An Obscure Terrorist GroupAround lunchtime on April 19, 1983, a suicide bomber slammed a truck packed with 2,000 pounds of explosives through the entrance of the American Embassy along one of Beirut’s fashionable seaside avenues on the Mediterranean. The attack killed 63 people, most of them Lebanese employees at the embassy or visa applicants, 17 of them American.
Six months later two suicide bombers simultaneously attacked U.S. Marines’ barracks south of Beirut and French barracks in the eastern part of the Lebanese capital, killing 241 American soldiers and 57 French paratroopers. Hezbollah, the “Party of God,” a militant Lebanese Shiite organization, was born out of those bombings.
At the time Hezbollah called itself Islamic Jihad. It had been taking responsibility for bombings against French interests in Lebanon going back to 1980, when France sided with Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war. It had also been building itself up as a force to be reckoned with in south Lebanon.
How Hezbollah Replaced the PLOThe June 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon had driven out the Palestine Liberation Organization’s “state-within-a-state” it had built there since 1970. The invasion forced 6,000 PLO militants to leave the country. Mediating those militants out of Lebanon is what brought the U.S. Marines, the French and some Italian forces to Lebanon. Israel thought its problem in south Lebanon was over.
It wasn’t. South Lebanon is overwhelmingly Shiite. It’s been largely neglected by the central government since Lebanon became an independent nation in 1945, the country’s Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslims sharing the spoils of power at the expense of Shiites. When the PLO was forced out, Hezbollah saw its opportunity and filled the vacuum, both to Israel’s and the central government’s surprise.
An until-then unknown force gelled around two principles: A fundamentalist Islamic approach to governing inspired by the Iranian Revolution and financially supported by Iran; and opposition to the Israeli occupation.
Hezbollah’s Legitimacy in Lebanese EyesHezbollah wasn’t the PLO. It was an indigenous Lebanese organization made up mostly of poor Lebanese Shiites looking to assert themselves in Lebanon. Throughout the 1980s, Hezbollah carried out that program by opposing all things Western and Israeli in Lebanon, taking numerous Americans hostage, and conducting a relentless guerilla war against the Israeli occupation until Israel finally withdrew completely from Lebanon in 2000.
Hezbollah called it the “liberation” of Lebanon, and its stock rose, at least in the eyes of Lebanese Shiites, for whom Hezbollah was a far more amenable, legitimate force than the PLO had ever been. To Israel and the United States, Hezbollah was just the latest Lebanese terrorist organization to wreak havoc on the country and on Israel.
To Hezbollah, its actions against Israel weren’t terrorism, but legitimate resistance. Following the 2000 Israeli withdrawal, Hezbollah took a far more politically minded road in Lebanese affairs as it saw Hezbollah politicians elected to the Lebanese parliament. But the organization continued the fight against Israel, because Hezbollah (and the Lebanese government) claimed that Israel hadn’t completely withdrawn: It still held on to a small strip of land in south Lebanon called Shebaa Farm.
Chronic Conflict with IsraelMinor incidents continued between Israel and Hezbollah from 2000 to 2005. Then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took the chronic strife as the price of living with a hostile frontier, a price not nearly as heavy as the one Israel was paying for its proximity to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Sharon, who had been the architect of the 1982 invasion and lost enormous prestige from that invasion’s ultimate failure, was not about to ratchet up the battle with Hezbollah.
His successor, Ehud Olmert, had different ideas.
The 2006 WarOn July 12, 2006, Hezbollah militants fired on an Israeli patrol on Israel’s side of the border fence, killing three Israeli soldiers and seizing two of them. Olmert responded by bombarding parts of south and eastern Lebanon, then widening the bombing campaign to cover most of Lebanon in what became a 34-day all-out war between Hezbollah and Israel. Hezbollah retaliated with intense, daily, indiscriminate missile barrages at towns in northern Israel, and as far south as Haifa.
Olmert pledged to destroy Hezbollah’s military capacity. Hezbollah pledged not to stop its barrage until Israel ceased its operations, which included widespread incursions into south Lebanon.
It wasn’t until Aug. 14 that a cease-fired brokered by the United Nations ended hostilities. About 1,000 people, mostly Lebanese civilians, were killed, and 1 million Lebanese civilians and some 300,000 to 400,000 Israelis temporarily displaced. Both countries’ economies suffered, although Lebanon’s suffered far more as much of its infrastructure—roads, bridges, electricity and water plants—were damaged by Israel’s bombing campaign.
Israel’s Failed Objectives, Hezbollah’s Risen StockIsrael’s objectives were not met. Hezbollah’s military capability was temporarily diminished but not destroyed, and its political stock rose in the eyes of Lebanese, including in the eyes of Christians who had previously opposed Hezbollah. Syria and Iran have reportedly restocked Hezbollah’s arsenal of missiles. Hezbollah’s boycott of the Lebanese government, which is Western-backed, has created a political stalemate, but also strengthened Hezbollah’s hand as a force in Lebanon’s future.
The 2006 Lebanon War, in sum, killed many, destroyed much, but advanced neither Israel’s objectives nor Lebanon’s. Only Hezbollah seemed to emerge from the conflict stronger than before it began, even though Lebanese army troops are now deployed in south Lebanon. With tensions still high between Israel, Syria and Hezbollah, the immediate future is uncertain. Within Lebanon, where presidential elections are slated for the latter part of 2007, the future is even more uncertain as murmurs of civil war, should the election fail to break the current stalemate, have been echoing in most ears.