God’s own party

There is much misleading media coverage of Hizbullah, the Lebanese Shia movement whose militia is fighting the Israeli army in south Lebanon. Lara Deeb provides a historical analysis of a complex movement

September 1, 2006
13 min read

The Hizbullah movement is much more than a militia; it is also a political party, a provider of social services and a powerful, elected actor in Lebanese politics. It arose to resist Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon from 1982-2000 and to act as an advocate for Lebanon’s historically disenfranchised Shia Muslim community. While it has many political opponents in Lebanon, Hizbullah is very much of Lebanon, not a creature of Iranian and Syrian sponsorship.


Within the Lebanese political system, Shia Muslims have been historically underrepresented and disproportionately poor. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Shia Lebanese were the main source of support for leftist parties, including the Lebanese Communist Party. In the 1970s, though, the charismatic Muslim cleric, Sayyid Musa al-Sadr, challenged the leftist parties for the loyalty of Shia youth, and offered instead the ‘Movement of the Deprived’. A militia branch, Amal, was founded at the start of the Lebanese civil war in 1975.

Other activist Lebanese Shia religious leaders who worked to establish grassroots social and religious networks in the Shia neighborhoods of Beirut included Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, today one of the most respected ‘sources of emulation’ among Shia Muslims in Lebanon and beyond. A ‘source of emulation’ ( marja al-taqlid ) is a religious scholar of such widely recognised erudition that individual Shia Muslims seek and follow his advice on religious matters.

Between 1978 and 1982, a number of events propelled the nascent Shia mobilisation forward and further divorced it from the leftist parties. Of particular importance were the two Israeli invasions of Lebanon in 1978 and 1982, the unexplained disappearance of key leaders, and the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which set a new sort of example for Shia Muslims around the world and provided an alternative worldview to western liberal capitalism different from that espoused by the left. At the same time, there was a general perception among Shia that the Lebanese left had failed, both in securing greater rights for the poor and in protecting the south from the fighting between the PLO and Israel.

The second Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982 was the decisive factor leading to the eventual formation of Hizbullah. Israeli troops, aiming to expel the PLO from Lebanon entirely, laid siege to west Beirut. Tens of thousands of Lebanese were killed and injured and another 450,000 people displaced. Most notoriously, between 16-18 September 1982, under the direction of the then Israeli defence minister, Ariel Sharon, a Lebanese Phalangist militia unit entered the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut, raping, killing and maiming thousands of civilian refugees.

Following these events different groups engaged in fighting the Israeli occupation coalesced to form Hizbullah. The foundation of the ‘Party of God’ and its armed wing, the Islamic Resistance, was announced on 16 February 1985 in an ‘Open Letter to the Downtrodden in Lebanon and the World’.

Hizbullah and the US

In the US, Hizbullah is generally associated with the 1983 bombings of the US embassy, the marine barracks and the French-led multinational force headquarters in Beirut. The movement is also cited by the state department in connection with the kidnappings of westerners in Lebanon and the hostage crisis that led to the Iran-contra affair, the 1985 hijacking of a TWA flight and bombings of the Israeli embassy and cultural centre in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s.

Hizbullah’s involvement in these attacks remains a matter of contention, however. Even if their involvement is accepted, it is both inaccurate and unwise to dismiss Hizbullah as ‘terrorists’.

First, Hizbullah’s military activity has been committed to the goal of ending the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. Since the May 2000 Israeli withdrawal, it has largely operated within the ‘rules of the game’ for low-level border skirmishes with Israel that avoid civilian casualties. In addition, Hizbullah has changed significantly since its inception, and has developed into a legitimate Lebanese political party with a myriad of social welfare institutions.

Another aspect of the US listing of Hizbullah as a terrorist organisation is related to the group’s reputation as undertaking numerous ‘suicide attacks’. In fact, of the hundreds of military operations undertaken by the group during the Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon, only 12 involved the intentional death of a Hizbullah fighter. At least half of the ‘suicide attacks’ against Israeli occupying forces in Lebanon were carried out by members of secular and leftist parties.

A third element in the labelling of Hizbullah as terrorists is the notion that its raison d’etre is the destruction of Israel. However, prior to May 2000, almost all of Hizbullah’s military activity was focused on freeing Lebanese territory from Israeli occupation. The cross-border attacks from May 2000 to July 2006 were small operations with tactical aims (Israel did not even respond militarily to all of them).

Hizbullah’s founding document says: ‘We recognise no treaty with [Israel], no ceasefire and no peace agreements, whether separate or consolidated.’ But Augustus R Norton, author of several books and articles on Hizbullah, notes that, ‘While Hizbullah’s enmity for Israel is not to be dismissed, the simple fact is that it has been tacitly negotiating with Israel for years.’ Hizbullah’s indirect talks with Israel in 1996 and 2004 and their stated willingness to arrange a prisoner exchange today all indicate realism on the part of the party leadership.

Resistance, politics and rules of the game

In 1985, Israel withdrew from most of Lebanon, but continued to occupy the southern zone of the country, controlling approximately one tenth of the country. Hizbullah’s Islamic Resistance took the lead, though there were other contingents, in fighting that occupation.

Hizbullah also chose to participate in the first post-war elections held in Lebanon in 1992, declaring its intention to work within the existing Lebanese political system, while continuing its guerrilla campaign against the Israeli occupation in the south. In that first election, the party won eight seats, giving it the largest single bloc in the 128-member parliament. Hizbullah developed a reputation (even among those who disagree with their ideologies) for being a ‘clean’ and capable political party on both the national and local levels.

The occupation of south Lebanon was costly for Israel and came to an end in May 2000. Despite withdrawal, a territorial dispute continues over a 15-square mile border region called the Shebaa Farms that remains under Israeli occupation. Lebanon and Syria assert that the mountainside is Lebanese land, while Israel and the UN have declared it part of the Golan Heights and, therefore, Syrian territory (though occupied by Israel). Lebanon has also been waiting since 2000 for the delivery by Israel of a map of the locations of over 300,000 landmines planted by the Israeli army in south Lebanon.

Since the Israeli withdrawal in 2000, all parties to the Israeli-Lebanese border dispute have largely abided by unstated ‘rules of the game’, based on not targeting civilians. Both sides have broken these rules on occasion, though UN observer reports of the numbers of border violations find that Israel has violated the Blue Line between the countries ten times more frequently than Hizbullah.

Hizbullah abducted an Israeli businessman in Lebanon in October 2000, claiming that he was a spy. In January 2004, through German mediators, it concluded a deal with Israel whereby Israel released hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the businessman and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers. At the last minute, Israeli officials defied their own Supreme Court’s ruling and refused to hand over the last three Lebanese prisoners, At that time, Hizbullah vowed to open new negotiations at some point in the future.

Hizbullah’s nationalism

There is no doubt that Hizbullah is a nationalist party. It offers a nationalism that views Lebanon as an Arab state that cannot distance itself from causes like the Palestine question.

Its political ideology maintains an Islamic outlook. The 1985 ‘open letter’ notes the party’s desire to establish an Islamic state, but only through the will of the people. The party’s decision to participate in elections in 1992 underscored its commitment to working through the existing structure of the Lebanese state, and also shifted the party’s focus from a pan-Islamic resistance to Israel toward internal Lebanese politics. Since 1992, Hizballah leaders have frequently acknowledged the importance of sectarian coexistence and pluralism within Lebanon. Many of Hizbullah’s constituents do not want to live in an Islamic state; rather, they want the party to represent their interests within a pluralist Lebanon.

The nationalist outlook of the party has grown throughout Hizbullah’s transition from resistance militia to political party and more. Indeed, after the 2005 elections, Hizbullah chose to participate in the cabinet for the first time, and currently holds the energy ministry.

Hizbullah does not regard its participation in government as contradicting its maintenance of a non-state militia. It has pledged to ‘safeguard Lebanon’s independence and protect it from the Israeli menace by safeguarding the Resistance, Hizbullah’s military wing and its weapons, in order to achieve total liberation of Lebanese occupied land’. This stance places the party at odds with UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which called for the ‘disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias’ in September 2004, and with those political forces in Lebanon that seek to implement the resolution.

But the party has a social platform as well, and views itself as representing not only Shia Lebanese, but also the poor more generally. The party also plays the usual political game in Lebanon, where candidates run on multi-confessional district slates rather than as individuals, and it allies itself (however temporarily) with politicians who do not back its programme.

Social welfare

Among the consequences of the Lebanese civil war was a widening gap between the ever shrinking middle class and the ever expanding ranks of the poor. In the 1970s and 1980s, a Shia Muslim social welfare network developed with key actors including al-Sadr, Fadlallah and Hizbullah. Today, Hizbullah functions as an umbrella organisation under which many social welfare institutions are run.

Some of these institutions provide monthly support and supplemental nutritional, educational, housing and health assistance for the poor; others focus on supporting orphans; still others are devoted to reconstruction of war-damaged areas. These social welfare institutions serve local people regardless of sect, though they are concentrated in the mainly Shia Muslim areas of the country. They are run almost entirely through volunteer labour, mostly that of women, and much of their funding stems from individual donations, orphan sponsorships and religious taxes. (Shia Muslims pay an annual tithe of one fifth of the income they do not need for their own family’s upkeep.) Much of this financial support comes from Lebanese Shia living abroad.

Who supports Hizbullah?

As one of Israel’s stated goals in the current war is the ‘removal’ of Hizbullah from the south , it is critical to note that the party has a broad base of support, throughout the south in particular and increasingly the country as a whole. It is a base that is not necessarily dependent on being born to a Shia Muslim family, or being a practising and pious Shia Muslim.

Nor does is it entirely dependent on socio-economic status. The party’s popularity is indeed based in part on its dedication to the poor, but also on its political platforms and record in Lebanon, its Islamist ideology, and its resistance to Israeli occupation and violations of Lebanese sovereignty.

For some, Hizbullah’s ideology and policies are viewed as providing a viable alternative to a US-supported government and its neoliberal economic project in Lebanon and as an active opposition to the role of the US in the Middle East. Its constituents are not only the poor, but increasingly come from the middle classes and include many upwardly mobile, highly educated Lebanese. Many of its supporters are Shia Muslim, but there are also many Lebanese of other religious backgrounds who support the party and/or the Islamic Resistance.

‘Hizbullah supporter’ is itself a vague phrase. There are official members of the party and/or the Islamic Resistance; there are volunteers in party-affiliated social welfare organisations; there are those who voted for the party in the last election; there are those who support the Islamic Resistance in the current conflict, whether or not they agree with its ideology. To claim ridding south Lebanon of Hizbullah as a goal risks aiming for the complete depopulation of the south, tantamount to ethnic cleansing of the area.

In terms of the current conflict, while Lebanese public opinion seems to be divided as to whether blame should be placed on Hizbullah or Israel for the devastation befalling the country, this division does not necessarily fall along sectarian lines. More importantly, there are many Lebanese who disagree with Hizbullah’s Islamist ideology or political platform, and who believe that their 12 July operation was a mistake, but who are supportive of the Islamic Resistance and view Israel as their enemy.

These are not mutually exclusive positions. One of the effects of the Israeli attacks on selected areas of Beirut has been to widen the class divides in Lebanon, which may serve to further increase Hizbullah’s popularity among those who already felt alienated from Hariri-style reconstruction and development.

Israel’s initially stated goal of securing the release of its two captured soldiers has faded from Israeli discourse and given way to two additional stated goals: the disarmament or at least ‘degrading’ of Hizballah’s militia, as well as its removal from south Lebanon. According to an article in the 21 July San Francisco Chronicle , ‘a senior Israeli army officer’ had presented plans for an offensive with these goals to US and other diplomats over a year before Hizbullah’s capture of the two soldiers. Though Israel is not in compliance with several UN resolutions, the Israeli army appears to be attempting single-handedly (though with US approval) to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1559.

It is unclear how the aerial bombardment of infrastructure and the killing of Lebanese civilians can lead to the achievement of any of these goals, especially as support for Hizbullah and the Islamic Resistance appears to be increasing. Outrage at Israel’s actions trumps ideological disagreement with Hizbullah for many Lebanese at this point, and thus it is likely that support for the party will continue to grow.Laura Deeb, a cultural anthropologist, is assistant professor of women’s studies at the University of California-Irvine. She is author of An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi’i Lebanon . This article originally appeared in longer version at www.merip.org.

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