Hezbollah made news this week when Israel informed the United States that the militant group is using U.S. carriers in its fight inside Syria. They’ve also made headlines for their involvement in helping the Syrian government close in on Aleppo in the recent weeks.
But most American citizens are probably wondering, who is Hezbollah and why should I care?
Who are Hezbollah?
Hezbollah is a Shi’a militant group and political party in the country of Lebanon. Hezbollah was officially declared a terrorist group by the United States in 1997, when the group made the U.S State Department’s first edition of the Foreign Terrorist Organizations list.
They are financial supported through the Iranian government, a stronghold for Shi’a Muslims
Why should I care about Hezbollah?
So Hezbollah might not be making the news like ISIS and their fighters might not be bombing stadiums in Paris, but the group shouldn’t be ignored when talking about the crises of the Middle East.
Hezbollah is deeply ingrained within the political affairs across the region, whether in Syria fighting or in the Gulf helping to mobilize smaller resistance groups. Hezbollah got their start through help from President Bashar al-Assad’s father, which is why their fighters are now engaged in the war.
The group is also helping to train and equip fighters in Yemen, prompting Saudi Arabia to put pressure on Lebanese politicians this year to out the group as an arm of terrorism.
“But ultimately, it is Hezbollah’s involvement in Yemen — a country considered a strategic priority for Saudi Arabia — that exacerbates tensions between the Shiite group and Gulf countries,” Mona Almani writes for Al-Monitor.
And in all this, Hezbollah now has an ally in the form of Michael Aoun, newly minted Lebanese President. Although Saad Hariri has been chosen as Prime Minister to counterweight Aoun, this is a huge win for Hezbollah. This helps the group act independently of the state, without having to worry about retaliation.
With a hand in the Syrian war and the war in Yemen, it would be a mistake not to care about Hezbollah.
How did Hezbollah form?
It all began with a small Shi’a political party in Lebanon, the Amal Movement, that gained steam during the Lebanon civil war and Israeli invasion of 1978.
Thanks to the support – and this is important– of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, Amal developed into the most powerful Shi’a militant group in Lebanon.
But Amal Leader Nabih Berri made a big mistake in the 1980s by attempting to take part in the National Salvation Committee, an effort by then President Elias Sarkis to bring all the militias into the same room during Beirut’s siege.
A group of young radicals within the Amal Movement were disgusted by compliance of their leader and broke off into what is today known as Hezbollah. The men wanted to ignore the committee and continue their fight against Israel without interference.
As a group of young Shi’a revolutionaries, Hezbollah quickly gained support from big players in the region. The group quickly denounced the Israeli invasion and Berri’s attempt at negotiation with other militias.
“There is no doubt that Berri’s willingness to contemplate a deal that would favor Syria’s enemies also provoked Damascus to lend support to Hezbollah as a counterweight to Amal,” Augustus Richard Norton wrote in his book, “Hezbollah: A Short History.”
So this is how it all goes back to Syria again.
President al-Assad quickly threw his financial support behind the splinter group. Assad had two main interests in mind: fueling the war against Israel and reinforcing a shake alliance with Shi’a leadership in Iran.
Did they get a lot of local support?
The short answer is yes. Most Shi’a men were attracted to the idea of expelling Israeli forces from the South and appreciated the religious connection in Hezbollah. The group didn’t have to do much to convince young men to join their ranks. The southern region of Lebanon, where Hezbollah was based, is where the largest Shi’a population was.
Citizens weren’t allowed to travel to their capital, Beirut, without Israeli permission. There would be gunfire and fighting in the streets. Most people, especially young people, wanted an end to occupation.
Abdallah Madani, 54, a native of the Shi’a dominated village of Nabatieh recalls the time as contentious. Madani says his father was not convinced by Hezbollah’s philsophy. He did all he could to keep his four sons away from the temptation.
“He didn’t want us to be in the south all the time, we would only visit and go back [to Beirut]. He didn’t want us to start to like [Hezbollah] and be a part of them,” Madani said.
Madani’s father, Habib, was a Shi’a Muslim but was not very religious and did not believe in militia groups. He supported the Lebanese Army, even with its failures, and tried to keep his sons in Beirut where his shop was.
“He was protecting us,” Madani said.
How did they get to be known as terrorists? How do they fight?
Hezbollah was using brute strength to accomplish goals very early on in their formation. With a mandate to eradicate Israel from within the Lebanese borders, all ends justified the means.
This was made obvious when, in 1983, Hezbollah bombed a set of U.S. Marine barracks. The act killed 241 U.S. military personnel.
That’s why the United States gave Hezbollah the label of a terrorist group.
Part of the successful campaign against Israeli forces came from a high level of organization within Hezbollah to fight. The group became powerful through their dedication to only accepting dedicated fighters and having them trained to fight in bunkers across southern Lebanon.
“Hezbollah’s tactics have developed to emphasize the movement of small groups of fighters and to increase the deftness and deniability in the case of potential capture, as individual units are not apprised of other units,” wrote Julie C Herrick in “The Changing Middle East.”
It is important to understand the use of proxies during this time by Israel in order to understand the strategy of resistance by Hezbollah.
At the time, Israel had aligned itself with the South Lebanese Army, a Christian militia. After the war was over, many SLA members would take refuge in Israel out of fear for retaliation.
And one of the most notable small units in Hezbollah’s military force was the Lebanese Resistance Brigades. The LRB was open to all religious sects, detracting away from the Islamist core of Hezbollah philosophy.
“This new unit would trained and guided by Hezbollah cadres. The [LRB] launched their first attack against SLA outposts six months after their establishment,” wrote Daher in his book, “Hezbollah.”
These small units engaged in a multitude of attacks over the span of decades, but also in the act of kidnapping foreigners and keeping tabs on any visitors. The branches span the country and operate in different capacities at different times in history.
How does an Islamist terrorist group get into politics?
Hezbollah stopped focusing on pushing an Islamist agenda. Lebanon is country with an extremely diverse population. And all throughout Hezbollah’s fight with Israel in the 1980s, Lebanon’s civil war was still ongoing. Everyone, regardless of religion, just wanted peace.
It was until the Ta’if Agreement was signed in 1989 that the internal power struggle ended. The agreement created a balance of power between Sunnis, Shi’as and Christians with a division of power in the democracy.
But the most critical part of the Ta’if Agreement for Hezbollah was acknowledging the group as an internal resistance force. All other non-state militia groups were called to disarm. It after Hezbollah signed the agreement that the group moved away from its Islamist core to a more “neoliberal” movement, according to Joseph Daher.
It’s important to note this shift for Hezbollah, because it is part of what gave the group lasting authority. Although internally religious and committed to the Shi’a beliefs, the group stopped pushing for a theocratic state within Lebanon and focused more on the need for internal coexistence.
This shift that helped the group gain favor within several religious communities across Lebanon, including Maronite Christians. And the Ta’if agreement acknowledged Hezbollah as a resistance movement, giving the group a political party that would change the course of Parliament.
Why doesn’t the Lebanese government just ban Hezbollah?
Currently, Hezbollah and its allies have all 23 Parliament seats for southern Lebanon. The organization might still be considered a terrorist group in the United States, but the country refuses to acknowledge the label. This would be considered a political suicide.
“Hezbollah would gain both official recognition as a political institution in Lebanon as well as a public podium, and would also be able to influence the budget to its constituents’ advantage,” wrote Norton. “By being inside the political system, Hezbollah might also be able to shape political dialogue to its benefit, as well as head off problematic initiatives.”
The group not only had a strong network of fighters that surpassed the national army, but its implementation of social services had given them popularity with the people. Hezbollah began to create medical services that were non-existent in southern Lebanon.
The military arm of Hezbollah works in perfect conjunction with the political and social units, a rarity for most non-state groups. Usually division within the community would result in factions or splinter groups that would have crippled the organization.
It is the political arm that assures Lebanese officials stay out of Hezbollah’s dealings with the Syrian war in 2011 into present day. It is the social services arm that helps to gain favor among the citizens, regardless of religion. And it is the military arm that fights in Syria, a return of the good faith and support from the 80s and 90s. The military arm has also been key in keeping ISIS out of Lebanon.