Throughout the War on Terror the name of Hizballah has been one that is often mentioned. However it was not until July 12, 2006, that Hizballah truly came into the spotlight. Ambushing two Israeli Humvees they killed three Israeli soldiers and captured two others, returning them to the Hizballah stronghold of southern Lebanon.
In retaliation the Israeli Defense Forces attacked Lebanon and thus began the Israeli-Lebanon conflict of 2006. But what is Hizballah? Who are these people who caused the eruption of violence once again and bringing disruption to the ever slow moving Middle East peace process?
Origins of Hizballah
Hizballah in Arabic stands for “Party of God.” A militant Shia group, its origins can be found in southern Lebanon during the Israeli occupation of that region, beginning in 1982. However much of its origins can also be traced to another place: Iran.
The foundational ideology of Hizballah is the same of the Iranian Revolution. Their teachings came from the leader of the Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini. Of chief importance to Hizballah is the concept of Willayat Al-Faqih.
Although drawing ideological inspiration from the Iranian Revolution, the Party of God had a single purpose in its founding: the end of the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. This has expanded to include the destruction of the state of Israel. Some statements made by leaders of Hizballah indicate that they will not stop until not only is Israel destroyed but every last Jew on Earth has been killed.
From the beginning Hizballah has received great support from Iran. In the early years its strength was increased by the addition of 1,500 members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Throughout the years they have received significant funding from Iran, although this has lessened in recent years as they have found new sources of funding. Hizballah is completely open about its close ties to and support from Iran.
The early years of Hizballah included many attacks on Americans. The largest and most lethal of these attacks was the bombing of the Marine Corps Barracks in Beirut killing 241 Marines that took place in October of 1983. They were also responsible for attacks on the American embassy in Beirut and the kidnapping of a number of Americans in the region.
Strength of Hizballah
Calculation of the military strength of Hizballah is difficult to determine. In 1993 a report by the United States State Department listed their strength as several thousand. However currently core fighters within the group number less than 1,000. Most estimates put their strength at somewhere in the vicinity of 500 fighters, with between 3,000 and 5,000 fighters that it can call upon if need be. It is believed that their numbers could be inflated by another 10,000 if they call upon all Hizballah reservists, although the majority of these fighters are poorly trained and equipped.
Of greatest concern to Israel are not the numbers of actual soldiers on the ground but rockets that Hizballah holds in reserve. These include the Katyusha, Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 rockets. Prior to the 2006 conflict beginning in July of 2006 it is thought that Hizballah had about 10,000 to 15,000 rockets of these types. Although these rockets are difficult to control and have little accuracy, they are able to hit Israel as far as Haifa. It is also believed that they had as many as 30 missiles of the Zelzal type, which had an even farther range. Estimating their current rocket strength is difficult as many have been either used or destroyed during the 2006 conflict.
Ties to Iran and Hamas
The ties between Iran and Hizballah are well demonstrated, however it must also be understood that Hizballah is an independent organization. While it often works with Iran and following Iranian orders, the group also has its own leadership (currently it is lead by Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah), and its own goals. Many of its activities are done independently of Iran. Especially in recent years as their dependence on Iran has lessened it has seen fit to grow more independent.
With the destruction of Israel still a primary goal of Hizballah, it is no surprise that Hizballah has worked strongly with Hamas. Although their struggle is certainly different from Hamas, both share the same enemy: Israel.
Beyond Terrorism: Other Wings of Hizballah
When Americans hear the word Hizballah we immediately think the word terrorist. However in other countries of the world this link is not so well formed. For one thing they see them as a legitimate resistance organization, fighting against the oppression of the Israeli state. Beyond this, however, is the fact that the armed, militant wing of Hizballah is not the only wing of Hizballah.
Beginning in 1992, Hizballah was recognized as a political party in Lebanon. In the 1992 election they won 12 seats in parliament. They have won seats in each successive election since 1992, including a win of 14 seats in the most recent election of 2005. When combined with the Amal Party, which shares much of the ideology of Hizballah although it is a purely political organization, they won all 23 seats from southern Lebanon. There are 128 seats on the Lebanese Parliament in full.
To look beyond even the political role of Hizballah, Hizballah is also responsible for many social service programs in existence in southern Lebanon. According to a report commissioned by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs released in May of 2006, Hizballah operated at that time at least 4 hospitals, 12 clinics and 12 schools. In addition they also ran two agricultural centers that offered assistance and technical training to people in the region.
Like many militant Islamic organizations, Hizballah also runs media outlets. These include the satellite television station Al-Manar (The Lighthouse), radio station al-Nour (The Light) and a monthly magazine, Kabdat Allah (The Fist of God). They have also released a video game simulating the Arab-Israeli Conflict from an Arab perspective in 2003.
To truly understand the Party of God and answer the question, “What is Hizballah,” we must look beyond Hizballah as a mere terrorist organization. For well over a decade they have been a recognized participant in Lebanese politics. In southern Lebanon they are also an important provider of health care and education. For many in southern Lebanon Hizballah then not only represents their opposition to Israel, but also are a necessary part of their lives, providing them vital services that would be difficult to come by otherwise.
Even George W. Bush in a statement in 2005 declared that the United States would consider Hizballah legitimate if it disarmed. However the disarmament of the group is something that has been sought after neither by Hizballah nor Lebanon, despite UN Resolution 1559 calling for its disarmament, leading to the Israeli drive into Lebanon in 2006.
Hizballah’s hold on southern Lebanon extends beyond the military and into vital services that are a necessity to so many living in the region. It is no surprise then that Hizballah receives wide support from the people of southern Lebanon. They are recognized as a legitimate resistance organization by the government of Lebanon.
Throughout Lebanon Hizballah and their fight against Israel is supported. In a poll released in February of 2006 58% of Lebanese said they supported Hizballah’s fight against Israel. On July 26, 2006, the Beirut Center for Research and Information released another poll on the same subject, saying that the numbers had increased 29% to 87% of Lebanese supporting Hizballah’s fight against Israel.
Hizballah enjoys wide support among many in all of its activities, and continues to be an important player in the country of Lebanon. It is also one of the most militant of organizations in the overall, seemingly never-ending fight against Israel.