THE MANY SOULS OF THE HEZBOLLAH
Hezbollah's role in Lebanon and the Middle East is born out of the 1943 political-religious allocation system put in place at the end of the French mandate. The religion based scheme assigns key offices in the State according to the faith: the President of the Republic is a Maronite, the Prime Minister a Sunni, the Parliament Speaker is a Shiite, the Chief of Staffs a Maronite, the government equally representing all creeds, the Parliament with the same share of Christians and Muslims (until 1989 the relationship has been of 6 to 5 in favour of Christians).
Such a system worked and guaranteed peace until 1975. Then problems arose: the arrival of Palestinian refugees chased out of Jordan by King Hussein (Black September), the mutating demography altering 1943's parameters, the social disequilibrium affecting the population, external interference.
The Palestinian issue had a devastating effect on the stability of Lebanon: chased of the West Bank after the 1967 conflict, they landed in Jordan where their armed groups created several problems to the Hashemite kingdom. King Hussein fought them and forced them to flee to Lebanon (with Israeli help that allowed them to transit through the West Bank in order to weaken the so called “Front countries”). The Palestinians settled on Lebanese soil (mainly in the South) and tried to recreate what they had attempted in Jordan: a State within a State. When they started their guerrilla warfare against Israel, the internal and external conflict worsened: the Maronites sided with the Israelis, the Sunnis (and later the Shiites) with the Palestinians.
It is on these basis that civil war broke out in Lebanon and lasted until the 1989 Taif Agreement. A religious based civil war fueled by external actors: the Israelis supporting the Christian militias in the South of Lebanon (Major Haddad and then Col. Lahad), the Syrians initially protecting their expatriates working in the country (where they had been invited by the Christians), but then – following the loss of the Golan heights in 1967 – they put forward the agenda for a Great Syria until the withdrawal of their troops in 2005.
Hezbollah's (from the Arabic “Party of God”) history starts during the civil war. They are first a militia and then a party. In the beginning they were in favor of Israel because it fought against the Palestinians. However, following Tel Aviv's occupation of Southern Lebanon (1982), their resentment turned against the foreign occupiers. Their military capacity had been strengthened by Khomeini's Pasdaran – that had taken over power in Tehran in 1979 and preached the fight against the jews – with training and armament supplies.
Hezbollah was thus born as a secret resistance group. Its chief at the time was Hossein Musawi, an Iranian with ties to the theocracy (he later became a famous reformist) sent to Lebanon by Khomeini. The Party of God was a splinter group of a bigger Shiite organization: the “Harakat Amal”, a secular group accused of corruption and siding with the Zionist enemy. Hezbollah's first official document was published in February 1985: “Letter the oppressed in Lebanon and in the world”.
The Taif Agreement stated that all militias operating in Lebanon had to be dissolved and disarmed. But Hezbollah avoided disarming claiming they were a “resistance force” against Israel (as did other groups like Hamas, Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine even though their weapons were “officially” confined inside the refugee camps). Besides not respecting the military side of the Taif deal, they also ignored it politically. The agreement called for the ban of “political sectarianism” which was the core of the confessional agenda of the Party of God.
In 1989 Subhi al Tufaily took over as Secretary General of Hezbollah. In 1991 his post was given to Abbas al Musawi. He was supported by Lebanese cleric Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah even though he proposed a secular vision for Hezbollah opposed to Hassan Nasrallah's radical views. Musawi had previously been the head of the Security apparatus of Hezbollah's military wing. He supported the fight against Israel by all means: attacks, kidnappings and terrorism. By accepting the Taif agreement, Musawi voted down the creation of a theocracy in Lebanon. Hezbollah's new political approach was supported by then Iranian President Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
On February 16 1992 an Israeli Apache helicopter struck Musawi's convoy in Southern Lebanon killing him, his wife, his 5 year old son and four members of his escort. The killing of Abbas al Musawi paved the way for the rise of Hassan Nasrallah, still at the helm, with the blessing of the Iranian Supreme Guide Khamenei.
On the operational level, Hezbollah have since their debut committed acts of terrorism, kidnappings, taken hostages, hijacked airplanes (TWA flight from Athens to Rome in June 1985), carried out suicide attacks against Israel (attack on the Israeli embassy in Argentina in 1992) and of countries perceived as being hostile like France and the United States (car bombs and suicide bombings against French and American troops in October 1983).
At the beginning of the 90's Hezbollah turned to guerrilla warfare against Israel attacking their outposts, launching rockets, detonating car bombs while leaving terrorism to other groups like the Islamic Jihad. Hezbollah's growing military strength was confirmed by the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
On the political level, the birth of the Party of God has created an organization representing the Shiite community in the South of Lebanon (and mainly in the Bekaa valley) and in the outskirts of Beirut. At the same time, it has become the focal point for other groups (Fadlallah's Da'wa, the Association of Lebanese Ulema, Amal). Hezbollah has also dedicated, and still dedicates, its efforts in assisting the population (Lebanese Shiites are amongst the poorest) employing a large number of volunteers: hospitals, clinics, schools for children and disabled, orphanages, school camps, sports, pharmacies, garbage collection, micro-credit and financial support to war victims. These activities were developed thanks to the support of Lebanese Shiites living abroad, by the collection of the “zakat” (charity devolved in favor of the religious community), by money from Syria and Iran.
All of this has gained Hezbollah wide popular support in Lebanon. They have a satellite tv station (Al Manar) on air since 1991, a radio (Al Nur) and several websites fueling prodromes of a State within a State.
Hezbollah's complex military, political and social activities have lead to an organizational structure that was modified and refined over time.
The heart of the structure is the Consultative Council (Majlis al Shoura) lead by the Secretary General of the Movement, Hassan Nasrallah. This is where all strategic decisions of the Party of God are taken. There is then an “Executive Committee” where all the different branches of the organization are represented (security, military affairs, health, finance, welfare, information, finances, trade). Lastly there is a “Political Office” grouping all Hezbollah elected in the Lebanese Parliament.
A big administrative apparatus supports the Executive Committee in the application of the decisions of the Majlis both at a central and peripheral level. A military command structure (a sort of Chief of Staffs) answers to the “Council of Islamic Resistance” (also known as the Jihad Council).
Overall, the structure of the Hezbollah follows the philosophy of the Iranian theocracy. Likewise, decisions are mainly taken in the most religious organism of all, the Majlis. There are no feet apart between military and political activity, they go hand in hand.
THE MILITARY CAPACITY
Hezbollah's military apparatus is considered particularly efficient as the recent clashes with Israel have shown. Hassan Nasrallah should take the credit for modernizing the military tool and, at the same time, allowing for meritocracy in the military and security apparatus without religious interference from the clerics (no militia heads are mullahs). Over time both training and logistics (the labyrinth of underground deposits and posts were weapons are cached) have improved.
Hezbollah's military branch is estimated around 2000 men. But this figure should be verified considering that alongside “full time” soldiers there are also volunteers or reservists that can rise the group's strength to 10 thousand men. Hezbollah's pyramidal structure is well disciplined and answers to Nasrallah and the Council for the Jihad.
What has exponentially increased is the quality of the weapons the organization can rely on, especially with regard to missiles (thanks to Iranian supplies) and anti-tank heads. Furthermore, Hezbollah is capable of operating in various military theatres, of supplying military assistance, and of carrying weapons across borders (as the Fajr 5 Iranian missiles that landed in Gaza) giving the group a reputation that goes well beyond the borders of Lebanon.
Today, the Party of God is considered a clean organization (as opposed to the rampaging corruption in other Lebanese parties) and the only military force capable of confronting Israel. On the social front they are involved in assisting the poor and reconstruction following Israeli bombardments. All these activities grant Hezbollah the popular support of the Shiites who represent 30% of the Lebanese population.
Yet, there are those who oppose the Party of God in Lebanon: the Sunnis, a good portion of the Christians and the Druses. There are 12 Hezbollah MPs in the Lebanese Parliament out of 27 seats assigned to the Shiites according to the Taif Agreement. Even though they are part of government, Hezbollah are suspected of being, together with Syria, behind several political killings (including the killing of Rafik Hariri in February 2005 by a Shiite kamikaze with ties to Hezbollah and the recent assassination of General Wissam al Hassan).
The killing of Hariri and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon (April 2005) have forced the Party of God into participating directly in the government in Beirut to compensate Damascus' exit. But Hezbollah, as we have said, are facing an internal political front that includes Jumblatt's Druses, Sunni clans and Christian groups. It is not by chance that these are the same groups supporting the Syrian rebels fighting Bashar Assad.
The United States have blacklisted Hezbollah as a terrorist organization since October 8 1997. Regardless of pressure from Israel, Europe (with the sole exception of the Netherlands) has not done so too. The United Kingdom has banned the military wing of the organization, but not its political wing trying to distinguish between the two souls of the Party of God. A distinction that does not exist in reality.
Hezbollah is today facing tough choices to address the instability in the region. Their biggest problem is the crisis in Syria. The historical ties between the Party of God, Tehran and Damascus have forced Hezbollah to side with Syrian loyalists. This is a desperate war, both in military and political terms, that has lead the organization to support the authoritarian and repressive regime of Bashar Assad and that could lead to a crisis of consensus in Lebanon.
Today Hezbollah are hence fighting for their survival. If the Alawite regime were to fall, the territorial continuity between Lebanon and Iran would be interrupted, hampering military supplies from Tehran. The Ayatollah regime would turn out to be weaker and this would directly impact Hezbollah in case of a future military clash with Israel. If Assad were to fall, Syrian revanchism over Lebanon with the support of the Party of God would also fall.
Hezbollah's current involvement in Syria and its political difficulties in Lebanon could favor, within the Shiite organization, a further option: terrorism. If this were to happen, it will happen only with the decision of the Majlis al Shoura, but thanks to Iranian instigation.
Hezbollah have recently increased their cooperation with Iran. They have done so by equipping a cyber warfare center in the Dahya neighborhood in the South of Beirut. Part of the organization's security apparatus lead by Wafiq Safa (one of his sons has married Nasrallah's sister), the centre operates with the assistance and under the guidance from Tehran of General Hossein Mahadavi.
The project is part of Iran's priorities to stop Israeli cyber attacks against its nuclear sites and to move from a defensive to an offensive phase (with conspicuous funding to the project estimated around 1 billion dollars). Besides the technical aspects, the event confirms the reliability – and the technical expertise – granted by Hassan Nasrallah's organization to the Ayatollah's regime. The government in Tel Aviv has admitted that, during the recent military operations in Gaza, its institutional websites underwent a huge cyber attack (around 44 million attacks). Even though not officially recognized, most of these attacks came from Beirut.
The recent standoff between Hamas and Israel has also shown how Iranian missiles reached the Gaza Strip with the logistical aid of Hezbollah. This has put the Israeli “Iron Dome” anti-missile system to test. The recent flight over Israel and its shooting down over the Negev desert of a drone from Lebanon has once again seen the involvement of Hezbollah with the support and supply of Iran. Hezbollah used a drone in its war against Israel in 2006. This time the launch of October 6 2012 is part of an Iranian project aimed at developing and improving these aircrafts (mainly the UAV “Ardebil”) that needed a test to assess their operative capability. The drone left Lebanon and entered the Israeli airspace from the sea. The circumstance confirms the unlimited confidence the Iranians have in the Party of God.
It is pretty clear that the only credible and effective military force facing Israel – directly or as a proxy – is Hezbollah and its militias. In April last year Israel has begun constructing a wall along the Lebanese border in the Metulla area in High Galilee. Another border wall will be built, with US aid, in the near future along the Golan Heights.
Rumors – coming mainly from Saudi security forces – claim that there is an ongoing coordination between Hezbollah and the Al Quds Force of the Iranian Pasdaran in supporting Bashar Assad to avoid the fall of the Alawite regime. And even in this hypothetical context there are talks of a return to terrorism. Investigations over recent attacks carried out by the Al Quds Force against Israeli targets (Bangkok, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Kenya) have shown direct links with Hezbollah and/or their logistical support. The chief of the Pasdaran, Iranian General Ali Jafaari, announced in September 2012 that Al Quds' units were deployed in Lebanon.
Another element indicating a return of Hezbollah to a subversive path is the involvement of the organization in the kidnappings of foreigners. From 1982 to 1992 the Party of God was strongly involved in hostage taking to support its military operations and/or political agenda. Over that period of time almost 100 kidnappings took place, one out of four involved US citizens. The recent capture and liberation in December 2012 of NBC journalist Richard Engel in Syria with four other colleagues seems like a resurfacing of old habits. Apparently the kidnapping was carried out by militias trained and/or piloted by Hezbollah with the aim of exchanging the hostages with 4 Iranians and 2 Lebanese in the hands of the rebels.
Hezbollah's military strength in the war against Israel is definitely one the elements that has gained the Party of God sympathies and support. Israeli past, and often clumsy, attempts at eliminating its leadership have also helped. Besides from the killing with a car bomb in February 2008 of Imad Maghniyah in Damascus (he was the military chief of the organization, post now occupied by Wafiq Safa), the Israelis have always failed to kill Hassan Nasrallah. They tried to bomb the buildings where he was thought to be in 2006 (as the former Israeli Chief of Staffs Dan Halutz has admitted). In 2008 a failed attempt to poison Nasrallah was also foiled. Similar failures involved attacks against Fadlallah in March 1985 and in 2006.
The Party of God has publicly declared the one of its primary objectives is the elimination of Israel. This is not only political rhetoric, but a growing menace for Israel fueled by news of Hezbollah militants protecting chemical weapons stocks in Syria. The issue is not what the Party of God has been in the past, but what it could become in the future following events in Syria and, on a wider scale, in the Middle East.