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The History of Hizbullah
Posted: Sunday, May 4, 2003

By Marc Sirois,

(Lebanon) The war between Israel and Hizbullah was not simply born. It was conceived in a seething cauldron of all the things that make the Middle East a snake pit of unending bloodshed, unrivaled bitterness, and unfathomable duplicity.

To understand how this violent relationship might evolve in the future, and how the international community can most effectively seek to keep it under control, it is best to start at the beginning - the real one, rather than the red herrings bred by a mainstream media that is alternately guilty of gross ignorance and shameless fabrication.

The beginning was not in 1985, when Israel declared a memorably ill-named "security belt" in southern Lebanon. It was not in 1982, either, when the Jewish state's then-defense minister, Ariel Sharon, sent his forces crashing all the way to Beirut in a bid to eliminate the Palestine Liberation Organization.

No, to truly understand why the water still running under this particular bridge is so heavy with blood and hatred, one has to go back to 1978. That was when Israel first occupied a strip of southern Lebanon in response to cross-border raids by Palestinian guerrillas fighting to regain lands lost during conventional wars in 1948 and 1967.

By 1978, Lebanon was three years into a civil war that would last until 1990 and kill approximately 250,000 people (something like 15 percent of the population). The war had many causes, but one of the main ones was the growing power and influence of Palestinian militant groups operating on Lebanese soil and drawing Israeli retaliation.

The PLO and other organizations came to Lebanon as a last resort. Egypt and Syria had long since prevented them from using their respective borders with Israel as staging grounds for attacks, and in 1970, Jordan had ruthlessly put down a Palestinian rebellion that resulted when it sought to ban operations from its territory as well.

The Palestinians were left with tiny Lebanon as a base, a situation that represented a double-edged sword of conspicuous lethality. On the one hand, Lebanon's government and military were too weak to keep the Palestinian movement from displacing their authority in selected areas, especially near the border. On the other, the very paucity of power that made possible such freedom of action also translated into extreme vulnerability to outside action: Israel might hesitate to invade Egypt to go after Palestinian militants operating from there, but there was nothing to stop it from running roughshod over Lebanon.

Lebanon was left with the Palestinians, too. Its own internal divisions made it impossible to put up a united front in the face of what amounted to the creation of a state within a state. For all the might amassed by PLO's armed wings, however, they were certainly incapable of repelling an Israeli onslaught if and when it came. To make matters worse, until the full-scale invasion did come, Lebanon and the Lebanese - especially those in the South - would be subjected periodically to punishment by the Jewish state's vastly superior military.

In effect, the Arab world's major players had abandoned two of its weakest links to one another. All that remained was for the Israelis to appreciate the gulf that had been opened up and dive in.

Before doing so, however, they wanted to test the waters, and so the border strip was occupied in 1978. Even this relatively small step radically altered the equation in the South: It meant that even more of the fighting between Israeli and Palestinian forces would take place on Lebanese soil rather than inside the Jewish state. This caused no small amount of resentment among the local population, exacerbating some differences between sects but causing others to become blurred.

There was, after all, a civil war going on that in broad strokes pitted Christians against Muslims. Certain camps in the former community saw the Israelis as potential allies against the latter. Little did they know how quickly the Israelis would discard them once their "usefulness" had expired, but that is another story.

On the Muslim side, a new split was shaping up. By 1978, Lebanon's Shiites, a badly neglected under-class, were probably the largest religious group in the country if not yet an outright majority. Heavily represented in the South, their towns and villages bore the brunt of Israeli reprisals for Palestinian attacks. In addition, once the border strip was taken over, the proximity of Israeli combat forces put the Palestinians under greater strain than ever. They reacted by implementing tougher security measures, eventually imposing a de facto government on what had become known as "Fatahland" after the PLO's dominant faction, Yasser Arafat's Fatah.

All through the Palestinian build-up in the South during the 1970s, entire families felt compelled to leave, many of them Shiite. The conjoined pressures applied by Palestinian militant groups and Israeli air and artillery strikes were too much to bear. Many of those who could afford to do so fled the country entirely, but the great majority of displaced Shiites ended up as illegal squatters in Beirut's southern suburbs, an overcrowded and squalid area known as Al-Dahhiyeh. Both those who left the South and those who tried to stay behind harbored tremendous resentment against the Palestinians, to whose presence they (often rightly) attributed, directly or indirectly, their misfortune.

The Christians had expected to be pushed around by the Palestinians, whose goals were different and whose forces they had been fighting in the civil war, but the Shiites felt betrayed. The last thing they expected was to be oppressed by another "have-not" group. The seeds of Shiite bitterness against the Palestinians had been planted.

Then came the infamous summer of 1982.

On June 3 of that year, militants working for the radical Palestinian group Abu Nidal gunned down the Israeli ambassador in London, Shlomo Argov. Despite the fact that Abu Nidal was a blood enemy of the mainstream Palestinian resistance movement and had assassinated several of its key leaders, Israel targeted its "retaliation" for the London hit by launching air strikes at PLO ammunition dumps and offices in Lebanon, including Beirut. An undeclared truce had reigned along the border for several months, and the PLO was not about to take the escalation lying down. Instead, it pounded northern Israel with artillery.

Then all Hell broke loose. On June 6, the Israeli Defense Forces rolled out of the area they already occupied and, despite a promise to the United States that they would advance no more than 40 kilometers, headed for Beirut. Given the rapidity with which a full-scale invasion was launched, the IDF had obviously been preparing for quite some time, and the shelling of Galilee offered the perfect pretext.

For the most part, the only resistance they met came from Palestinian fighters, who acquitted themselves far better than had been expected, and the Syrian military, whose performance was more of a mixed bag. The Lebanese Army was too much in disarray to contribute anything of value. Two of the militias nominally allied with the Palestinians stayed out of the fight. Both the Druze grouping (then led by Walid Jumblatt, who would later serve as a Cabinet minister) and the AMAL force (a Shiite group led by future parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri) stood aside as Israeli troops and tanks slashed their way toward the capital. AMAL's formation and activities are a key part of Hizbullah's later emergence, but more on that later.

Given the firepower at the Israelis' disposal, it is not surprising that these militias elected to stay out of the way. What amazed Israeli soldiers and their officers was the way they were greeted by the Shiite population in the South. In village after village, the interlopers were welcomed as liberators and showered with flowers and rice. Some Palestinian groups had so badly mistreated their natural allies that people threw their arms open to invading troops.

It did not take long, though, for the Israelis to wear out their welcome. In short order, the Jewish state dispatched "experts" on civil administration in occupied areas who promptly replaced traditional village elders and other leadership figures with more "reliable" elements from among the local population. The result was anger at the Israelis and total distrust of the administrators they had installed.

Over the succeeding months, Israeli occupation forces steadily eroded whatever remained of the locals' respect for them via such tactics as draconian restrictions on movement that kept farmers from tending their fields and collective punishment that penalized hundreds of people for the actions of a single individual.

Just over six months after the Israelis arrived in the South, the kettle of rage among a community that had once invited them into their homes finally boiled over. On Nov. 11, a suicide bomber destroyed an eight-story building housing the IDF's headquarters in the occupied city of Tyre. At least 75 Israeli troops and members of its proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army, were killed.

Hizbullah did not yet exist as we know it today but the ingredients for a Shiite "awakening" were all on hand, and the catalyst of Israeli occupation was drawing them to the same place.

Like their co-religionists everywhere else in the Islamic world, their Sunni counterparts had long treated Lebanon's Shiites as second-class citizens. By the mid-1970s, despite being the country's most populous sect, they were tired of a political system that froze them out of key leadership positions. The set-up, based on the colonial model imposed by the French, guaranteed half of the country's parliamentary seats and Cabinet positions including key portfolios like the defense and interior ministries to Christians. The Presidency was reserved specifically for a Maronite Christian.

Shiites were denied even a proper share of the remainder, with Sunni representation among the ruling elite remaining unduly heavy and even the tiny Druze sect holding more than its share of influence. Those Shiites who were politically active were fragmented, operating under the banner of secular groupings like the Baathists, the Communists, and the Nasserites.

One man tried mightily to change all that. Musa Sadr, an Iranian cleric whose family is said to have originally come from Lebanon, was invited to lead the Lebanese Shiite community in 1959. Tall and exceedingly charismatic, he captured the imagination of his followers and eventually inspired them to demand their rights.

In 1974, Sadr founded the Harakat al-Mahroumeen (Movement of the Dispossessed), which, as the civil war approached, spawned a militia called the Afwaj al-Moqawama al-Lubnanieh (Lebanese Resistance Detachments), popularly known by the acronym AMAL, which means "hope."

Sadr established a political forum designed to communicate the Shiite community's concerns to the state. Chief among their demands were better infrastructure, increased representation in politics, more access to government employment, and steps to either end the fighting between Israel and the Palestinians or help keep Shiites from getting caught in the crossfire.

Once the war broke out, AMAL fought on the side of the Palestinians, the Lebanese Sunni and the Druze militias against the Christians. But eventually, Sadr concluded that the conflict was pointless and opted to back a Syrian-sponsored peace initiative. Shortly thereafter, he disappeared during a visit to Libya. He was last seen leaving a hotel in Tripoli for a meeting with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

AMAL then fell under the sway of Nabih Berri, a secular lawyer-cum-warlord. Over the years, his uninspiring leadership, reputation for unabashed corruption, and tendency to shift loyalties at Syria's behest alienated many of the movement's cadres. When AMAL failed to help the Palestinians resist the Israeli offensive, many fighters quit in disgust. More left in 1985 after AMAL launched its bloody "War of the Camps" against Palestinian refugee communities.

Over the next few years, these militiamen and a group of Shiite clerics formed the core around which a new group congealed. Eventually it became Hizbullah, but along the way some of its members used other names such as Islamic AMAL, Islamic Jihad, etc. There were no less than 55 private "armies" operating in Lebanon at the time. It is, therefore, impossible to say with certainty which early actions taken against the Israelis and Western interests in Lebanon were the work of Hizbullah itself, which were committed by freelancers using the name, and which were carried out by actual members acting without authorization.

What is undeniable is that the Israelis had acquired a deadly new enemy, one whose adherents were neither afraid to die nor willing any longer to sit quietly while the international community let a foreign occupier dominate their homeland. It took until late 1983, however, for the Israelis and just about everyone else to realize that the rules of the game had changed forever.

On Oct. 16, 1983, the southern Lebanese town of Nabatieh was bustling with celebrations of Ashura, the Shiite holiday marking the assassination of Hussein at Karbala 13 centuries ago. Despite the Jewish state's subsequent claims that its units had orders not to interfere with the goings-on, an Israeli convoy proceeded to interrupt the procession so that its vehicles could pass through.

When the crowd of 50,000 worshippers became restless, then hostile, some of the Israelis opened fire. Two people were killed and about a dozen wounded. It was not the casualty toll that caused the ensuing explosions of vengeance, though: It was the timing of yet another humiliation on the very day when Shiites bemoan the original persecution of their faith.

One week later, a suicide bomber driving a truck packed with explosives destroyed the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. The blast killed 241 American troops serving with the Multi-National Force, ostensibly on a peacekeeping mission. Almost simultaneously, a building housing the French MNF contingent was also brought down, killing 59 paratroopers. Ten days after that, the Israeli military intelligence headquarters in Tyre was demolished by yet another bomb, killing about 30 Israeli troops and a similar number of Palestinians and Lebanese prisoners.

Over the next few years, Lebanon became an exceedingly dangerous place for foreigners. Several Westerners were kidnapped and murdered, and despite what certain self-styled "experts" continually claim but fail to back up with evidence, the situation was too chaotic to identify those responsible for the vast majority of what qualified as terrorist attacks. Some were likely the work of Hizbullah in some shape or form, but others, for example, were "honor crimes" against Westerners who had abused positions of authority to seduce young women. In any event, before one deems that sufficient to condemn the group forever, one should understand the context of Lebanese hostility to the West.

For starters, the MNF's activities were simply not consistent with those of a peacekeeping force. This was especially true of the Americans, who took sides almost from the instant they came ashore and occupied an exposed position next to a Christian militia.

In August 1982, the MNF's job had been to supervise the evacuation by sea of PLO militants from West Beirut. The Israelis had laid siege to this mostly Muslim section of the city, cutting off food and water to combatants and civilians alike. Under an agreement brokered by the United States, the PLO agreed to have its fighters leave by boat. The Israelis agreed not to enter either the capital or camps in the area that were home to tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees and displaced Lebanese. The U.S. undertaking was to guarantee the security of Palestinian civilians left behind.

In mid-September, a powerful bomb ripped through a building in East Beirut, killing President-elect Bashir Gemayel, the man Israel had been counting on to serve as its viceroy in a new puppet state. Gemayel's Christian Phalangist supporters responded by entering the now-unprotected Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila and engaging in an orgy of violence. Estimates of the death toll vary from 800 men women and children to 3,000.

Whatever the precise figure, the Israeli military was responsible under international law for the security of noncombatants on territory it controlled. As for the United States, it had broken a solemn vow to ensure the safety of Palestinian civilians.

In addition, the Marines' proximity to Christian forces made it inevitable that when the latter exchanged shellfire with Muslim gunners, the former would be hit by errant rounds. Instead of telling the Christians to stop firing or move away, the Americans responded by using naval gunfire against Muslim positions.

Thus, the October 1983 bombings did not come out of the blue. Like the destruction of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut a few months earlier, their background lay in a deep-rooted sense that the United States was anything but a neutral party - either between Israel (whose invasion had killed as many as 20,000 civilians) and the Palestinians or among various Lebanese factions.

While these attacks were impossible to pin on any single group, from 1985 on, however, there was no mistaking the source of armed resistance to the Israeli occupation in the South. Armed, financed, and initially trained by Iran, Hizbullah began to come into its own. Coupled with logistical backing from Syria, the party eventually grew into a highly professional guerrilla army that by 2000 had fought the IDF and its South Lebanon Army allies to a standstill.

Along the way, there were actually precious few terrorist incidents in which Hizbullah was even a suspect, let alone a proven perpetrator. Among them were the bombings of the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish community center in Argentina in the 1990s - which together claimed more than 100 lives - but despite tireless propaganda to the contrary, no firm link has ever been established.

Instead, what Hizbullah did - day after day, year after year - in the South was to engage the IDF on the battlefield. It was not foolish enough to confront the U.S.-armed juggernaut in set-piece battles, but its guerrilla tactics grew increasingly bold and its preferred targets were always legitimate military ones.

When Hizbullah's operations did stray from IDF soldiers and facilities, it was in retaliation for Israeli and/or SLA attacks on Lebanese civilians. These were frequently preceded by several days of verbal warnings that the targeting of noncombatants on this side of the border had to stop or draw a response in kind. Typically, the warnings were ignored.

Hizbullah's usual "punishment" for Israeli attacks on Lebanese civilians was to lob antiquated Katyusha rockets across the border. Seeing as how these weapons have little range and poor accuracy, they are deemed to be of little military value. This has caused Israel to claim that the rocket salvoes were evil acts of terror, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, given that ample warning generally preceded them, most of the inhabitants of the areas they hit were in bomb shelters when the projectiles landed. That was the goal: to inconvenience and/or intimidate Israeli civilians into demanding that their government at least stop killing Lebanese civilians and at most withdraw altogether.

So there you have it. Hizbullah was not hatched as an evil plot to destroy Israel but rather as an almost begrudging attempt to defend a community whose patience for oppression -be it foreign or domestic- had finally run out. That Israel happened to be the primary target of this organization was due to the fact that its forces were on someone else's land and that the international community - led by the United States - did nothing to make Israel withdraw its forces under U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Thus it was that a combination of lopsided military power, undeserved diplomatic privilege, wholesale disregard for civilian casualties, and unbridled arrogance made the Jewish state suffer as badly as it did in Lebanon. Israel has every right to fear its long-time tormentors, but none to call them terrorists.

[Marc Sirois is a Canadian journalist who lives in Beirut, Lebanon, where he serves as managing editor of The Daily Star. The proud and fanatically protective father of three beautiful princesses, his opinionated writing style owes to the fact that he is never wrong along with his holding monopolies on wisdom, logic, morality, and justice. He is also exceedingly modest.]

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