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Middle East: Hizballah -- Past And Present

Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah at a Beirut press conference on July 12 (epa) PRAGUE, July 20, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Hizballah, in Arabic, means Party of God.

In May 2000, Hizballah won the respect of many Lebanese when it took credit for Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon.

An Israeli military pullout of Lebanon had always been the goal of the Iranian-inspired Shi'ite movement, which first emerged during the bloody Lebanese civil war in the early 1980s.

Shi'ite Resurgence

Yet its spiritual and intellectual origins go back further.

“The origin of this is not in the early '80s," says Lebanese-born Nadim Shehadi, director of Oxford University’s Center for Lebanese Studies in Britain. "The origin late '50s, early '60s. The root of it is a reaction to the higher clergy and to the dominant ideology of the Shi'ite establishment, which was to suffer in silence and wait for the second coming of the Mehdi, the 12th imam, who will then spread justice in the world.”

Hizballah wanted to take an active role and found its inspiration in Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The party's rhetoric calls for the destruction of Israel. It regards Palestine as occupied Muslim land. Israel, it says, has no right to exist.

In 1983, Hizballah-linked militants orchestrated the bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon that killed 241 U.S. troops. That attack eventually led to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the region. Hizballah also was behind the kidnapping of some 30 Westerners between 1982 and 1992.

Fighting By Proxy

Like then, some analysts see today’s fighting in Lebanon between Israel and Hizballah as a proxy conflict.

“The blowing up of the [U.S. Marine] barracks and the [1980s] hostage crisis was in a way a proxy confrontation between Iran and the United States, in Lebanon," Shehadi says. "And what you’re seeing now, in a way, is a replica of this.”

In the early days of existence, Hizballah was seen working closely with thousands of Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Based in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, the guards had been sent by Tehran to help drive Israeli troops out.

This past week, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert accused Iran of having Revolutionary Guard troops in Lebanon. Iran denies providing any military aid to Hizballah, but readily acknowledges its moral support of the movement.

"With this effort by Hizballah, the Lebanese people will have a better understanding of the value of Hizballah's resistance and arms and as the leader of our Islamic Revolution said, Hizballah will not be disarmed," said Iranian parliament speaker Gholam-Ali Hadad-Adel during a July 18 speech to a Tehran rally.

The Radicalization Of Southern Lebanon

At one time, the movement’s leadership dreamed of transforming Lebanon's multi-confessional state into an Iranian-style Shi'ite Islamic state. That idea also appealed to many Hizballah supporters in southern Lebanon, where the movement is seen as an organic outgrowth of the local population.

“Hizballah is part and parcel of the population of south Lebanon," Shehadi says. "It’s a resistance movement that emerged from the radicalization of the population of south Lebanon following the Israeli invasion of 1982 and the occupation of south Lebanon.”

But along the way, Hizballah came to abandon its visions of an Islamic state in favor of a more open attitude toward the rest of Lebanese society and to take part in parliamentary elections. It’s an approach that has proven successful.

Shi'ia are Lebanon’s biggest community, comprising one-third of the population, Hizballah has a significant presence in parliament. It has built broad support by providing social services and health care. And it has an influential television station, Al-Manar, which Israel has targeted with air strikes this week.

U.S. soldiers search the debris after a terrorist attack on a military barracks in Beirut that killed 241 American soldiers on October 23, 1983 (AFP)

Still, it’s Hizballah’s military wing, the Islamic Resistance, that is helping to fuel the current crisis.

The military wing violates the Taifa Agreement that ended the Lebanese civil war in 1989. It also violates UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which in 2004 called for the disbanding and disarming of all militias in Lebanon and helped lead to Syria’s military pullout last year.

Hizballah cites two immediate motives for maintaining its militia along the Israel-Lebanon border.

One is the detention of prisoners from Lebanon in Israeli jails. Hizballah’s cross-border raid to kill and capture Israeli soldiers last week, which triggered the current crisis, was ostensibly intended to obtain leverage to get Israel to agree to a prisoner swap.

"There is only one way for these [Israeli] prisoners that we have to go home: indirect negotiations and [prisoner] exchange and peace," said Hizballah leader Shiekh Hassan Nasrallah during a July 12 news conference in Beirut. "Nobody in the entire world can take them back home except through indirect negotiations and exchange."

The Syrian Factor

Hizballah’s second reason for maintaining its militia is an area known as the Shebaa Farms. With broad backing among the Lebanese population, Hizballah says Shebaa Farms is Lebanese territory.

But Israel and the UN say the area is part of the Golan Heights -- that is, Syrian territory occupied by Israel since 1967.

A pro-Hizballah rally in Tehran on July 18 (Fars)

With Iran, Syria has long been seen as Hizballah’s chief benefactor.

Diplomats say Damascus uses Hizballah as a card to play in its conflict with Israel over the Golan Heights.

In the current crisis, the United States has accused both Syria and Iran of in effect “playing the Hizboallah card” to pursue their own regional interests.

Those interests were particularly affected by last year’s withdrawal from Lebanon of Syrian troops, after Damascus was widely blamed for the assassination of Lebanese former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria denies any involvement.

But in the anti-Syria frenzy that swept Lebanon following Hariri’s killing, pro-Syrian Hizballah ironically emerged as the country’s most powerful military force.

It even gained a seat in Lebanon’s multiconfessional cabinet -- a government that U.S. President George W. Bush said on July 18 must not be toppled in the current conflict.

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