Hezbollah (Arabic for “Party of God”) is a Shia Islamist political party and militant group based in Lebanon. Oft-described as a “state-within-a-state,” the group is considered a terrorist organization by the Arab League, Canada, the Gulf Cooperation Council, Israel and the United States; its military wing is considered a terrorist group by Australia and the European Union. The group first emerged as a faction in Lebanon following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
Lebanon was traditionally a multi-sectarian nation, home to Sunni and Shia Muslim communities, and sizable Druze and Christian populations. However, not all communities received fair representation or equal economic opportunity. The country’s Shiite community, in particular, was mired in poverty and neglected by the Lebanese government. So, in 1974, a Lebanese imam named Musa al-Sadr and a member of the Lebanese parliament named Hussein El Husseini co-founded the Amal movement to seek social justice for the Shiite community and all deprived Lebanese citizens. Although deeply influenced by Islamic ideas, it was an adamantly secular movement that aimed to unite people along communal rather than religious lines. The following year, the movement established a military wing, called the Lebanese Resistance Regiments or, simply, Amal (an acronym for Afwaj al Mouqawma al Lubaniyya, the wing’s Arabic name).
The same year — 1975 — fighting broke out between Lebanon’s Maronite Christian community and the Palestinian Liberation Army. The PLO, at the time, controlled Sidon, Tyre, much of south Lebanon and the western reaches of Beirut and was supported by Lebanon’s 400,000-member-strong community of Palestinian refugees. The hostilities were set off by a strike in Sidon that came as a reaction to former President Camille Chamoun’s — a Maronite Christian — efforts to monopolize fishing along Lebanon’s coast. A demonstration turned bloody when Maarouf Saad, a former Sidon mayor, was killed by a sniper’s bullet. Soon, the strike morphed into outright war.
However, Lebanon’s Shiite militias were slow to join in the fighting. As the war dragged on, a schism began to form within the Amal movement. While then-leader of the movement El Husseini staunchly refused to “drench Amal in blood” by entering into the fray alongside the PLO (or any other faction), a pro-PLO faction began taking shape amongst Amal’s younger members. Ultimately, El Husseini resigned from his leadership position in 1980 and was replaced by Nabih Berri. Shortly thereafter, Amal entered the ongoing Lebanese Civil War under Berri’s leadership — but the nearly five-year delay had allowed plenty of time for a distinct and more radical entity to emerge from within the ranks of the Amal movement. This entity would come to be known as Hezbollah.
Although scholars disagree about when Hezbollah truly became a discrete entity, most agree that the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon triggered Hezbollah’s formation and that the group’s primary raison d’être was to drive Israel from Lebanon and establish an Islamic state there. The group penned a manifesto in 1985, which stated: “Our primary assumption in our fight against Israel states that the Zionist entity is aggressive from its inception and built on lands wrested from their owners at the expense of the rights of the Muslim people. Therefore, our struggle will end only when this entity is obliterated. We recognize no treaty with it, no cease-fire and no peace agreements, whether separate or consolidated.”
From the outset, Hezbollah was closely aligned with Iran, with many of its members pledging allegiance to Ayatollah Khomeini. In fact, Hezbollah’s forces were trained and organized by a continent of 1,500 Revolutionary Guards from Iran, who carried out their training mission under the auspices of the Syrian government — Hezbollah’s other traditional ally — that occupied Lebanon at the time.
Despite allegedly perpetrating terrorist attacks ranging from car bombings to kidnappings during Lebanon’s long civil war, Hezbollah was one of the few militias not disarmed by the Syrian government in 1990 when the civil war finally came to an end. This decision ensured that Hezbollah would be capable of sustaining a guerrilla campaign against Israel in southern Lebanon. This campaign was ultimately successful, and on May 24, 2000, Israel withdrew from Lebanon. The asymmetric war waged by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon made use of conventional military tactics but also relied heavily on suicide bombings and hijackings — in fact, some scholars claim that Hezbollah was the first armed Islamic resistance group in the Middle East to make use of such tactics.
While the campaign in southern Lebanon was ongoing, Hezbollah was also busy expanding from a radical revolutionary group into a legitimate political party. With the endorsement of the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, Hezbollah participated in the 1992 elections in Lebanon, winning all 12 seats on its electoral list. As the group began to play a larger and larger role in mainstream Lebanese society, it also embarked upon an ambitious program of social development. According to a 2006 report published by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Hezbollah currently operates at least four hospitals, twelve clinics, twelve schools and two agricultural centers that provide farmers with technical assistance and training. It also has an environmental department and an extensive social assistance program. Medical care is also cheaper than in most of the country’s private hospitals and free for Hezbollah members.”
In 2006, a 34-day-long war between Hezbollah and Israel was provoked by a disastrous attempt on the part of Hezbollah to secure the release of three Lebanese citizens imprisoned in Israel. The group attacked Israel, killing three Israeli soldiers and abducting two others as prisoners of war. The war resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 Lebanese citizens and the displacement of nearly 1,000,000 people. Following the 2006 war, Hezbollah simultaneously found itself being praised for its ability to hold its ground against the powerful Israeli Defense Forces and accused of “dangerous adventurism” by the Lebanese government, which was resentful over the extensive damage sustained during the hostilities.
Seeking to make the most of its newfound post-war prestige, Hezbollah demanded the formation of a new government over which the group and its allies would have veto power. In 2007, when then-President Émile Lahoud’s term came to an end, a power struggle between Lebanon’s Western-backed government and the Hezbollah-led opposition took hold. The presidency would remain unoccupied for nearly 18 months. Then, in May of 2008, as Hezbollah continued to consolidate its political power, the Lebanese government moved to shut down the group’s extensive telecommunication network. Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, said the government’s action amounted to a declaration of war. After Hezbollah-led fighters seized control of parts of west Beirut, the Lebanese government reversed its decision, allowing Hezbollah to maintain its telecommunication network.
Hezbollah eventually agreed to form a unity government with Prime Minister Saad Al Hariri’s March 14 bloc but ended up withdrawing amidst the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s investigation into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Al Hariri, which implicated Hezbollah’s senior leadership. The government that was formed in the wake of the unity government’s collapse — headed by a Sunni billionaire named Najib Mikati who enjoyed the full support of Hezbollah — was protested by Hariri’s March 14 bloc, who claimed Mikati would be a puppet for Iran and Syria. Despite these protests, Mikati pressed on, offering 18 of 30 cabinet seats to Hezbollah allies and blacklisting the March 14 bloc from the government formed in June 2011.
Hezbollah continues to enjoy widespread support, particularly among Lebanon’s Shiite community. Following parliamentary elections in May of this year – the first in nine years – Hezbollah managed to strengthen its hold over the Lebanese parliament. In addition to winning 70 of the 128 seats in the national assembly, Hezbollah also was able to ensure that Amal leader Nabih Berri held onto his role as parliament speaker while introducing Elie Ferzli, a fellow Hezbollah ally, to the role of deputy speaker.