As Lebanese officials visit Iran this week, Tehran is again stressing its support for efforts to evict Israeli forces from the south of that country. The efforts are spearheaded by Lebanese Shi'ite militia with close ideological and financial ties to the Islamic Republic. RFE/RL regional specialist William Samii reports from Beirut on how the militia have built themselves into a powerful force within Lebanon's Shi'ite community.
Beirut, 10 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Iran has never hidden its support for the Lebanese Shi'ite fighters seeking to force Israeli troops from southern Lebanon.
Iranian President Mohammad Khatami told visiting Lebanese Transport Minister Najib Miqati earlier this week that, in his words, "Lebanon ... has been representing the whole Islamic and Arab world in its struggle against the Zionist regime."
Khatami's words underlined Tehran's continued commitment to support the Shi'ite militia known as the Hezbollah. The militia launches almost daily attacks against the heavily defended buffer zone Israel has maintained across southern Lebanon since 1985. Mounting Israeli troop casualties in recent years have caused Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to vow he will extricate Israel from southern Lebanon by next summer.
The visible ties between Iran and the Hezbollah immediately strike any visitor to the Shi'ite militia's strongholds in the southern suburbs of Beirut. Here and there are building-length paintings of the founder of Iran's Islamic revolution, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. There are even occasional posters of Iran's current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Shop windows show posters of a bearded and bespectacled Shi'ite cleric -- the late Sheikh Abbas Musawi. As commander of Hezbollah's Islamic Resistance and later as the party's secretary-general, Musawi was personally responsible for the 1988 kidnapping and murder of U.S. Lieutenant Colonel William Higgins. Musawi himself was assassinated by Israeli forces in 1992.
Such examples of perceived martyrdom have a strong emotional appeal to devout Shi'ites, because their religious tradition was born in militant self-sacrifice. Shi'ism dates to 680, when Imam Hussein, grandson of Prophet Mohammad, died leading a tiny force into battle over the leadership of Islam. The uneven contest led to the great split of Islam into Shi'ites and Sunnis which continues to this day.
But calls to armed resistance and martyrdom are only part of the Hezbollah's appeal to the Shi'ite community. To build public support, the group has set up an extensive network of hospitals and schools in poor neighborhoods. One Hezbollah-founded medical facility is the Al-Rassol al-Aazam Hospital in southern Beirut.
According to administrator Hajj Mohammad Hijazi, the hospital provides out-patient care for 5000 people per month and emergency room care for another 3000 patients per month. He says patients of different religions -- Shi'ite, Sunni, and Christian -- are attracted by the low cost of care -- about $10 per visit.
Hijazi says that in recent years funding from Iran has been greatly reduced. He says today the hospital must rely on earned income and assistance from a Shi'ite non-governmental organization called the Al-Shahid (Martyrs) Association. Mohammad Hijazi:
"The Shahid Association is responsible for the family and the dependents of the martyr. The family means the father, mother, the wives, and kids. The responsibility comes to us. We take care of the family from all aspects. ... We have other parts of the Shahid Association that take care of education of the kids."
A short drive from the hospital is the Al-Mahdi School, which was established by Hezbollah but which now is funded and managed by a non-governmental group called the Islamic Institution for Education and Teaching. The school is one of nine Al-Mahdi institutions in Lebanon. Some of the schools, such as the two in Beirut, are private, while others are funded partly by the government and partly with fees paid to the Beirut schools.
Like the hospital, the Al-Mahdi School is run by a Shi'ite organization, but according to school head Ahmad Kassir, the first priority is to give students a good education.
Ahmad Kassir says:
"We try to have religious teachers in our schools, but this does not prevent other teachers, if they have good qualifications and if we have need for them, to accept them for this school. Sometimes [when] we need a special teacher with high qualification, [or] we need a female and she is not wearing hijab (Islamic dress), we accept them [anyway] to raise the educational level."
All Lebanese schools must adhere to certain government standards. But the Al-Mahdi schools do have their own approach. Kassir says the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, for example, is discussed whenever it may be relevant.
"These things, [the occupation], are mentioned during the history or the geography. Say we talk about the south, what happened in the south. ... Talking in history about Algeria, the occupation of Algeria. In these ways, we try to make our students well aware of what is going on. We try to give our students knowledge of Israel, what are the goals of Hezbollah."
Kassir says that support for Hezbollah is a key element in education at the Al-Mahdi School.
"Our work supports the growth and ends of Hezbollah. We try to give the people the idea of Hezbollah educational work. ... Hezbollah is not the guerrillas that you talk about. Hezbollah also has the schools and supports the schools. Our students here, their families, some of them work for Hezbollah, we try to provide a high level of teaching. And we try for example, on special occasions, festivals, we try to join our students in it. We have the same aims and goals as Hezbollah."
Nor is the issue of martyrdom forgotten in the Shi'ite school.
"We have also in the week of resistance, we tell our students who is Sayyid Abbas [Musawi], why we respect this man, also [current Hezbollah Spiritual Leader] Sheikh Nasser, why we respect martyrs, why we respect them, why Islam gives great importance for such people because they give everything they have for the benefit of others."
Hezbollah may have to seek new sources of legitimacy after Israeli forces withdraw from Lebanon and the justification for armed resistance is eliminated. By sponsoring essential social services, Hezbollah has ensured that it will be part of Lebanese politics in the future.