By Justin Salhani for the Media Line –
[Beirut] — In American policy making circles, the name Hizbullah cuts a shadowy figure of a radical Islamist terrorist group, hell-bent on Israel’s destruction.
Hizbullah, which translates to “Party of God,” describes itself as a Shiite-Muslim political and social movement that first emerged in 1982 with funding from the Iranian government. The US State Department labels Hizbullah a terrorist group but in Lebanon the party participates in elections, has ministers in government, representatives in parliament, and widespread support – predominately from the Lebanese Shia community.
Lebanon is a country slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut with a religiously diverse population of around 4 million. While initially a conflict of ideologies, the civil war (1975-1990) eventually led to the collapse of state institutions and reinvented Lebanon as a sectarian killing ground where Christians and Muslims fought each other and often among themselves as well.
The war also dragged in its ambitious neighbors, Syria to the north and east, and Israel to the south. Both countries occupied parts of Lebanese land for years after the end of the war. While Hizbullah emerged out of Iranian funding, its support base can largely be attributed to the role it played in opposing Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon.
Today, Israel is considered an enemy state by the Lebanese government. Hizbullah and Israel last engaged in armed conflict in July 2006, and tensions still run high between the two parties. Hizbullah frequently accuses the Israeli army of forays into Lebanese territory.
“Although it is a military group, the party is popular among most of the Shia as well as some Christians, Sunnis and Druze,” Dr. Haytham Mouzahem, a Lebanese political analyst and an expert on Islamist movements, told The Media Line. “The group has participated in the Parliament since 1992 and in the government since 2005.”
Currently, Hizbullah controls the industry ministry, led by Hussein Hajj Hassan, and one of the state minister positions, occupied by Mohammad Fneish. The two Hezbollah members are also parliament members with the Hezbollah bloc – which counts 12 out of the 128 MPs. Hezbollah’s alliance with March 8 makes it able to veto government decisions and – as was the case in 2011 during Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s reign – collapse it should it see fit.
Hizbullah enjoys large support at home by providing social services to many of its supporters. The Lebanese government is generally weak outside of Beirut and the northern suburbs, leaving an open path for non-state actors like Hizbullah to step in and build patronage networks by providing jobs and building hospitals and schools.
Politically, Hizbullah is a key player in the pro-Syrian/anti-Western March 8 alliance. Other March 8 parties include the Shia-dominatedAmal (Hope) movement and the Free Patriotic Movement –a predominately Christian party. March 8 is opposed by the pro-Western and pro-Saudi Arabia March 14 party, which includes the mostly-Sunni Future Movement, the Lebanese Forces and the Phalangists (both Christian groups). Both March 8 and March 14 also include other smaller parties.
Hizbullah also boasts a highly-trained and battle-hardened military wing within the organization. European countries distinguish between Hizbullah’s political and military wings – only labeling the military faction a terrorist organization. Hizbullah, though, says there is only one united faction that includes both the political and military departments of the organization. Hizbullah’s military capabilities put those of the Lebanese Army to shame.
But despite enjoying large support among the Shia community, there are many who hold a scathingly negative opinion of Hizbullah. Its political opponents object to the party’s arsenal – arguing that only the state should have access to such arms.
Opponents use an incident named the “May 7 events” of 2008as basis for their claims. During this period, Hizbullah and other pro-Syrian parties forcibly took over areas of Sunni-dominated west Beirut. The conflict started when Hizbullah’s political opponents discovered a private communications network built by the party and immediately demanded its dismantling – as well as the dismissal of an airport employee alleged to have ties to Hizbullah. Hizbullah argued the network was crucial to its intelligence battle against Israel and said the government’s decision was a declaration of war.
Eventually, Hizbullah resorted to using force against their political opponents.
Hizbullah’s military funding and weapons come largely from Iran. Hizbullah fighters often travel to Iran for training as well. Hizbullah’s Lebanese, regional, and even international critics –many of whom are based in Washington DC– argue that the group’s primary loyalty lies with Iran and not Lebanon. Saudi Arabia, France, and the United States have all recently pledged money to the Lebanese Army in hope that the national entity’s increased stature may act as a balance to Hizbullah’s current power.
Critics also accuse them of being complicit in a number of assassinations targeting politicians or journalists politically opposed to the Syrian regime. Hizbullah’s biggest ally in the region, after Iran, is Syria. Five members of Hizbullah are currently on trial in absentia at the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) on terrorism related charges. The STL was set up to look into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister RafikAl-Hariri who was killed, along with several others, in 2005. Hizbullah has refused to cooperate with the controversial probe that it labels a western plot to target them.
Hizbullah has also drawn heavy criticism in the last three years for their military support of President Bashar Al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War.
“The meddling of Hizbullah in Syria’s war has divided Lebanese over its role and its arms and created a Sunni – Shia division since the Sunnis consider its intervention in Syria an act in support of the Syrian regime,” Mouzahem told The Media Line. “The party justifies a preemptive war to protect the Shia in Lebanon and Syria and their shrines from the Salafitakfiri’s assaults.”
Under Lebanon’s last president Michel Sleiman, the Lebanese government adopted the Baabda Declaration which demands domestic peace be maintained by no local party taking sides in the Syrian civil war. Hizbullah’s open participation in Syria on the side of the regime openly violates this declaration.
While critics argue Hizbullah is doing the bidding of Iran in Syria, supporters and officials believe in an existential threat as a minority group in the Middle East. The ‘takfiri’ is a term used for a Muslim who accuses other Muslims of being apostates. In this case, Hizbullah points to group like the brutal Islamic State and the Al-Qa’ida-aligned Al-Nusra Front as takfiri groups they are fighting.
“Hizbullah has presented itself as the first line of defense against the spread of Sunni extremists into Lebanon,” said Shane Farrell, a security analyst based in Dubai with intimate knowledge of Lebanon. “They use this to justify their presence in [Syria’s] Qalamoun [on the border with Lebanon], a narrative that gained traction after Nusra and the IS briefly took control of Arsal in early August. Their relationship with the Lebanese army is cooperative, particularly around the border region. However, Hizbullah is cautious not to be seen as too close to the army, as it is antagonizing conservative Sunni voices.”
The duality of Hizbullah’s role in Lebanon, both as democracy participant and non-state actor, ensures it will maintain a controversial status inside and outside Lebanon.