Hezbollah 101: Who is the militant group, and what does it want?

The Shiite militant group and political party is a player not just in Lebanon, where it is based, but across the broader Middle East. It remains a staunch opponent of Israel, which it fought to a standstill in 2006, and a close ally of Iran and Syria – despite both regimes’ crackdowns on citizens Hezbollah purports to champion.

The Shiite militant group and political party is a player not just in Lebanon, where it is based, but across the broaderMiddle East. It remains a staunch opponent of Israel, which it fought to a standstill in 2006, and a close ally of Iran andSyria – despite both regimes’ crackdowns on citizens Hezbollah purports to champion.

What are the origins of Hezbollah?

Hezbollah was founded by a small group of Lebanese Shiite clerics as a response to Israel’s 1982 invasion of southern Lebanon. They were inspired by the teachings of two radical religious scholars: Mohammed Baqr as-Sadr of Iraq and Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.

With the assistance of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah’s early leadership mobilized Lebanon’s Shiite population to resist the Israeli occupation. Beginning in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, hundreds of new recruits were given military training and religious indoctrination. During the 1980s, Hezbollah’s influence spread from the Bekaa toBeirut, where it was blamed for the 1983 suicide bombings of the US Embassy and the US Marine barracks, in which more than 300 people perished, as well as the kidnappings of foreigners. Hezbollah denies any role.

Lebanon’s civil war ended in 1990, and all the militias were obliged to disarm. Only Hezbollah was permitted to keep its weapons so that it could continue resisting Israel’s occupation in south Lebanon.

What does Hezbollah want?

Hezbollah seeks the end of the state of Israel, the liberation of Jerusalem, and an Islamic state in Lebanon.

Those ideological pillars remain unchanged since Hezbollah issued a 1985 manifesto of its ideology, although the group today acts more pragmatically than its stated goals would suggest. While it still advocates the destruction of Israel and has offered to help Palestinians from Lebanon, it says that Palestinians must take the lead in securing their freedom. Hezbollah officials also openly admit that Lebanon’s many sects make the creation of an Islamic state there impossible in practice.

“Its public manifesto from 1985 simply reflects the times of militancy and uncompromising revolutionary fervor,” Magnus Ranstorp, research director at the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defense College in Stockholm, told the Monitor in Nov. 2009. “In fact, Hezbollah has declared the idea of an Islamic state in Lebanon as a utopian ideal that should not be imposed in Lebanon as long as the country is so diverse.”

Hezbollah champions the interests of Lebanon’s Shiites, the lar­gest but traditionally most underrepresented sect in Lebanese politics. It provides an impressive range of social, health, and educational services in impoverished Shiite rural areas, guaranteeing broad grass-roots support.

Who leads Hezbollah?

Since being appointed as Hezbollah’s chief in 1992, Sheikh Hassan Nas­ral­lah has emerged as one of the most venerated and credible figures in the Arab world. Soft-spoken in private, Mr. Nas­rallah saves passionate outbursts for his public performances. A brilliant orator, he whips up sentiment among Hezbollah and its supporters with powerful speeches that balance fiery rhetoric with humor.

Is Hezbollah a Lebanese political party or a proxy of Iran and Syria?

It is a bit of both. Since overturning its objection to Lebanon’s political system at the end of the civil war, it has become an important player in Lebanese politics. Its future depends greatly on its ability to retain support among Lebanon’s Shiite community, irrespective of foreign backing.

At the same time, Hez­bol­lah answers to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – the group’s ultimate source of religious authority and guidance. “[Hezbollah] fluctuates between both being an indigenous Lebanese party and, when needed, a proxy militia of Iran,” Mr. Ranstorp told the Monitor in 2009.

Hezbollah is also committed to the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, which has supplied it with arms and support over the years. The group has stood by Mr. Assad duringDamascus’ violent uprising over the past year that has left more than 7,000 dead.

Iran has also played an instrumental role in building up Hezbollah’s military capabilities over the years, which enabled the group’s impressive military wing to oust Israel from south Lebanon in 2000. It also fought the Israeli army to a standstill in the summer of 2006 – a war sparked by Hezbollah’s abduction of two Israeli soldiers.

For Iran, Hezbollah’s military strength serves as an important deterrent to any potential US or Israeli plan to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities. If they strike Iran, the thinking goes, Iran could turn to Hezbollah to attack northern Israel.

How popular is Hezbollah?

Hezbollah’s popularity lies chiefly with Lebanon’s Shiites, although it also has the support of its political allies in parliament. It leads an alliance made up mainly of Shiites and Christians, with a few Sunnis and Druze. The alliance has a broad appeal to Muslims and Arabs for its anti-Israel activities.

Hezbollah’s popularity peaked in the late 1990s when its stubborn and successful armed resistance against Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon earned it wide admiration and sympathy. However, Hezbollah’s determination to keep its weapons following Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 has created unease among the party’s opponents, who insist that only the Lebanese Army should have the right to bear arms and only the government should decide matters of war and peace.

In May 2008, Hezbollah and its allies briefly overran the western half of Beirut in a crushing display of force against its political opponents, an event that triggered the worst internal clashes since the civil war and left more than 100 people dead. In June 2009 elections, it narrowly lost to the ruling Western-backed March 14 coalition and had to settle for two seats in the 30-person cabinet agreed to on Nov. 9.

More recently, Hezbollah’s popularity in the region has suffered due to the uprising in Syria. As the Arab Spring protests rolled across the Middle East and North Africa, Nasrallah spoke approvingly of them, calling them “the product of the people’s will and determination.” But when Assad’s regime began its violent crackdown on peaceful demonstrations in Syria, Nasrallah spoke out for its patron, Bashar al-Assad, denying that it was attacking civilians and stating that Hezbollah would never abandon Mr. Assad. As a result, Hezbollah has been subject to growing criticism among its base, as its support for Assad stands in stark contrast to the group’s purported commitment to the common Muslim.

Source: Inside of Iran

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