Backgrounder Hezbollah Finds Itself at Crossroad As Political Turmoil Rocks Lebanon

These are uncertain times for Hezbollah, one of Israel’s cruelest and most cunning enemies. A few days after the radical Lebanese Shi’ite organization staged a huge pro-Syrian demonstration in the heart of Beirut, opposition forces came back en masse, taking to the streets with a popular message to Syria: Get out.

At the same time, the European Parliament expanded the Western front against the group, declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization and sharply limiting its scope of operations and ability to raise funds in Europe.

The European move was the last in a series of developments that pointed to a decline in Hezbollah’s international status.

The upheaval in Iraq, the renewed peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, international pressure on Syria to pull its troops out of Lebanon and the resignation of Lebanon’s pro-Syrian government all seem to have pulled the rug out from Hezbollah.

Still, under the leadership of Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah is one of the strongest and best organized bodies in Lebanon. The organization could play an important role in Lebanon’s approaching elections, scheduled for May.

Hezbollah’s evolution from its creation in the aftermath of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon to its role today underscores how far the group has come and how it continues to be a force with which Israel must contend.

Nasrallah, 45, is a determined man of religion, a master of psychological warfare. He’s manipulative and knows how to drag people behind him.

When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to rout out Palestinian terrorist activity crossing over its northern border, relations between Israel and Amal, a Shi’ite political and paramilitary organization, were cordial.

Amal represented the weakest strata of Lebanese society, and its interests were served by the outcome of Israel’s actions — the weakening of Palestinian power in Lebanon.

But soon the young Nasrallah followed his teacher, Abbas Musawi, out of Amal, and the radical group Hezbollah — the party of God — was formed.

Iran sent a force of some 1,500 Revolutionary Guards to help the new organization, whose main focus was to expel Israeli and Western forces from Lebanon.

As anti-Israeli operations in Lebanon intensified, an Israeli missile struck Musawi’s motorcade in 1992 and killed him. It was Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who asked Nasrallah to replace Musawi. Today Iran and Syria are Hezbollah’s main patrons, supplying the organization with arms and funds.

Hezbollah views the Iranian model of an Islamic state as the most desirable form of governance. However, Lebanon is a multireligious state so Hezbollah does not consider an Islamic state there a viable political option.

Hezbollah supports the destruction of Israel and cooperates with other militant Islamic organizations, such as Hamas, to promote this goal. Hezbollah attacks on the Israel Defense Force were an important factor in Israel’s decision to leave Lebanon in May 2000.

At first, Hezbollah also targeted the Western presence in Lebanon, particularly the French and Italian multinational peacekeeping force, whose claimed purpose was to stabilize the country.

It was believed to have been the driving force behind several attacks on American targets: the April 1983 suicide bombing at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut that killed 63 people; the October 1983 attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 American servicemen, and the attack at the same time on the French multinational force headquarters that killed 58 French soldiers.

In September 1984, seven months after the United States withdrew its forces from Lebanon, Hezbollah supporters staged a second attack on the U.S. Embassy annex in Beirut. Twenty more people were killed.

In addition, elements of Hezbollah have been linked to involvement in the kidnaping, detention and torture of some 30 American and other Western hostages between 1982 and 1992. Among those hostages were U.S. Army Col. William Higgins and the CIA’s Beirut station chief, William Buckley.

During the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, Hezbollah fought the IDF and the Israel-backed South Lebanese Army. It refused to disarm itself, in violation of the 1990 accords that ended Lebanon’s civil war. Its leaders felt the group still had the backing of two regional powers and enjoyed a growing popularity because of its successful guerrilla warfare against Israel.

Lebanon’s President Emile Lahoud once said, “For us Lebanese, Hezbollah is a national resistance movement. If it wasn’t for them, we couldn’t have liberated our land.”

Another reason for Hezbollah’s popularity was that it did not take part in any Lebanese sectarian massacre, although Lebanon has a long history of bloody civil wars. When the Israeli army withdrew from south Lebanon, Hezbollah was prudent in its treatment of the Christian minority there.

Hezbollah continued fighting Israel after Israel’s withdrawal in 2000.

It demanded that Israel evacuate the Shebaa Farms area. Israel refused, claiming that the farms were territory captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War, not Lebanese territory. Hezbollah used the dispute to launch Katyusha rockets at targets in the Galilee and occasionally opened fire on Israeli soldiers along the border.

Shortly after the withdrawal, Hezbollah snatched the bodies of three dead Israeli soldiers at the border. It later kidnaped reserve Col. Elhanan Tannenbaum, which led to negotiations for an exchange of prisoners. On Jan. 29, 2004, Hezbollah and Israel carried out a prisoner exchange.

Some 30 Lebanese and Arab prisoners, the remains of 60 Lebanese militants and civilians, 420 Palestinian prisoners and maps showing Israeli mines in southern Lebanon were exchanged for Tannenbaum and the remains of the three IDF soldiers.

Among the released Lebanese prisoners were Shi’ite activist Mustafa Dirani and Sheikh Abdul Karim Obeid, one of the leaders of Hezbollah.

Hezbollah’s promise to provide new information on the fate of missing IDF navigator Ron Arad have proven futile.

Despite the prisoner exchange deal, tension continued.

Israel alleges that Hezbollah increasingly has been involved in training and arming the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas, and that it was trying to jeopardize the recent truce with the Palestinians.

Israel also blamed Hezbollah for attempts to draw Israeli Arabs into terrorist activities.

When Jordan arrested Hezbollah members trying to smuggle Katyusha rockets into the West Bank, Nasrallah said, “It is a duty to send arms to Palestinians from any possible place.”

With 20,000 troops, Hezbollah undoubtedly is the strongest militia in Lebanon.

Its popular strength, however, may derive predominantly from its civilian arm. It runs hospitals, schools, food-distribution centers, orphanages and a television station, partly thanks to an estimated $60 million in annual aid from Iran.

Hezbollah holds eight seats in the 128-member Lebanese Parliament, but forecasts predict that in the upcoming elections it will become much stronger, and could win as many as a third of the seats.

Now Hezbollah faces a dilemma: It can to stick to its terrorist habits, alienating not only the United States but also Europeans, or it can use the momentum of last week’s demonstration in Beirut to remake itself as a legitimate political force in Lebanon.

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