Backgrounder:

The Party of God

Since its inception in 1982, the fundamentalist Islamic movement Hizb'Allah ("Party of God") has attacked Western targets and Israeli forces in south Lebanon. Founded and funded by Iran, the group's hard-line position of "no truce, no treaty, no cease-fire" with Israel was unsuccessfully mitigated by the 1996 Grapes of Wrath agreement's restraint on attacking civilians. Since then, Israel's northern communities remain victims of Katyusha rocket attacks fired by Hizb'Allah forces operating in civilians areas. The militia is largely presented as patriots concerned only with Israeli withdrawal from Lebanese soil. However, a closer look reveals wider Islamic objectives that receive less attention: establishing an Islamic Republic in Lebanon and liberating Jerusalem.

An Iranian Revolution in Lebanon

Modern Shi'ite activism in Lebanon first stirred with the arrival in 1959 of a young cleric, Sheikh Musa al-Sadr. A disciple of the radical Najaf and Ghom religious centers (in Iraq and Iran respectively), Sadr developed military and political organs, heading Amal ("Hope") until mysteriously disappearing in 1978 in Libya. Amal then split into a secular faction, headed by Nabih Beri (now speaker of Lebanon's parliament), and an increasingly radical religious branch, led by Hussein al-Musawi and named Hizb'Allah.

Hizb'Allah emerged as a force in 1982 after Israel launched "Operation Peace for Galilee," (intended to end PLO incursions into Israel), and received early help from Iranian Revolutionary Guards (Pasdaran) sent to Lebanon as part of Iran's attempt to export the Islamic revolution. Hizb'Allah in effect became a military outlet for activism among radicalized, war-torn Shi'ite elements in Lebanon.

Their most prominent clerics were indoctrinated in Najaf, the southern Iraq shrine city where the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini once spread his radical anti-Western and revolutionary doctrines before toppling the Shah and setting up the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. Khomeini's radical Islamic worldview and inspiration lent Hizb'Allah its own vision: establishing an Islamic republic in Lebanon, to be ruled by shari'a law. Also in concert with Iran, the organization's agenda reached beyond Lebanon to the defeat of any power standing in the way of Islam, especially the US and Israel. Its ideology combined a strong social message with a universal political goal, to be realized by revolutionary means -- jihad.

Like the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, Hizb'Allah maintains military, political and social welfare branches. Indeed, Hizb'Allah's strength lies in providing assistance, housing, medical care and education to some of Lebanon's poorest communities. The organization thus wins ideological support and loyalty, while the villages themselves serve as multiple and constantly shifting bases of operation for its military wing.

Today Hizbullah has seats in Lebanon's parliament and maintains a military force of approximately 5,000 fighters (mujahadeen), including mercenaries from throughout the Islamic world. Armed with mortars, Katuysha rockets and rocket-propelled grenades, Hizb'Allah strikes at Israel and their SLA allies almost daily. An estimated flow of up to $20 million in material support per month from Iran, through Damascus, also provides advanced explosives and detonating devices. Once employed with lethal effectiveness against American targets (over 300 dead in the US marine barracks and embassy carbombings in the 1980's) and other foes as far afield as Buenos Aries, these explosives now are used in carefully-concealed, remotely-detonated roadside bombs (one of which recently showed up in Gaza).

Hizb'Allah Secretary General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah reports to his Iranian benefactors, but enjoys a great deal of autonomy. He also must maintain good relations with Syria, whose support and cooperation is crucial to Hizb'Allah's freedom of movement.

Eyes on Jerusalem

Hizb'Allah ideology conditions the ultimate success of its revolutionary goals in Lebanon on expelling the "Zionists" from Palestine, especially Jerusalem. Reflecting this aim, Hizb'Allah zealously adopted Jerusalem Day, fixed by Khomeini on the last Friday of Ramadan to protest Israel's reunification of the Holy City. The day is commemorated in Beirut with marches and mass rallies urging every Muslim to prepare himself for the confrontation with Israel.

The liberation of "the venerable Jerusalem from the talons of occupation" is perceived as a major strategic target, essential for achieving Shi'i liberation in Lebanon and worldwide Islamic rule. Israel is viewed as an usurping tool of Western, particularly American imperialism -- in Khomeini's words a "cancerous growth" -- in the Islamic world. Judaism also is portrayed with anti-Semitic motifs as the oldest and bitterest adversary of Islam. The axis of the armed struggle to free oppressed Muslims everywhere is Jerusalem.

Hizballah's entrenched attitude towards Israel and Jews was encapsulated in the organization's first public statement of policy, a 1985 Open Letter: "This entity [Israel] is a great danger to the destiny of our nation...[it is] built on usurped land...[and this conflict must] end with its obliteration from existence."

This is illustrated further by it's unofficial website, which links to such other sites as Palestine Children's Relief Fund, Jerusalem-Palestine, Destroyed Palestinian Villages, The Israeli Holocaust against the Palestinian People, and Zionism, Stalinism and the Holocaust Story (a Holocaust denial site). Also of note, Hizb'Allah taught Hamas the virtue and mechanics of suicide bomb attacks; and operations have been carried out dedicated to "martyrs and mujahadeen in Palestine."

Hizb'Allah must be defined as a terrorist organization, not merely a guerilla movement, since it targets civilians as well as military personnel -- though the word "terrorist" is rarely invoked by international media. In this sense, the organization's future aim of eradicating Israel must be taken at least as seriously as its present-day actions. However, even if Hizb'Allah fails to determine the future of Lebanon and "Palestine" as it so hopes, its position as the wild card in the Lebanon imbroglio guarantees its centrality to any political solution.

Sources: AP; The Jerusalem Post; Between Damascus and Jerusalem, by Habib Malik; Anti-Semitic Motifs in the Ideology of Hizballah and Hamas, by Esther Webman; Terrorism Research Center; Writings & interviews of Dr. Martin Kramer and Dr. Mordechai Nissan; http://www.hizbollah.org


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