Hezbollah: From Militia to Political Force
Hezbollah, which literally means ‘Party of God’ in Arabic, was formed in the wake of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 and the Israeli invasion of South Lebanon in 1982. It has both a military wing, which is designated as a terrorist organization by a broad coalition of countries, and a non-military wing, which is represented in the Lebanese government.
Hezbollah follows a distinct Shia Islamic theology called Valiyat al-Faqih (‘the Guardianship of Islamic Jurists’), which was developed by Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Although Hezbollah’s original aim was to transform Lebanon into a formal Islamic republic, this goal was later abandoned in favour of a more pragmatic approach.
The party’s roots date back to the Shiite revival in the 1960s and ’70s, which is largely attributed to the Lebanese-Iranian cleric and philosopher Sayed Musa al-Sadr. He moved to Lebanon as an emissary of Ayatollah Boroujerdi, who led the Marja (religious authority) in Iran from around 1947 until his death in 1961. Al-Sadr, who came from a long line of distinguished clerics, had a lasting influence on Lebanese politics and religion. He is often referred to as the ‘towering figure in modern Shia political thought’ who gave Lebanese Shiites a sense of purpose and community in the country’s complex sectarian landscape. In doing so, he laid the foundations for Hezbollah’s emergence.
Al-Sadr gained prominence as a vocal advocate of Lebanon’s Shiite population, a group that was economically and politically disadvantaged. ‘[Al-Sadr] worked tirelessly to improve the lot of his community – to give them a voice, to protect them from the ravages of war and inter-communal strife,’ wrote Vali Nasr, an Iranian-American academic and author specializing in the Middle East and the Islamic world, in his book The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future. However, al-Sadr, known for his shrewdness, impressed the Lebanese as a whole by presenting himself as a moderate figure willing to communicate and cooperate with the country’s different sects. To capitalize on that, al-Sadr’s plan to give Shiites the same standing as other Lebanese sects unfolded in two stages.
The first was his appointment in 1969 as the head of the Supreme Islamic Shiite Council, a body intended to give Shiites more say in Lebanon’s political decision-making process. The second came in 1974, when he founded the Harakat al-Mahrumin (‘Movement of the Dispossessed’), which later became known as the Amal (‘hope’) Movement, to push for better economic and social conditions for Shiites.
A year later, in January 1975, the movement developed an armed wing under al-Sadr’s leadership and was called the Lebanese Resistance Regiments. It gained attention after al-Sadr’s mysterious disappearance on a trip to Libya in 1978, and saw renewed popularity after Israel’s invasion of South Lebanon – a predominantly Shiite area – in the early 1980s. Al-Sadr was briefly succeeded by Hussein al-Husseini, but he resigned in 1980, after refusing to ‘drench Amal in blood’ and fight alongside the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) or any other faction in the ongoing Lebanese civil war.
Following al-Husseini’s resignation, Nabih Berri took over, marking the movement’s involvement in the war. However, a religious current inside the movement was dissatisfied with Berri’s leadership, which was considered ‘too secular’ and, in the summer of 1982, broke away with Husain al-Musawi, Amal’s deputy head and official spokesman, to form the Islamic Amal Movement. Among the other reasons for the split was Berri’s acceptance of US diplomatic efforts to end the Israeli siege of West Beirut, Amal’s stronghold, and his opposition to pledging pan-Islamic allegiance to Iran’s revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini.
The Islamic Amal Movement received considerable military and organizational support from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Based in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, the Revolutionary Guards had been sent by Khomeini to fight the Israeli invasion, and emerged as the most prominent and effective of the religiously conservative Shiite militias that would go on to form Hezbollah. A contingent of 1,500 Revolutionary Guards subsequently trained Hezbollah members and its cadres, eventually rendering the group’s existence an Iranian project, loyal to Khomeini and with the central purpose of posing a threat to Israel.
Finding a Purpose
Israel’s invasion and occupation of South Lebanon in 1982 gave the aforementioned militias their purpose and they began carrying out attacks against Israeli troops and the South Lebanon Army (SLA), a Christian militia allied to Israel. This was accomplished through a combination of guerrilla warfare and semi-conventional war. Guerrilla warfare consisted of assassinations, car bombings, targeted killings, kidnappings and suicide bombings. While not the first group to use suicide bombings, Hezbollah is largely credited with being the first Islamic group to popularize them. It would go on to use them with great success until 2000, before eventually eschewing them in favour of other attacks.
Following the 1981 US-brokered ceasefire between the PLO and Israel and the deployment of the four-nation Multinational Force in Lebanon (MNF – US, Britain, France and Italy) as an international peacekeeping force, Hezbollah became increasingly active in the Lebanese civil war. Hezbollah is believed to have been behind the bombing of the US embassy and the coordinated bombing of the US and French barracks in 1983. In the latter attack, suicide bombers driving two truck bombs loaded with the equivalent of six tons of TNT explosives plowed into the barracks, killing 258 Americans and 58 French soldiers and leading the Western peacekeeping forces to withdraw.
In 1985, Hezbollah officially announced its establishment by publishing a manifesto that listed among its objectives the need to expel ‘the Americans, the French and their allies definitely from Lebanon, putting an end to any colonialist entity on our land’. It also called for the ‘obliteration’ of Israel and the ‘adoption of the Islamic system on the basis of free and direct selection of the people, not on the basis of forceful imposition’, and labelled the US and the Soviet Union as Islam’s principal enemies.
The 1989 Taif Accord, the roadmap for the political solution that put an end the Lebanese civil war, called for the disarmament of the different militias. This prompted Hezbollah to rebrand its military wing as an ‘Islamic resistance’ force, strictly dedicated to ending Israel’s occupation. With Syrian patronage and support, it was allowed to keep its weapons and build on its arsenal and fighting expertise.
Entry into Politics
After the peace imposed on Lebanon in 1990, Hezbollah continued its guerrilla war in South Lebanon. However, it also added a political wing to its initially paramilitary one, showing major ideological leniency – or pragmatism – towards the Lebanese state and its intricate sectarian power-sharing formula. In 1992, it successfully participated in national elections for the first time. It won all 12 seats on its electoral list and, at the end of that year, began to engage in dialogue with Lebanese Christians.
In 2000, Israeli forces finally left South Lebanon. Hezbollah’s operations throughout the 1990s were largely credited with the withdrawal. Moreover, the group resisted the ongoing pressure to disarm and maintained its full military presence in the South, claiming that the disputed Shebaa Farms and other areas were part of Lebanon and thus needed liberating.
In July 2006, Hezbollah militants launched a cross-border attack. Eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two others kidnapped, triggering a massive Israeli retaliation. For 34 days, Israeli warplanes bombed Hezbollah strongholds in South Lebanon, Baalbek and Beirut’s southern suburbs. Hezbollah fired about 4,000 rockets at Israel. More than 1,125 Lebanese, most of them civilians, died during the conflict as well as 119 Israeli soldiers and 45 civilians.
Hezbollah not only survived the war, it emerged more emboldened than ever. It upgraded and expanded its arsenal and recruited a myriad of new fighters. However, there has been no major flare-up along the border since, and the area is now patrolled by UN peacekeepers and the Lebanese army.
In 2008, as the Lebanese government was preparing to shut down Hezbollah’s private telecommunications network and to replace Beirut airport’s security chief over alleged ties to the group, Hezbollah retaliated by seizing much of the capital and fighting rival Sunni and Druze groups with the weapons it had amassed since the end of the civil war. To end the sectarian clashes that left 81 people dead and brought Lebanon to the brink of a new civil war, the government backed down. A power-sharing agreement, engineered by Qatar, gave Hezbollah and its allies a number of cabinet positions and consequently the power to veto any cabinet decision.
Following the outbreak of war in Syria in 2011, thousands of Hezbollah militants deployed to fight alongside President Bashar al-Assad, eventually proving decisive in helping pro-government forces recover ground lost to rebels, mainly along the Lebanese border. Nevertheless, Hezbollah’s involvement sharpened sectarian tensions in both Syria and Lebanon. Its support for Syria’s Shia Alawite president and allegiance to Iran also caused a deepening of hostility from Gulf Arab states. In early 2016, both the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League accused Hezbollah of ‘hostile acts’ and declared it a terrorist organization.
Moreover, the high number of Hezbollah casualties in Syria has led to mounting political, economic and social pressure from Hezbollah’s own supporters. The group’s carefully cultivated reputation for winning was somewhat restored following the December 2016 offensive in Eastern Aleppo, but success in Syria goes beyond military prowess: much of Iran’s support for Hezbollah has flowed through Syria, a conduit that Hezbollah cannot afford to lose.