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Born Out of a Lebanon Fractured by Civil War, Invasion and Occupation

Who is Hezbollah?

by JON VAN CAMP

Israel calls it a "terrorist" and "extremist" organization. George Bush says it is a tool of Iran, and claims it has "killed more Americans than any terrorist organization except al-Qaeda."

But the leaders of governments trying to destroy Hezbollah are not the only ones condemning it. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have accused Hezbollah of human rights violations, and Robert Fisk, the Independent journalist who has helped expose some of the worst Israeli and U.S. crimes in the Middle East, says that Hezbollah "provoked the latest war" in Lebanon, and bears responsibility for "bringing catastrophe upon their coreligionists."

Meanwhile, however, Hezbollah has gained growing support in the Middle East, well beyond its base among Shia Muslims in Lebanon–for the simple reason that it is, in the words of Aijaz Ahmad, writing in Frontline magazine in India, "the only entity which has, through armed resistance, forced the Israelis to relinquish any territory that the Jewish state has ever captured."

What kind of organization is Hezbollah, and how should the left view it?

* * *

HEZBOLLAH CAME out of a Lebanon fractured by civil war.

The region of Lebanon has always contained various religious communities, but the French colonialists who dominated the area favored the Maronite Christians, who became the most powerful community once the state of Lebanon was formed.

According to the terms of a 1943 pact, Maronites were given the presidency, and Christians were allocated a majority of seats in the parliament. The post of prime minister was reserved for a Sunni Muslim, and Shia Muslims–soon to become the largest segment of the population–were left with the relatively powerless position of speaker of parliament.

Maronite leaders were traditionally pro-Western and pro-Israel, while Muslim leaders became increasingly influenced by Arab nationalism. These tensions were at the roots of Lebanon’s civil war, which lasted more or less continuously from 1975 to 1990. Israel and the U.S. backed the right, grouped around the Christian Falange.

In 1978, Israel seized a strip of territory in Southern Lebanon, and four years later, it launched a full-scale invasion–with the aim of installing a right-wing Christian government and driving out Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) fighters based in the country.

The U.S. sent Marines as part of an international force to oversee the withdrawal of the PLO–these "peacekeepers" began to intervene more and more openly on the side of the Lebanese right and Israel’s occupying force.

Throughout this conflict, the group that suffered the most was the Shia–by then the most numerous religious community in Lebanon, comprising about 40 percent of the population, and by far the poorest, inhabiting the slums of Beirut’s southern suburbs and the villages in southern Lebanon directly in the path of Israeli attacks and invasions.

By 1982, several Shia military groups emerged–many with funding and training from the new Islamist government in Iran, which took power after the 1979 Iranian Revolution and was seeking to project its influence in Lebanon amid the other rival forces of the civil war. The Iranian-backed militias, though only loosely connected, were known together as Hezbollah, meaning the "Party of God" in Arabic.

Shia militias engaged in several small but devastating attacks, including the bombing of the U.S. embassy, and a suicide truck bombing of the Marines barracks in October 1983 that killed 241 Marines. These attacks led Ronald Reagan to "cut and run"–and withdraw troops from Lebanon.

In 1985, Shia clerics declared the foundation of Hezbollah in an "Open Letter to the Downtrodden in Lebanon and the World." Still associated mainly with its backing from Iran, Hezbollah continued to battle for influence among Lebanese Shiites, including military clashes with the more moderate Amal, formed in the 1970s.

Quickly, however, it became predominant in the military resistance to the Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon. Hezbollah attacks did use suicide bombers, but increasingly into the 1990s, the balance shifted toward guerrilla operations directed at inflicting damage on the Israeli occupation force. Hezbollah is generally credited with forcing Israel to withdraw from Lebanon in 2000.

After 2000, Hezbollah continued to carry out military operations to pressure Israel to leave Shebaa Farms–the last sliver of Israeli-occupied territory in Lebanon–defend against repeated Israeli incursions and provocations, and win freedom for Lebanese prisoners held by Israel. Hezbollah’s July 12 raid that captured two Israeli soldiers–which the Israeli government made the pretext for its war against Lebanon this summer–fits this pattern.

Unlike Israel’s indiscriminate bombing campaign, Hezbollah primarily targeted Israeli military forces. A majority of Israeli casualties during the onslaught were soldiers, while the vast majority of Lebanese killed by Israeli missiles and bombs were civilian bystanders.

* * *

HEZBOLLAH IS a political party that runs a network of schools, clinics and other services that many people rely on to fill the gap for what the Lebanese government doesn’t provide. It also controls an array of businesses, including bakeries, banks, factories and an Islamic clothing line, as well as a satellite television station and a radio station.

Hezbollah organized relief efforts for southern Lebanon after the Israeli bombings of 1993 and 1996, and is currently promising furniture and rent money to all whose homes were destroyed in this summer’s assault.

Beginning in the early 1990s, Hezbollah decided to take part in mainstream politics, first winning election to the Lebanon’s parliament in 1992. Currently, the organization has 12 members in parliament and two in the cabinet.

It leads a parliamentary bloc in which other forces, including secular parties and non-Muslim parties, are involved. The list of candidates for this alliance during the 2005 elections included not only Shiites, but Christians, Sunni Muslims and Druze.

Hezbollah gets aid and support–including military backing–from Iran and Syria. But it is not a puppet of these governments, as the Bush administration insisted.

While Iran had decisive influence during Hezbollah’s early years, the organization has since developed its own elected council and command structure to make political and military decisions. According to a post-ceasefire report by the mainstream political analyst Anthony Cordesman, "[N]o serving Israeli official, intelligence officer or other military officer felt that the Hezbollah acted under the direction of Iran or Syria."

More generally, Hezbollah is viewed as a legitimate national resistance organization, among Shia and non-Shia, throughout much of Lebanese society. Even before this summer’s war, a 2005 Center for Strategic Studies survey found that three-quarters of Lebanese Christians–the traditional base of the right–identified Hezbollah as a legitimate group in challenging Israeli aggression.

Some on the left focus on Hezbollah’s commitment to Islamic fundamentalism to minimize its political importance–for example, a recent letter-writer to Socialist Worker who dismissed Hezbollah as "a movement partially analogous to our own fundamentalist right."

Hezbollah’s Islamism need to be understood concretely. For example, though it accepts prejudices against women predominant in Islam–and Christianity, for that matter–Hezbollah’s Shia ideology is not as reactionary as, for example, the Wahhabists of Afghanistan’s Taliban and the rulers of Saudi Arabia. Thus, women lead many of Hezbollah’s social service projects, although they are excluded from political and military leadership.

Hezbollah does uphold anti-gay attitudes common to many currents of Islamism, and some of its leaders have used anti-Semitic slurs in describing their opposition to Israel.

On the other hand, unlike its backers in the Iranian political establishment, Hezbollah does not have a goal to building of Islamic state–at least in Lebanon. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has said, "Lebanon is a pluralistic country. It is not an Islamic country."

This sheds light on why Hezbollah has been able to gain support beyond its Shia base–both within Lebanon and more broadly across the Middle East. Hezbollah’s main appeal lies in its willingness to challenge Israeli aggression and U.S. imperialism, not its Islamist ideology and the backward elements of its social and political program.

By successfully preventing Israel from accomplishing its objectives in this summer’s onslaught, Hezbollah has set an example of resistance that could inspire further struggles across the Middle East–potentially opening the way for a secular, left-wing alternative to take root and grow.

JON VAN CAMP writes for the Socialist Worker.