Middle East


The Enigma That is Lebanese Hezbollah

Sheikh Khodor Nour Eddin in his central office in Sidon, southern Lebanon, on May 14, 2004. (Photo: Alasdair Soussi)

It has a vast network of social services, including hospitals, schools, clinics, colleges, research institutes and centers for the disabled. It is also ranked high on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations.

This is the enigma that is Lebanese Hezbollah; a group whose role in bringing low-cost healthcare and education to the poorer areas of the country goes hand-in-hand with its steadfast military presence along the traditionally volatile frontier with Israel.

Hezbollah - or party of God - has long withstood U.S. and Israeli demands for its elimination, and says such calls ignore fundamental realities in Lebanon, where it is regarded as a resistance movement and praised for its role in supporting the country's infrastructure. Moreover, Hezbollah's enormous appeal to Shiite Muslims makes it impossible for the Lebanese government to disband the organization - should they come under extreme international pressure to do so - without risking a devastating civil war.

"There is a view or picture about Hezbollah in the West, created by Israel and the U.S., and most of it is false," says Hezbollah's leading political official in southern Lebanon, Sheikh Khodor Nour Eddin. "Anybody who wants to know about Hezbollah should come to Lebanon and see us directly, and hear what the people of Lebanon have to say. "We tried to change the situation here because after the civil war [1975-1990] and the struggle against the Israelis, our people came out tired and miserable."

Hezbollah's military deployment along the Blue Line - the UN border that separates southern Lebanon and northern Israel - has been a constant thorn in the side of Israel, who regard the group's presence as a major threat to ts security. The Syrian and Iranian-backed organization has made no secret of its military capabilities, having continually stockpiled weapons since Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000.

Despite some two months of relative calm, the tense stand-off between the two sides recently reached a boiling point, as Hezbollah fighters and Israeli troops exchanged heavy fire across the frontier. In the ensuing violence, one Israeli was killed and several others were badly wounded. Such confrontations, however, are now limited to the disputed Shebba farms on a remote mountainside along Lebanon's southeast border - land seized by Israel from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war but claimed by Hezbollah as Lebanese territory.

"We keep our members in the south to continue our resistance to the Israeli occupation," says Eddin, who is on the Hezbollah executive committee. "Even now some of our land is occupied. But the resistance is not only responsible for liberating our land, but for protecting our people." "Our government is weak and doesn't have the ability to stop the Israeli aggression. So this resistance will stay to protect our people until a time that we have no need to stay."

To unearth the roots of Hezbollah, one must look back to the early 1980s, when a group of Shiite clerics and militiamen formed the core from which Hezbollah would take shape. The organization has long been synonymous with terrorism, including suicide bombings against Western targets and kidnappings in war-torn Beirut during the 1980s, when - among others - British journalist, John McCarthy, was abducted and held by Shiite militants for five years. Richard Armitage, the deputy U.S. secretary of state, has described Hezbollah as the "A-Team of terrorists," deadlier and more cunning than al-Qaeda.

This accusation and other allegations of terrorism are, says Eddin, "unfounded and hypocritical." He adds: "My answer to anybody calling us terrorists, would be go to Abu Ghraib prison and see what the Americans have done there." "Who is the terrorist? Are we the terrorists? Or is it the one who speaks about democracy and freedom, and at the same time kills men, women and children?" "The Americans and the Israelis are the terrorists of the world. The Palestinian people have been pushed out of their country and they are fighting to have rights. Why are they also called terrorists? Would any European, for example, accept an occupier?"

The rise of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army in Iraq has caused many in the West to speculate about a possible Hezbollah link to Sadr's fighting force. Hezbollah secretary-general, Sayeed Hassan Nasrallah, is thought to have personal ties to the Sadr family, having studied under Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr - cousin to Sadr's father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr - in the holy Iraqi city of Najaf in 1976. The Shiite political discourse that is centered on Najaf is thought to have influenced Hezbollah.

Furthermore, Sadr himself aroused Western suspicions when he told followers that he was "the striking arm for Hezbollah and Hamas in Iraq." Eddin, however, insists there is no military link between Hezbollah and the Mahdi Army. "There are no [Hezbollah] groups acting outside of Lebanon," he says. "Not in Iraq, not in Syria, not in Palestine, not in any other place in the world." "We have said this countless times. Yes, of course, we have some relations, in terms of political relations. But Hezbollah has no direct groups working together outside of this country."

Last year, Hezbollah voiced strong opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and cautioned Israel against taking advantage of the Gulf War by
launching an attack on Lebanon. Indeed, many Middle East political analysts warned that an assault on Iraq would greatly aggravate the situation along the Blue Line in Lebanon, further destabilizing the region.

Inside Lebanon itself, the group's interests extend to the massive refugee problem, where some 400,000 Palestinians live in poverty-stricken camps. With many of these refugees inhabiting every major city in Lebanon, the government itself is concentrating its efforts into securing the Palestinians' claimed "right of return". "We are working with the government and the other parties in Lebanon, to push the international community to permit the Palestinian refugees to go back to their land," says Eddin. "We do not accept the idea of Palestinians living outside their land gaining Lebanese or Syrian citizenship," he continues. "If they take any other nationality, then they would not be free to go back to Palestine."

Hezbollah sees its greatest triumph as the instrumental role it played in expelling the Israeli army from southern Lebanon four years ago. Armed, financed and initially trained by Iran, and aided by logistical backing from Syria, the group fought a bloody 18-year "liberation war" against Israeli soldiers, relentlessly lobbing antiquated Katyusha rockets across the border, before Israel finally retreated behind the frontier that now separates the two sides. "This was a great victory for Hezbollah," says Eddin. "But not just for us, for the whole of the Arab world."

He claims that the second Palestinian intifada started after Hezbollah helped push Israel out of south Lebanon, and that only then did the
Palestinians realize that without force they would never achieve rights.
"If you are strong then you have the right to live. And if you are weak then you don't have the right to live. This is the main lesson that the Palestinians have taken from our resistance."