After three weeks of the "Mercedes Revolution," led mainly by Lebanon's Christian and Sunni middle classes, who demand that Syria withdraw its army and military intelligence units from the country following the murder of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, the Shi'ites, led by Hizballah, showed their street power by bringing out more than half a million lower class supporters on 8 March to "thank Syria for its role in Lebanon" and protest any "foreign intervention" in Lebanon.
Muhammad Fneish, a parliamentary deputy for the Hizballah parliamentary bloc, told the 10-16 March edition of the Egyptian weekly "Al-Ahram" that: "We are neither with the opposition nor with the pro-Syria forces," he said. "We stand on a middle ground and are thus supported by the majority of the Lebanese people," Fneish said.
"Israel is our enemy. This is an aggressive, illegal, and illegitimate entity, which has no future in our land. Its destiny is manifested in our motto: 'Death to Israel.'"
At almost the same time as this large show of support by Hizballah, the United States indicated it was ready to accept a political role for Hizballah in Lebanon in order to prevent a political crisis in the country.
Earlier, in mid-February, the international press reported that representatives of the United States and Israel visited a number of European capitals in an attempt to convince government officials to put Hizballah on a terrorism watch list and to ban its fundraising activities in Europe.
Despite French opposition, on 10 March the European Parliament voted 473 to 8 with 33 abstentions to declare Hizballah a terrorist organization; however, for the vote to be binding it needs unanimous agreement from the EU's Council of Ministers. The vote came one day after the United States agreed to a role for Hizballah in a Lebanese government, according to "The New York Times" on 10 March.
The move to get the Europeans to classify Hizballah as a terrorist organization came one week after talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and newly elected Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas took place on 8 February. The two leaders met in Egypt where they announced a cease-fire, hailing it as a new opportunity for peace in the Middle East.
The United States clearly did not want Hizballah to derail the cease-fire by helping one of the Palestinian groups that opposes cooperation with Israel commit a terrorist act that would damage chances for progress in the peace process.
Soon after the cease-fire was declared, former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri was killed in a massive explosion in Beirut on 14 February. One popular perception was that Syria was behind the assassination (some speculated that the assassins might have been Hizballah members acting for Syria) and soon the Lebanese government resigned under pressure. After a month of severe pressure from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, other European countries and even some Arab countries, Syria agreed to pull its troops out of the country.
At that point Hizballah called on its supporters to take to the streets for a massive show of strength.
HIZBALLAH AND ISRAEL
The apparent reaction of Hizballah to the latest Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire agreement was made in a roundabout way when Manzar TV, a Hizballah-controlled television station in Lebanon, broadcast a speech by its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, on 18 February.
According to a transcript of the speech monitored by MEMRI (http://memri.org), Hasan Nasrallah stated: "Israel is our enemy. This is an aggressive, illegal, and illegitimate entity, which has no future in our land. Its destiny is manifested in our motto: 'Death to Israel.'"
Hizballah's seeming rejection of the peace efforts were further confirmed when a high-ranking security official of the Palestinian Autonomy told "The Jerusalem Post" on 9 February that: "Hizballah and Iran are not happy with Abbas's efforts to achieve a cease-fire with Israel and resume negotiations with Israel.... That's why we don't rule out the possibility that they might try to kill him if he continues with his policy."
When a terrorist bomb killed four people in Tel Aviv on 25 February, the London "Daily Telegraph" wrote that "A senior Palestinian official involved in the investigation said: 'All the information that we have from interrogations shows that Hizballah is involved in the operation.'"
Avi Pazner, an Israeli spokesman, declined to rule out Hizballah involvement in the bombing, the first suicide attack in Israel since 1 November. Soon after the Israelis blamed Syria for harboring members of the Islamic Jihad organization which took credit for the blast and did not mention Hizballah as a suspect.
There are a number of other reasons why the United States wants Hizballah brought under control and prevented from influencing the Israeli-Palestinian talks.
An end to Palestinian-Israeli violence would be a major victory in the war on terror. It is thought that an end to that conflict would take away much of the anger and resentment that exists in Arab countries surrounding the Palestinian issue and, by extension, negate some of the anti-American rhetoric used by terrorist organizations to justify their actions.
A solution to the Palestinian question would also be seen by some as a byproduct of the free elections held in Palestine and could provide the United States with the impetus for continuing its strategy of working for democratization in the Middle East.
THE EVOLUTION OF HIZBALLAH
Hizballah first appeared on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations nearly 25 years ago, after it was suspected of having bombed the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and killing 241 U.S. Marines when a suicide bomber drove into the Marine's barracks in Beirut in 1983.
The militant Shi'ite group was formed in Beirut in 1982 and found much of its inspiration, and financing, in the Iranian Shi'ite revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the late 1970s. Hizballah saw as its goal the expulsion of the United States from the Mideast. The group's "Open Letter from Hizballah to the Disinherited in Lebanon and the World," issued in Beirut on 16 February 1985 and quoted by Martin Kramer, a scholar of Islamic movements, in his essay "Hizballah: The Calculus of Jihad," (http://www.martinkramer.org) declared: "We are proceeding toward a battle with vice at its very roots, and the first root of vice is America."
After the Lebanese civil war ended and Hizballah was instrumental in pressuring Israeli troops to leave the "security zone" in the south of the country, Hizballah strove to gain legitimacy among wider circles, not only in Lebanon, where it is now a legitimate political party with 12 seats in parliament, but also in Europe where it presented itself as a charitable organization helping Shi'ites rebuild their community in Lebanon.
"Hizballah is not what it was 20 years ago," a Shi'ite publisher was quoted as saying by "The Jerusalem Post" on 24 February. "Lebanon has changed, and the world has changed. There is no reason why Lebanese Shi'ites should not adopt."
Hizballah, according to the report "Foreign Terrorist Organizations," issued by the U.S.-based Congressional Research Service (CRS) on 6 February 2004, has not engaged in any anti-American acts of terror for more than 10 years.
However, Hizballah did not abandon its militant anti-Israeli rhetoric and support for terrorist groups in Palestine. Hizballah also still maintains an armed militia in southern Lebanon and training camps in the Bekaa Valley. It is suspected of receiving aid from Syria and Iran.
Hizballah's intentions remain largely unknown at this time. Is it bent on subverting the goal of Palestinian Authority President Abbas to negotiate a peaceful solution with Israel? Will Hizballah and its supporters in Iran and Syria try to disrupt the Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire?
There are legitimate doubts that Hizballah is willing to take this risk and become isolated prior to the Lebanese parliamentary elections scheduled for April. It certainly is unlikely to relish the idea of being seen as an agent of the mullahs in Tehran or of Syrian military intelligence for much longer.