Hezbollah: The Real Story

Risen from being ‘the voice’ and army of the Shiites in Lebanon, Hezbollah is now an established military force, a player in the ongoing Sunni-Shia regional confrontation

The basic meaning of terrorism is ‘to incite terror’. Any deeper analysis yields several hotly debated and subjective analyses of the term. But in the Arab world, given a high percentage of totalitarian regimes, it makes defining terrorism even more complicated. The region is marked by religious and non-religious ideologies, borne along among internal and external forces and threats. 

Until recently, the United States, France, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and Israel have considered Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. The European Union, New Zealand and the United Kingdom consider only Hezbollah’s ‘military wing’ as terrorists. In the Arab world, apart from Bahrain, only Egypt in 2009 after a failed attack on its territory, temporarily added the Shiite political and military organization to its naughty list.

But, in 2016, the Gulf Cooperation Council also officially declared the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. The GCC then asked citizens of its member States to leave Lebanon. The statement from the GCC (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar) achieved little, other than to further destabilize the ever-troubled Middle Eastern region. It created an even deeper rift between the hardline Wahhabi Sunni majority Gulf States, close to Saudi Arabia, and those with significant Shiite populations (Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon itself). 

The Gulf states have accused Hezbollah of recruiting young activists even in GCC countries to carry out terrorist attacks to destabilize the latter. The Lebanese party has also been accused, among other things, of smuggling weapons, ammunition and explosives into GCC countries, thus endangering their security and stability. Perhaps the accusations are directed to possible support for Shiites in Bahrain who represent above 50% of that country’s population. Bahrain was also the lone Persian Gulf country to experience an ‘Arab Spring’ revolt. That revolt had the unique characteristic of expressing the ignored Shiite demands for greater influence in the Sunni- ruled island nation. The GCC decision to brand Hezbollah as a terrorist organization complemented Saudi Arabia’s decision to stop any funding for the official Lebanese armed forces. That occurred after Hassan Nasrallah, the undisputed leader of Hezbollah, accused Saudi Arabia of being directly responsible for terrorist attacks in Lebanon over the past few years.

The Shiite axis – Iran, Syria, Hezbollah – represents the highest security concern for the Sunni Gulf countries:
That has become especially the case for Saudi Arabia, given the situation in neighboring Yemen where Shiite tribal militias have benefited from ideological, logistical and financial support from Iran. In addition, most of the Kingdom’s Shiite minority lives in its oil rich northeastern region. That same area borders on Kuwait and overlooks the Persian Gulf itself. Thus, the GCC targeting of Hezbollah was never going to be anything other than unanimous.

Of course, the country that the GCC decision affects most is undoubtedly Lebanon, where Hezbollah holds twelve seats in the Parliament. In February 2016, Saudi Arabia suspended $3 billion in funding to the official Lebanese army, along with an additional $1 billion for security. The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited its citizens not to go to Lebanon. This last point, which may not seem very serious, could in fact have serious consequences for the Lebanese economy, which is fueled by tourism from the Gulf, regarded by many young and not-so-young Saudis, as an escape from the implacable civil laws regarding all aspects of life in Saudi in general, propounded by the Wahhabi imams and enforced by the powerful religious police. Lifestyle in the somewhat ‘louche’ Lebanon is ‘freedom’- everything that Saudi is not, in terms of individual behavior. It is an escape, ‘a safety valve’ from repressive neighbouring regimes. It fills a role rather like that of Las Vegas in the USA, a change of pace from the rigidities of everyday life, thus the restriction is bound to be very unpopular within Saudi itself. 

The fact that this evident plan to hold Lebanon to ransom, because it has been unable to rein-in Hezbollah, comes at a fragile economic moment. Lebanon needs all the income it can get, given that it must deal with the presence of some 1.2 million Syrian refugees on its territory.

But not all Arab – or even Sunni - governments oppose Hezbollah, which makes branding them a terrorist organization so complicated. Algeria’s official position on the Lebanese ‘Party of God’, for example, holds that only Lebanese people have a right to express judgment on Hezbollah, seeing the latter as a political-military movement that belongs to the social and political landscape of Lebanon. Tunisia has also not supported the GCC decision to brand Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

Hezbollah Represents Resistance to the Israelis, not Jihad 
Part of the difficulty that many Arabs have, in portraying Hezbollah as terrorists, is that amongst the Arabs generally, an anti-American and anti-Israeli spirit remains. Washington has done little to heal the wounds of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Hezbollah itself has always rejected the descriptive term "terrorist group", wanting to define itself rather as ‘the resistance’ to Israeli occupation. That wound acts as glue for the Arab masses and elites. Thus the way that the very concept of terrorism is defined, is far from clear in the Arab world. Simply put, even secular and progressive Arabs, who oppose Islamic extremism, whether by the Muslim Brothers, al Qaeda clones, or ISIS, reject the designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

‘Hezbollah, the Party of God’ was born in 1982, indeed as a reaction to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon that technically ended in 2000, known as ‘Peace for Galilee’. Hezbollah first started as a Shi'ite religious movement, which had the goal of establishing an Islamic state in Lebanon, on the model of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran may have fueled a Shiite political consciousness. But earlier, throughout the 1970’s there were indigenous Lebanese socio-economic factors that ‘awoke’ the Shiite population. Such figures as the Shiite cleric Musa al-Sadr and lay Shiites, such as Nabih Berri, who founded the Amal Shiite movement, led that process years before Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power in Tehran in 1979. Hezbollah’s base is in southern Lebanon and southern Beirut. Iran – and Syria before the ‘Arab Spring’ – supported it financially and politically. Israel continues to attack it, by arguing that it endangers its security. It is certainly wary of it’s close proximity, but, it’s more likely that it does so to strike at those states - frequently in the case of Syria, that support Hezbollah ‘by proxy’.

Hezbollah could only have emerged from the Lebanese reality, itself a product of the French protectorate and the flawed division of the Middle East after World War One. If nothing else, it has expressed the political, social and economic claims of the Lebanese Shiite community that is traditionally poorer than the others. This untermenschen community had for centuries – since Ottoman times – been excluded from power and crushed by the hegemony of the two main Lebanese religious communities: the Maronite Christians and the Sunni Muslims. Still, Hezbollah emerged from a unique set of conditions in the history of 20th century Islam: the politicization of the Shiites. The traditional ‘Ithna’ashari’ (Twelver) Shi'ite approach to politics, held that until the re-appearance of the Mahdi (or the missing Twelfth Imam), any political ambition or formation was unlawful. Thus, Shiites were to remain passive and silent, ignored, renouncing aspirations to power.

But, Lebanon has always been politically and socially divided. Government institutions and parliamentarians have organized politics around the religious mosaic. The Lebanese government had never done much to favour or help the Shiite peoples. For this reason, Hezbollah men began to act ‘politically ‘in the cultural, health and social vacuum, left by government. Cyclical rebellions had shuffled politics around, based on interference and interests from neighboring countries such as Israel, Syria, the Palestinians and Saudi Arabia, even Iraq and Libya. Indeed, an influx of Palestinian refugees and the fact that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) led by Yasser Arafat, had headquarters in Beirut, was the main draw for the Israeli invasion of 1982. They could…so they did! 

Meanwhile, an influx of Shiite Iraqis and Syrians in the late 70’s and 80’s helped the Shiite community grow in numbers. Eventually, the Shiites have come to represent the largest political-religious group in Lebanon. It’s no wonder that Hezbollah has such relative strength.

The Shiite population in 1982 had initially reacted neutrally to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. They saw the invaders as shaving the power and the influence of the (Sunni and Christian) Palestinians, who had dominated the territory since 1978. The Shiites were established in self-contained religious, social, economic, and political centers from the Litani River, near the Israeli border, to the southern outskirts of Beirut. In the space of a few months, however, Israel because of its position in favor of Falange and the Christian-Maronite groups, compromised the neutrality of the Shiite groups, sucking them into the civil war. Their reaction to this commitment assured Hezbollah of a strong loyalty from local Shiites, who show pride in a movement that, unlike any other Arab army, has proven its ability to oppose Israelis and all comers. Meanwhile, Hezbollah has always denounced ISIS or other Islamist attacks in Europe – notably the Bataclan club shootings in Paris, of November 2015. The group does not engage in a Jihad against the West. It uses that term Jihad to describe its actions against ISIS.

Hezbollah as a Regional Force
Today, the Shiites are not confined to a marginal socio-economic role. They occupy all manner of positions and in the professional classes. It’s not even accurate to describe Hezbollah as a fundamentalist Islamic movement. It has rather formed a ‘state within a state’ and enjoys backing from various Lebanese communities, including some Christian factions as well. Hezbollah has also gained legitimacy by using its considerable help from Iran, to rebuild homes and infrastructure after wars – such as in 2006 – while also offering proper health and social assistance to the local population. While maintaining its military strength, Hezbollah has established foundations and associations to help the poorest part of the population. It has built ten outpatient clinics, about twenty infirmaries and three large hospitals, among which is the al-Rassoul al-Azam ‘state-of-the-art’ medical center in Beirut. Providing health care, but also building and education, Hezbollah has also funded primary and secondary schools, as well as scholarships for Lebanese and foreign universities.

Eleven years ago in 2006, Hezbollah reached its peak popularity. It fought the occupying Israeli forces, causing them to withdraw from Lebanese territory. It was a victory that also propped up the fortunes of Syria’s al Assad family, now headed by President Bashar al-Asad. His government supports Hezbollah, helping to funnel funds and military equipment from Iran, that Israel frequently seeks to interdict by coups de main, raiding Syria frequently in targeted air strikes, with little fear of international protests or of any retribution, at least throughout the past six years of civil war, although that supine lack of reaction may be changing. 

According to estimates, Iran has deposited half a billion dollars every 12 months in the party's coffers. The relationship between Lebanese Shiites and Tehran has changed over time. While it is true that Hezbollah was born when a group of Amal members wanted to take a more radical approach to the Israeli occupation in 1982, it has long ago set aside the goal of recreating a Shiite Republic in Lebanon on the Iranian model. 

Indeed, Hezbollah has become more preoccupied with the Syrian war over the past few years, particularly since that moved on from civil unrest and protest, into a full scale religious confrontation between Sunni and Shia as it presently remains. Each with their predictable international patrons.

Hezbollah has played a significant frontline role in supporting the Syrian army and the presidency of Bashar al-Asad. They not only took part directly in some very important battles, such as that of regaining the Syrian city of Qusayr in 2013; it also trained and advised other al-Asad forces to fight both the rebels and the Islamic State. Hezbollah needs Assad to remain in power more than it needs Iranian support. That’s because, should ISIS, or any of the Sunni Islamist rebels, like the al-Nusra offshoots of al Qaedr win, Hezbollah would be crushed. Israel and the Sunni jihadists would for their separate reasons strangle the Shiite movement. Thus, Iran and Hezbollah share most, if not all, foreign policy points. Yet, when it comes to its own survival and Lebanon’s borders, Hezbollah has an independent approach. 

Accordingly, Israel fears that the Syrian army may soon resume control of the region in the south, near to the Golan frontier. More importantly, it fears that a battle tested and emboldened Hezbollah could gain an even bigger role in the Lebanese scene. Over the past ten years, Hezbollah has maintained the ceasefire along the Israeli-Lebanese border since the war in 2006. But, Hezbollah is no ISIS. It has softened its religious message, while refining military technology and capabilities. It has become, by any standard, a real army not a ‘pushover’, capable of withstanding potential incursions from the Israeli army. Not that a new war between Israel and Lebanon is ‘around the corner,’ or even ‘on the cards’. 

But, fear of rising Hezbollah’s military power, which Israel can never stop considering for its potential as a serious threat, keeps the hypothesis of a preventive attack on the table. Hezbollah has a huge arsenal of missiles. These include some 100,000 mostly short-range rockets with a range of up to 40 km. The Lebanese army also has a substantial number (more than a thousand) of long-range missiles that can reach over 300 km with heavy payloads - between 200 and 300 kilograms, according to Israeli media reports. That puts strategic sites - including the Dimona nuclear reactor, power plants, airports, as well as various Israeli military bases within range. Peace is obviously in everyone’s interests.

The war in Syria changed everything for Hezbollah. The Syrian war has served as an opportunity for the ‘Party of God’ to strengthen itself. It has also allowed for something new. The formation of an ‘ad hoc’ alliance with Russia, a global power. It has proven itself as a valiant militia capable of performing military operations abroad. Meanwhile, Nasrallah has presented Hezbollah’s efforts in Syria as necessary to stave off the Syrian war from crossing the border into Lebanon. Thus, Hezbollah has taken the opportunity of presenting itself as a defender of the nation and not just one of its communities.

Alessandro Bruno