views updated May 23 2018


ALTERNATE NAMES: Hizballah, Party of God

LEADER: Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah

USUAL AREA OF OPERATION: Lebanon; occasional incursions into northern Israel


Hezbollah (Party of God) is a Shi'ite political and military party in Lebanon, founded with extensive Iranian backing in 1982 to fight Israel in the country's south. Hezbollah is regarded by Israel and many Western states as an Islamist terrorist organization, and was designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of State in October 1997. However, its political arm is an important part of Lebanon's democratically elected coalition government, and it maintains extensive civilian interests, including hospitals, schools, as well as television and radio stations and a newspaper.


The Lebanese Civil War (1975–1990) was not one war, but many. What began as a civil conflict between three of Lebanon's twenty-three ethnic communities, escalated beyond all recognition, ensnaring all of its minorities and several of its neighbors in what became one of the twentieth century's most prolonged and bitter wars. At various stages of the fighting, allies became enemies and enemies became allies; groups previously at peace with their neighbors became entangled, either through compulsion or necessity, with appalling results. Foreign powers also became drawn in, usually to preserve their own regional position, or as a way of settling old scores.

Indeed, it was because of outside intervention that Lebanon's civil war became so bloody and prolonged and initial quarrels among Lebanese tended to become forgotten and distorted. This outside involvement extended to West Germany and Belgium arming Christian militias; the invasion of Syrian troops; the arrival of 1,500 Islamic Revolutionary Guards from Iran; Palestinian refugees based in south Lebanon organizing into militias; and latterly, Western peacekeepers.

Most incendiary of all, however, were attacks from Israel in 1978, followed by a full-scale invasion of south Lebanon in 1982. Comprehensively defeated by the Israeli army, a coalition of Shi'ite militias and other organizations united under the direction of Iran as the Lebanese National Resistance—which later became known as Hezbollah, or "Party of God." It also received military and financial assistance from Syria.

This new movement comprised two main but quite different components of Lebanon's Shi'ite population. The first was from Shi'ite clans in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, which had enjoyed increased prosperity through opium and marijuana cultivation and smuggling during the civil conflict. Encouraged by Iranian agents operating in their province, they saw it as an opportunity to create a populist Shi'ite movement and replicate the revolution in Iran three years earlier. Ba'labakk, the Bekaa Valley's capital, became a center for this emergent movement with its buildings plastered with posters depicting the Iranian leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, and draped with Iranian flags.

It also appealed to Shi'ite refugees forced to live in south Beirut's appalling slums. Many had ended up there following Phalangist (Christian-backed militias) attacks on Palestinians living in East Beirut in 1976, and were joined by refugees after Israel's invasions of south Lebanon in 1978 and 1982. For them, economically dispossessed and forced to live in horrific poverty and terror because of Phalangist and Israeli incursions, the call for a Shi'ite jihad (holy war) was particularly appealing.

In its early life, Hezbollah operated largely in the shadows, albeit with the capability of carrying out horrific acts of terror. It was not until 1985 that the movement emerged as a coherent organization propagating an open manifesto. In mosques, which became rallying points for Lebanon's Shi'ites, Hezbollah's spiritual leader, Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, and his uluma preached a message of resistance to their enemies and loyalty to Khomeini. Iranian forces trained a semi-clandestine militia, the Islamic Resistance, which attacked Israeli forces in south Lebanon. This militia fought a guerilla-type war against the occupying force and was also responsible for a number of attacks across the Israeli border. Finally, the Organization of the Islamic Jihad emerged. This organization operated on a more covert basis with Syrian backing against Western targets after the introduction of a multinational peacekeeping force in August 1982.

In part because of who its targets were, but largely because of the particularly savage nature of its attacks, this group emerged as the most notorious part of the nascent Shi'ite resistance. Kidnappings and assassinations of individual foreigners quickly escalated into huge bombings against U.S., French, and Italian peacekeepers. The most brutal of these attacks were a truck bombing of the U.S. embassy on April 18, 1983, which killed sixty-three people; the Beirut barracks bombing of October 23, 1983, which killed 241 servicemen; and an identical attack on French barracks that same morning, which killed fifty-eight French peacekeepers; and a second bombing of the U.S. embassy on September 20, 1984, which killed twenty-three, including two military personnel.

The Beirut barracks bombing, which is the largest terrorist attack ever carried out against a U.S. military installation and was described by the FBI as the biggest non-nuclear bomb they had ever seen, resulted in the United States withdrawing its peacekeeping force from Lebanon. It also prompted the CIA to sponsor a mission by Elie Hobeika, a notorious Phalangist leader who was responsible for the slaughter of 2,000 Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in 1982, to assassinate Fadlallah. In the failed attempt to kill him in a car bombing in March 1985, Hobeika claimed the lives of eighty innocent bystanders.

Hezbollah emerged as a coherent hierarchical organization in 1985 following the publication of an "open letter," which proclaimed its doctrine: "We are proceeding toward a battle with vice at its very roots," declared the letter, "and the first root of vice is America." The letter set out four objectives for the movement: the termination of all American and French influence in Lebanon; Israel's complete departure from Lebanon "as a prelude to its final obliteration"; submission of the Lebanese Phalangists to "just rule" and trial for their "crimes"; and granting the people the right to choose their own system of government, "keeping in mind that we do not hide our commitment to the rule of Islam."

In June 1985, the hijacking of TWA flight 847 by Islamic Jihad/Hezbollah operatives brought the organization further notoriety. Following protracted negotiations and the murder of a U.S. marine, the hostages on board were released in exchange for 700 Shi'ite militants held in Israeli jails since the invasion of south Lebanon in 1982. It also conducted hijackings of Kuwaiti airliners in 1984 and 1988 to win the freedom of Lebanese Shi'ites held in Kuwait.

Hezbollah also initiated a campaign of high-profile kidnapping. Its targets included U.S. Colonel William R. Higgins and the CIA Station Chief in Beirut, William Buckley (both of whom were killed); the journalists Terry Anderson (held from March 1985 to November 1991) and John McCarthy (April 1986 to August 1991); the Archbishop of Canterbury's special envoy, Terry Waite (February 1987 to November 1991); and Brian Keenan, an Irish lecturer at Beirut's American University (April 1986 to August 1990). The taking of Western civilians seemed particularly senseless given the removal of outside forces from Lebanon and the lack of political demands that accompanied their kidnappings.

Hezbollah also did battle with other Shi'ite groups, notably the rival Amal militia, which was formed on more secular lines. Skirmishes for control of south Lebanon in 1988 erupted into full-scale civil war, at a cost of more than 1,000 lives until a peace deal was brokered by Syria and Iran.

In essence, this formed the last stage of the Lebanese civil war. The Taif Agreement, which brought an end to the conflict in 1990, required all militias to disarm, but the Lebanese government made no attempt to disarm Hezbollah, given that it effectively controlled the frontier with Israel and prevented Israeli forces from making incursions further into Lebanon. Despite repeated promises that Israel would withdraw from south Lebanon, it continued to occupy a fifteen-kilometer strip until May 2000.

In this fractured nation, Hezbollah continued to operate as a militia, and in places was the only form of defense against Israeli attacks in south Lebanon. Hezbollah would respond to incursions with its own attacks on Israeli forces and also on Israeli citizens elsewhere in the world. Hezbollah was blamed for the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, which killed twenty-nine, and of a Jewish culture center in the same city two years later, killing eighty-five.

Israel, for its part, used its foothold in south Lebanon to launch sporadic attacks and sting operations to capture or assassinate militant leaders. This included the abduction of a pro-Hezbollah cleric, Sheik Abd al-Karim Ubayd, in 1989; and the killing with helicopter gunships of its secretary-general, Sayyid Abbas al-Musawi, and his family, in an attack on his motorcade in 1992. During "Operation Grapes of Wrath" in April 1996, an extended Israeli operation against south Lebanese militants, hundreds of civilians were killed, including 102 at the UN compound at Qana. An Amnesty International report into the operation gave equal blame to both the Israeli army and to Hezbollah for not respecting the laws of war.



Just as a cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had emerged to unite Iran's Shi'ite population and lead the country into a revolutionary era, so Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah led and united Lebanon's Shi'ite population after Israel's ruinous and comprehensive invasion in 1982. Fadlallah was born in the Iraqi city of Najaf in November 1935, moving to Lebanon as an Islamic scholar when he was sixteen. A poet and radical preacher, he railed against the failings of the Muslim people against a backdrop of a post-colonial era in which their homelands continued to be dominated by the West.

When, under Iranian direction, a populist Shi'ite movement emerged in the wake of Israel's occupation of Lebanon, and the intervention of Western peacekeepers, it was Fadlallah who emerged as its natural, if not titular, head. As the academic, Martin Kramer put it: "Obscure men carried out the acts of violence that made Hezbollah renowned … but it was the ubiquitous Fadlallah who processed the rage of Hezbollah into speech, in sermons and lectures, on tape and in print. Borne aloft on a wind of words, he made himself the voice of Hezbollah's conscience and its spokesman to the world. His very ubiquity suggested that he led the movement, a supposition that drew diplomats, mediators, and assassins to his door."

An alleged CIA-backed assassination failed in 1985, killing more than eighty bystanders, and Fadlallah was several times forced to retreat to Iran fearing for his safety.

Although the fatwa (struggle) he issued against any Muslim helping the United States occupy an Islamic country betrays a hard-line instinct so common amongt ayatollahs, Fadlallah is relatively liberal in outlook, speaking out in favor of women's rights and against terrorism.

The end of the Lebanese civil war also served as the prompt for Hezbollah to diverge into various other areas. Generously funded by the Iranian government and also with considerable funds from its own business and charitable ventures, Hezbollah came to exist as a wide-ranging movement, building and operating schools, hospitals, and orphanages. In 1992, it participated in free elections, winning twelve out of 128 seats in Lebanon's Parliament. By 2005, it had increased its electoral showing to twenty-three seats and formed part of a coalition government, this despite opposing the "Cedar Revolution," which had prompted the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

Nevertheless, Hezbollah continues to be tainted with accusations of extremism. It is still embroiled in border skirmishes with Israel in south Lebanon, although these have declined since Israel's withdrawal in 2000. Israel has accused Hezbollah of organizing suicide bombings during the al-Aqsa intifada, although there is no proof of this. Israel, for its part, however, continues to target Hezbollah officials in bombings and assassinations on Lebanese soil, a direct contravention of international law. Although it is fiercely anti-Zionist and anti-Western in many of its sentiments, Hezbollah is not overtly anti-Semitic (although its television station has been accused of anti-Semitic broadcasts), in contrast to many Islamist organizations. Its continued links with Iran and Syria, both regarded by the United States president George W. Bush as existing as an "axis of evil," remain a cause for concern among U.S. security officials, although accusations in the American media that Hezbollah has ties to al-Qaeda are almost certainly nonsense.


Hezbollah is a Shi'ite political movement that favors the creation of an Islamic Republic in Lebanon modeled on that of Iran. However, it supports democratic measures to bring this about. In Hezbollah's view, Islam alone will redeem Lebanon from its troubled history of civil war and foreign intervention, which, it says, are the consequence of Lebanon's attempts to Westernize itself.

During the Lebanese Civil War, it adopted a two-pronged strategy to fight outside forces. Against Israel, primarily in the south of Lebanon, it waged a guerilla war, with "hit and run" assaults against defense installations, but also rocket attacks at Israeli settlements. This continued during Israel's prolonged occupation of south Lebanon until 2000. Against Western peacekeepers, it launched suicide bomb attacks of horrific intensity. Commonly, this would consist of a truck loaded with TNT driven into a military installation. In both instances, this "war" was fought by men who had accepted the call of Shi'ite clerics for jihad.


Emerges as Lebanese National Resistance, an amalgamation of Shi'ite-based militia under Iranian influence following Israel's invasion of south Lebanon.
Truck bombing of U.S. embassy in Beirut kills sixty-three.
Simultaneous bombings of U.S. and French barracks kills 241 and fifty-eight servicemen, respectively.
Kidnapping of CIA Beirut Chief, William Buckley, marks onset of Hezbollah campaign of kidnapping Western targets, both military and civilian.
Second bombing of U.S. embassy kills twenty-three.
Hezbollah issues its "open letter," declaring its doctrine.
Hezbollah-offshoot Islamic Jihad blamed for the hijacking of TWA Flight 847.
Hezbollah involved in bloody dispute with rival Shi'ite militia, Amal.
The Taif Agreement, which brings an end to the Lebanese Civil War, also marks Hezbollah's rebirth as a political movement. It also serves as Lebanon's de facto defense forces on its southern border, which Israel continued to occupy until 2000.
After winning twenty-three seats to Lebanon's 128-seat Parliament, Hezbollah becomes part of a coalition government.

Hezbollah's campaign of jihad also included hijackings, kidnappings, and occasionally attacks against Jewish or Israeli interests on foreign soil. Often, the motivations for such attacks could appear as they were not always followed by a political statement or set of demands.

Since the end of the Lebanese Civil War, Hezbollah has merged into the mainstream and wide-ranging political movement. As well as contesting democratic elections with some success, it has been involved in implementing social policy in parts of the country, including schools, hospitals, orphanages, and clinics. At the same time, it has maintained a militia to protect Lebanon's southern border with Israel.


Robert Fisk is a veteran Middle East correspondent, whose book about the Lebanese Civil War, Pity the Nation, remains the classic account of the era. Terry Anderson, the U.S. journalist kidnapped by Hezbollah in 1985, is one of Fisk's closest friends, and for years Fisk lived in fear that he too would suffer the same fate. Writing in 2002, at a time when another of his journalist friends, Daniel Pearl, had been kidnapped in Pakistan, he reflected that the kidnapping of journalists was the biggest goal such a movement could commit. "Back in the mid-to-late 1980s, journalists were culled by the hostage-takers of Beirut … and death threats were a regular occurrence," he wrote. "I remember spending an hour searching for my friend Terry Anderson's body on a garbage tip—a story I was thankfully able to tell him in person after his release almost seven years later. I met some of those kidnappers, tough, uncompromising men of ruthless determination.

Hizballah a.k.a. Party of God, Islamic Jihad, Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine


Formed in 1982 in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, this Lebanon-based radical Shia group takes its ideological inspiration from the Iranian revolution and the teachings of the late Ayatollah Khomeini. The Majlis al-Shura, or Consultative Council, is the group's highest governing body and is led by Secretary General Hasan Nasrallah. Hizballah is dedicated to liberating Jerusalem and eliminating Israel, and has formally advocated ultimate establishment of Islamic rule in Lebanon. Nonetheless, Hizballah has actively participated in Lebanon's political system since 1992. Hizballah is closely allied with, and often directed by, Iran but has the capability and willingness to act independently. Though Hizballah does not share the Syrian regime's secular orientation, the group has been a strong ally in helping Syria advance its political objectives in the region.


Known or suspected to have been involved in numerous anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli terrorist attacks, including the suicide truck bombings of the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 and the U.S. Embassy annex in Beirut in 1984. Three members of Hizballah, 'Imad Mughniyah, Hasan Izz-al-Din, and Ali Atwa, are on the FBI's list of 22 Most Wanted Terrorists for the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847 during which a US Navy diver was murdered. Elements of the group were responsible for the kidnapping and detention of Americans and other Westerners in Lebanon in the 1980s. Hizballah also attacked the Israeli Embassy in Argentina in 1992 and the Israeli cultural center in Buenos Aires in 1994. In 2000, Hizballah operatives captured three Israeli soldiers in the Shab'a Farms and kidnapped an Israeli noncombatant.

Hizballah also provides guidance and financial and operational support for Palestinian extremist groups engaged in terrorist operations in Israel and the occupied territories.

In 2004, Hizballah launched an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that left Lebanese airspace and flew over the Israeli town of Nahariya before crashing into Lebanese territorial waters. Ten days prior to the event, the Hizballah Secretary General said Hizballah would come up with new measures to counter Israeli Air Force violations of Lebanese airspace. Hizballah also continued launching small scale attacks across the Israeli border, resulting in the deaths of several Israeli soldiers. In March 2004, Hizballah and HAMAS signed an agreement to increase joint efforts to perpetrate attacks against Israel. In late 2004, Hizballah's al-Manar television station, based in Beirut with an estimated ten million viewers worldwide, was prohibited from broadcasting in France. Al-Manar was placed on the Terrorist Exclusion List (TEL) in the United States, which led to its removal from the program offerings of its main cable service provider, and made it more difficult for al-Manar associates and affiliates to operate in the United States.


Several thousand supporters and a few hundred terrorist operatives.


Operates in the southern suburbs of Beirut, the Beka'a Valley, and southern Lebanon. Has established cells in Europe, Africa, South America, North America, and Asia.


Receives financial, training, weapons, explosives, political, diplomatic, and organizational aid from Iran, and diplomatic, political, and logistical support from Syria. Hizballah also receives funding from charitable donations and business interests.

Source: U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Terrorism. Washington, D.C., 2004.

"But they made one serious political error. Once foreigners were kidnapped, almost every Western journalist fled Beirut. Although The Independent kept operating … Lebanon's tragedy fell out of the news. No one read or heard of the great battles being fought between Hezbollah and the occupying Israeli army in the south of the country—save, of course, from Israel itself—and the terrible suffering of the Palestinian camps under siege by a Lebanese militia was a story largely untold. The Hezbollah, around which these kidnap groups floated like satellites, now acknowledges that hostage-taking was a major blunder, an own goal of the worst kind, quite apart from the inhumanity of imprisoning the innocent and threatening their lives. If Israel could not persuade the United States to put the Hezbollah on America's 'terrorist' list, the kidnappings would have done the trick. The argument that national resistance should not be confused with 'terrorism' was never heard—because the journalists who should have reported it were either locked up or running away."

The former Jerusalem Post editor and fierce defender of Israeli policy, David Bar-Illan, wrote in the wake of the TWA hijacking in 1985 that the kidnappers had waged an astute campaign to garner global opinion, while at the same time portraying Israel as the bete noire of the piece.

"The hijackers and their supporters, whose sensitivity to media techniques and moods has been a source of wonder to communication experts, were quick to recognize a public-relations bonanza when they saw it," wrote Bar-Illan. "By sticking to this one demand alone, they had television networks throughout the West acting as their mouthpiece, and at their disposal the round-the-clock services of the world's most influential opinion-molders. Like the media, they themselves quickly dropped all their other demands and concentrated on Israel.

"So the familiar scene was set: on one side persecuted Arabs, 'understandably enraged' by horrible injustices, making 'reasonable' demands after all, they were entitled to the release of those prisoners, said American arbitration experts paraded before the cameras—and on the other side intransigent Israelis cold-bloodedly disregarding the fate of innocent people … Over and over again, television commentators, anchormen, and reporters, alternating hints with accusations, and assuming the roles of negotiators, arbiters, and moralizers, portrayed Israel as an ungrateful ally which had freed 1,150 convicted murderers in return for three Israeli soldiers, but would not free over 700 innocent Lebanese ('not charged with any crime') to save the lives of thirty-nine American tourists."


Despite continuing to be tainted by accusations of extremism and terrorism, Hezbollah is carving a niche for itself as a political movement in post civil-war Lebanon. Its spiritual leader's disavowal of violence and support for women's rights, combined with an acknowledgement that some of its past actions were misguided, has prompted hopes that it can exist as a modern Islamist party. However, given the current concerns about Islamic extremism—particularly in light of its shadowy past—and the characterization of its two closest allies, Syria and Iran, as rogue nations mean it is unlikely to shake off its darker image.



Fisk, Robert. Pity the Nation. Oxford: Oxford Press, 2001.

Tarik, Judith Palmer. Hizbollah: The Changing Face of Terrorism. London: I B Tauris, 2004.

Web sites

Martin Kramer on the Middle East. 〈http://www.martinkramer.org/pages/899526/index.htm〉 (accessed October 13, 2005).

US Memorial to Beirut Dead. "History: U.S. Embassy Bombing." 〈http://www.beirut—memorial.org/history/embassy.html〉 (accessed October 13, 2005).


views updated Jun 11 2018

Hezbollah an extremist Shiite Muslim group which has close links with Iran, created after the Iranian revolution of 1979 and active especially in Lebanon. The name comes from Arabic ḥizbullāh ‘Party of God’.