Why do Israel and the US hate Hizbollah so much? The reason is simple. Hizbollah spearheaded the resistance to Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon that started in 1982. And in May 2000, the resistance drove Israel out of the country. Ever since then Hizbollah has kept up a stance of uncompromising opposition to imperialism.
The Financial Times described Israel’s withdrawal as a “humiliation on the scale of the US defeat in Vietnam”. The BBC’s Jeremy Bowen reported from the border that “nobody imagined the occupation would collapse so quickly”. The Independent’s Robert Fisk, writing from Beirut, wrote of the Israelis that “in the end they just skulked away”.
Hizbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah was greeted with ecstatic cheering when he appeared at a victory rally at the border celebrating the Israeli withdrawal.
For 18 years the mightiest power in the Middle East had occupied southern Lebanon, killing tens of thousands of people. Israel had continuously bombed Lebanese villages, ignoring a United Nations (UN) resolution demanding that it withdrew from the country.
Yet the costs of continuing the occupation and its failure to crush the mushrooming resistance forced Israel to pull out.
The Israelis had hoped their Lebanese allies - a right wing militia called the South Lebanon Army (SLA) - could hold Hizbollah back while they withdrew across the frontier. In the end the SLA units and the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) raced each other towards safety in Israel.
Israeli troops in the crusader fortress of Beaufort took shelter in concrete bunkers as Hizbollah fighters crossed minefields to attack the base. The Israelis were evacuated under the cover of darkness by helicopter.
Car loads of Lebanese civilians and convoys mingled with Hizbollah fighters racing behind fleeing Israeli journalists. The BBC’s Jeremy Bowen cheated death when an Israeli tank deliberately shelled his car - his driver was not so lucky.
By late afternoon on 25 May crowds of Lebanese stood at the border with Israel, jeering at the IDF and waving Lebanese, Hizbollah and Palestinian flags. At Beaufort castle families picnicked in the ruins and paddled in the Litani River - until then the front line of the Israeli occupation.
Hizbollah had come into existence on a relatively narrow Islamist programme, aimed at driving Israel out of south Lebanon and back to its pre-1967 borders - before the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and Golan Heights.
The experience of occupation transformed the organisation into the most powerful enemy Israel has ever faced. Today Israel is reaping what it has sown.
Israel responded to Hizbollah’s emergence by targeting its leaders for assassination. In 1992 its helicopter gunships destroyed a convoy carrying the group’s leader, Abbas Musawi. He was killed, along with his wife, his son, and four others.
This prompted the emergence of a new, young leadership gathered around Hassan Nasrallah, who understood that in order to drive the Israelis out he had to appeal beyond religious sectarianism.
Throughout the 1990s Hizbollah emerged as the leading force resisting Israeli occupation. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, sections of the Lebanese Communist Party, which had been at the forefront of the resistance since the 1960s, joined Hizbollah.
They brought with them a vast network of resistance fighters and militants. Hizbollah launched welfare programmes, and built schools and hospitals. It became a social movement with deep roots in Shia Muslim areas and national support.
In 1996 the Israelis shelled a UN compound in the small village of Qana, killing over 100 refugees. That attack created revulsion across Lebanon, swelling the ranks of Hizbollah.
As its popularity grew, Hizbollah had to deal with the growing problems of its impoverished supporters. Its social programme was borrowed from left wing parties - it opposed neo-liberal measures introduced by successive governments.
As Nasrallah struggled to deal with social and political issues, he drew comparisons with other anti-imperialist movements. He condemned the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US by talking about the two Americas divided between the poor and rich, and refers to the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez as “our brother in struggle”.
But Hizbollah’s politics can also lead to compromises with neo-liberalism. Before Israel’s latest savage attack on Lebanon, Hizbollah was negotiating the merger of its fighters into the Lebanese army. The party was being drawn into a government that was implementing a harsh neo-liberal economic policy.
It tried to dampen down growing resentment to these unpopular policies and - as with the mass demonstration in Beirut that stormed UN offices last Sunday - it fears that a mass movement could spin out of its control.
This contradiction means that Hizbollah, like other Islamist organisations, can express anger against injustice and inequality, without directly challenging the basis of that injustice. But the organisation’s heroic role in the Lebanese resistance cannot go unacknowledged.
Ghassan Farran is a 49 year old doctor from the Lebanese city of Tyre. He comes from a Shia background but describes himself as a secular and a leftist. His house was destroyed on Wednesday of last week.
“What choice do I have? Fighting Israel, or leaving Lebanon,” he explained. “I can’t leave Lebanon - I have to stay here. And if I stay, I need someone to protect me. Hizbollah is the only military force that can protect me.”
Hizbollah has come a long way since the early 1980s, when it first emerged as a mysterious underground group in the midst of the Lebanese civil war. Today Hizbollah is a mainstream political party that has seats in the government and plays a big role in Lebanese political life.
The organisation’s support base is the Lebanese Shia community, which forms Lebanon’s largest and most marginalised group - one that historically has been excluded from the political and economic life of the country.
Its politics are similar to that of many Third World liberation movements, comprising a combination of Shia Islamism, similar to that found in Iran, anti-imperialism and Lebanese nationalism.
Israel’s withdrawal in 2000 boosted Hizbollah’s popularity both in Lebanon and across the Arab and Muslim world. Hizbollah is considered by the US to be a terrorist organisation, but many Lebanese do not understand how a group that fought against a foreign occupation can be anything other than legitimate.
Hizbollah has continued to build its infrastructure since the Israeli withdrawal. The militia wing of the party has built a sophisticated armoury and improved its capabilities. And the current war with Israel proves that the party was well prepared for conflict.
Despite 18 days of Israeli bombing, Hizbollah is still able to hit Israel with rockets. Its fighters have fought off Israeli troops that have crossed the border into Lebanon. The group is rumoured to have a network of tunnels in south Lebanon and its long experience of fighting in the hills and valleys of south Lebanon is clearly paying off.
Hizbollah’s challenge to Israel also represents a challenge to the Arab regimes who have lost respect among many people in the region for failing to stop Israel’s war against the Palestinians. This has led to frustration among many Arabs who consider that their governments are lackeys of the US and the West.
The group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah is considered by many to be one of the most intelligent and honest leaders in the region - even those who are opposed to his politics admit that he has strong leadership qualities.
Hailing from south Lebanon, Nasrallah quickly rose through the ranks of Hizbollah and was appointed secretary general of the group at 34. He fought in the resistance following the Israeli invasion, but also spent periods in Shia centres in Iraq where he studied religious law. In 1997 his eldest son was killed fighting the Israelis in south Lebanon.
Unlike many political leaders in the Arab world, Nasrallah has worked hard to earn respect among his followers. He is known for his surprisingly candid and at times humorous statements.
Hizbollah’s headquarters are in the southern suburbs of Beirut. This area used to be referred to as the “belt of misery”, as it mostly consisted of poor shanty towns that were home to displaced Lebanese and Palestinian refugees.
Although conditions have improved, the southern suburbs of Beirut are still deprived. Power supplies in the area are sporadic, housing is often cramped and inferior, and government services are lacking.
The south of the country and the Bekaa valley are the two areas where the Shia form a majority. They are also deprived areas that lack government services. This is a marked contrast to central Beirut, where the rich from across the Arab world come to enjoy good restaurants, nightclubs and luxury shopping.
Hizbollah has filled a void caused by the disparity between rich and poor in Lebanon. Across the country, the group runs hospitals, schools and other facilities that are open to everyone. The facilities are probably run with aid from Iran, but also through the collection of donations.
The party also works hard to maintain an anti-corruption image as it is aware how unhappy many Lebanese are with their dirty politicians. Hizbollah is keen to send a message that it cares about the fate of poor people in Lebanon.
It also runs a popular television channel and a radio station. Through its political, military and social wings, Hizbollah has successfully created a “state within a state”.
Following the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafik Hariri last year and the consequent demands for the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, Hizbollah
demonstrated in favour of the Syrian presence in the country.
This resulted in increasing divisions within Lebanese politics, which were worsened by US pressure on the Lebanese government to implement UN security council resolution 1559.
This resolution was passed in 2004 and called for the “disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias” - which many consider to be a veiled reference to Hizbollah.
So far Hizbollah has shown little sign of being weakened by its latest war with Israel - in fact the group appears to be growing in popularity among many Lebanese angered by Israel’s targeting of Lebanese civilians and its destruction of infrastructure. A recent poll by the Beirut Centre for Research recorded that 87 percent of Lebanese from all sects supported the “resistance’s fight against Israeli aggression on Lebanon”.
Although some of this support is likely to subside after the end of the conflict, there will be a long term effect on Lebanese politics. The pro-US, anti-Syrian ruling alliance in Lebanon is looking increasingly weak. Many of its members have been forced to take a strong stance against the US’s support for the Israeli offensive in Lebanon.
Hizbollah has also proved that it is capable of resisting Israeli forces in the south, which is likely to justify the group retaining its armed wing in the future. Implementing UN resolution 1559 and its demand for disarming of Hizbollah - an unlikely prospect before the start of this war - now looks even less likely. The US’s plans for Lebanon are now looking increasingly like a pipe dream.
‘Movement for the deprived’
At the start of Lebanon’s civil war in 1976, the Shia formed the majority of the Lebanese Communist Party. But as Islamist politics became increasingly popular in the mid?1980s, many Shia began to shift toward Hizbollah.
The party was strongly influenced by the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which resulted in increased self-awareness among Shia, many of whom feel that they have been oppressed for centuries by the Sunni Muslim elite.
During the civil war Hizbollah gradually won popular support among many Shia. Initially the group was involved in a power struggle with its rival Amal, which was first known as the “movement for the deprived”, a social group that aimed to represent Lebanon’s poor.
Following the disappearance of Amal’s leader Imam Musa Sadr in 1978, the group was taken over by Nabih Berri, the speaker in the Lebanese parliament. Many Amal members became dissatisfied with Berri’s leadership and broke off to form Hizbollah. At times the two groups fought bitter street battles.
In its early days Hizbollah believed in the creation of an Islamic state in Lebanon, but this demand has now been dropped. This shift was prompted by the realisation that it was an impossible goal in Lebanon’s highly diverse society - though the party still aims to create such a society within the Shia community.
Christian Henderson is a freelance journalist based in Beirut since 2001. He has worked for the Lebanon Daily Star and Al Jazeera.