order to serve its main goal of antagonizing Israel, even if that means compromising some on its earlier Islamist ideals.

Hizbollah was born, with the assistance of revolutionary Iran, as a resistance movement against Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. It maintains close financial and cultural links with Iran. Although much has been made about these ties, Hizbollah remains a fundamentally Lebanese organization, and assertions that it takes its orders directly from Tehran are probably not entirely accurate. The relationship is likely more nuanced. Due to the many goals and religious principles shared by the Islamic Republic and Hizbollah, it is more likely that there is a high degree of natural cooperation between the two without overt puppetry. However, Iran also gives extensive financing from its oil revenues and provides the group with missile technology and armaments; thus it can press its influence through these channels when it desires.

Syria is another major supporter of Hizbollah, albeit more for reasons of realpolitik. During the postwar Syrian occupation of Lebanon from 1990 to 2005, Damascus used the group as a proxy force to distract and antagonize Israel at politically strategic moments. Even after the 2005 withdrawal of Syrian military forces from the country, Syria still maintains virtually total control of the Lebanese border and a high degree of influence over the Lebanese government. As a result, Syria largely controls Hizbollah’s overland weapons supply routes.

Hizbollah's power base is in the Bekaa Valley, but its followers are drawn from the Shia communities in south Lebanon and the southern suburbs of Beirut. From its founding, there was little possibility that the group would ever succeed in creating an Islamic state in Lebanon given the country’s extensive religious diversity, but Hizbollah's strength and reputation grew with every attack on the Israeli Defense Forces in the country. By 2000, the Israeli position in Lebanon had become untenable, in part because of the heavy toll exacted by Hizbollah attacks. Hizbollah took credit for the Israeli withdrawal and subsequently gained the distinction of being the only Arab military organization to force a retreat of the Israeli army.

Throughout the 1980s, Hizbollah pioneered the use of suicide bombings against Israeli and Western targets. The group was also responsible for a spate of kidnappings of Western citizens. Hizbollah has been connected with two attacks on Israeli targets in South America in 1992 and 1994, including the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires. At present, however, Hizbollah's objectives are limited to striking at the Israeli presence in the Golan Heights and Shebaa Farms, securing the release of prisoners held by Israel and cultivating its political status in Lebanon.

Hizbollah maintains fundraising cells in North America and Europe. According to the Department of State, the group boasts several thousand supporters and several hundred militant operatives. Various sources estimate the group’s military capabilities as the fourth to sixth strongest in the region. For these reasons, the US government views Hizbollah as a foreign terrorist organization with "global reach."

Most recently, on 12 July 2006, after a period of relative quiet, Hizbollah fighters conducted a guerilla raid over the border into Israel, kidnapping two Israeli soldiers and instigating an international crisis. Israel responded with a total naval blockade and widespread bombing campaign against all of Lebanon, with particular emphasis on the Hizbollah dominated regions of the south, the Bekaa Valley and the southern suburbs of Beirut. This was followed by a major ground invasion of south Lebanon up to the Litani River.

While the military operation was undertaken with the intent to neutralize the Hizbollah threat once and for all, it was viewed by many as a failure due to the immense popularity that Hizbollah gained from again being viewed as a resistance force against perceived Israeli aggression. It also gained more notoriety for its military capabilities, as the Israeli Defense Forces operated with extreme difficulty against the entrenched guerilla techniques that Hizbollah fighters perfected. Their massive rocket and missile arsenals stunned Israel as rockets rained down as far south as Haifa a month into the hostilities, nearly unabated.

Although some Christian, Sunni and Druze Lebanese expressed displeasure with Hizbollah for drawing Lebanon into this conflict with punishing consequences, their ire has been directed more against the Israelis, who, as long as they continue to occupy southern Lebanon, will provide Hizbollah with a popular raison d’être for their continued existence as a military force in addition to a political party and welfare network.

The conflict catapulted the group’s spiritual leader, the charismatic Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, to immense popularity throughout the Arab world. Hizbollah continues to consolidate its popularity and power within Lebanon through rebuilding assistance in areas hit hard by Israeli artillery. It hands out large cash donations to those whose houses have been damaged or destroyed by the fighting and continues to provide essential hospital, school and clean water services to its constituency, strongly supplementing the few services that the weak Lebanese national government can provide.

Hizbollah also maintains and operates a satellite news channel, al-Manar, based in Beirut, which enjoys a significant viewer audience throughout Lebanon and the Arab world.

For these reasons, defeating Hizbollah will not be easy. It has transformed itself, in the eyes of many Lebanese, into a thriving political party that plays a role in the country’s precarious political equation. It has also garnered support throughout the Arab world, even amongst non-radicals. Many among the Lebanese government and people view its attacks on Israeli settlements and military installations as acts of legitimate resistance.

Furthermore, the group has grown conscious of the importance of its international image, especially in the West, and has not struck at American targets in a decade, insisting that its true enemy is Israel. The group's spiritual leadership quickly condemned the 11 September attacks in the United States, stressing that it did not share Osama bin Laden's goal of a clash of civilizations. The Lebanese national government in Beirut moved with determination, even before 11 September, against al-Qaida financial interests and personnel in Lebanon. It does not believe a similar approach against Hizbollah is justified.

Striking at Hizbollah would do much to alienate the Shiite population and inflame many of the sectarian passions that were responsible for Lebanon's long civil war, as has been observed during the most recent Israeli operation. The United States has thus far approached the issue cautiously while continuing to strongly and outwardly condemn the group. It is a dilemma found elsewhere in the region. Washington's definition of a foreign terrorist organization is not universally accepted, as evidenced by the many European Union countries that do not list Hizbollah on their official terrorist rosters, thus rendering comprehensive international efforts against the group’s financial dexterity significantly more difficult.

Arab governments and populations in particular will continue to distinguish between groups that "resist" Israel and “terrorist” organizations. And they will hesitate to strike at groups that straddle the often ambiguous line between terrorism and grass roots social and political organizations that exists in the Middle East.

For these reasons, it appears that the best approach to fighting Hizbollah is to diminish its political influence through means that do not further contribute to its popularity. This includes empowering the Lebanese government to extend sovereignty throughout its borders. It also entails facilitating relief and recovery efforts throughout Lebanon, so that Hizbollah is not viewed as the sole party concerned for the welfare of the everyday citizen. These efforts will go far to stem popular support for the group. And of course, standard techniques of financial disruption would also be effective tools.

Maintaining a strategic and conceptual model for combating the group within the context of the region is also critical. A lasting resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is intrinsic to fighting Hizbollah, as much of its power of persuasion is rooted in exploiting this issue. With such a resolution and a withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanese lands, Hizbollah’s status as an armed military force could lose a significant degree of popular support. However, it is unlikely that the group will ever cease to exist as a political entity unless Shia loyalties fall to a new party, a scenario which looks highly unlikely in the foreseeable future.

This article originally appeared on the Center for Defense Information (CDI) website. The CDI is a division of the World Security Institute (WSI), a 501(c)(3) public charity.
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