Terra Incognita: Why Hezbollah gets away with it

By
June 10, 2013 22:00

Hezbollah inspires terror among not only among the Lebanese who live next to its “state within a state,” but also among the Israelis and Syrians who are victims of its pan-Shia ambitions.




Funeral of Hezbollah fighter in Sehmor village

Hezbollah funeral 370. (photo credit: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters)

When the BBC’s Lyse Doucet entered the ruined city of Qusair she found desolation. The local church was “defaced, prayer books burnt, the altars smashed.” Hezbollah soldiers “moved openly in the streets of Qusair.”

However, the invasion of Syria by Hezbollah fighters to bolster Bashar Assad’s flagging fortunes hasn’t set off alarm bells about the nature of the organization. The BBC describes it in the boiler-plate Europeanism: “Hezbollah is a political and military organization in Lebanon made up mainly of Shia Muslims. It emerged with backing from Iran in the early 1980s when it fought Israeli forces.”

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The description is part of the overall European view that Hezbollah is not a terrorist organization. It gets away with murder for two main reasons. First, it is allowed to commit as many crimes as it wants because it claims to be “resisting” Israel.

Second, it gets away with it because it is an Islamist organization in the Middle East and westerners invariably subject the actions of these organizations to different standards than they would a similar organization in their home country.

HEZBOLLAH IS often said to have been founded primarily because of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, but this creates a simplistic “action-reaction” story that is inconsistent with the historical context.

The rise of Hezbollah was related to the demographic politics of Lebanon. In the original 1932 census only 20 percent of the population was considered Shia, and they were marginalized in the 1943 National Pact which enshrined that the president of Lebanon would always be a Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the lower level parliament speaker a Shia.

Living in southern Lebanon and the Bekaa valley, the Shia were extremely impoverished. Armed Palestinian militias, an outgrowth of the Palestinian refugee community that fled to the country in 1948, created a mini-state in Southern Lebanon prior to 1982 that oppressed the Shia.

For aid, they looked to Musa al-Sadr, a cleric born in Qom, Iran. Sadr founded the “Movement of the Disinherited” to advance Shia interests. With the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War, initially they remained on the sidelines as Christians, Druse, Sunni and Palestinians battled one another. Sadr, who worked to protect the community from the violence, disappeared on a visit to Libya in 1978.

The organization he had created gave birth to the Amal movement, which developed its own militia. The rise of Amal came against the backdrop of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which encouraged a Shia-led Islamic revolution throughout the region.

After the Israeli invasion of Lebanon Hezbollah appeared to emerge primarily as Iranian-financed opposition to the Israelis.

However its true origins were a schism with Amal over who would best represent the Shia. Amal decided to position itself closer to the Syrians, against the Palestinians, in the 1980s, while Hezbollah combined several more extremist groups aligned with Iran in South Lebanon. Because the PLO had been expelled from the South, Hezbollah was able to fill the power vacuum. In the mid-1980s the two Shia movements engaged in a vicious war against one another.

HEZBOLLAH EXCELLED at terrorism. In 1982 it abducted David Dodge, president of the American University. In 1983 it bombed the US embassy and Marine Corps. barracks. It kidnapped and murdered Francis Buckely, the CIA station chief. It hijacked Kuwait airlines 221 in 1984. It kidnapped around 30 westerners between 1982 and 1992.

Since the 1989 Taif Agreement, which ended Lebanon’s civil war, increased the number of Shia representatives in parliament to 27, Amal and Hezbollah have been the main representatives of the Shia in parliament.

The Shia are now estimated to constitute as much as 40% of Lebanon’s population.

However, Hezbollah’s positioning itself as a political movement to represent them is contradicted by its failure to disarm following Taif. It refused to hand over its weapons, initially claiming it was still fighting Israeli forces in Southern Lebanon.

When Israel withdrew in 2000, however, it still refused to disarm, instead engaging in cross-border attacks on Israel.

The notion that it is a political actor representing the Shia is also contradicted by the fact that the larger Shia party, Amal, supported Israel’s war against it in 2006.

Nabih Berri, the head of Amal, is quoted in a Wikileaks cable as saying, “The potential for Israel’s assault to weaken Hezbollah militarily and undermine the organization politically is a positive development.”

Many mainstream Shia fear Hezbollah’s fanaticism.

The series of secret US diplomatic cables disclosed by the online non-profit Wikileaks sheds light on how Hezbollah has so far eluded attempts to have it labeled a terrorist organization by European countries.

At a 1986 rally in a suburb of Beirut Sheikh Ibrahim al-Amin read out a manifesto that claimed the organization was devoted to creating a pan-Islamic Shia state under Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran. It argued that its terror activities were corollaries to the real goal: “We are headed for dealing with evil at its roots, and the roots are America.” He noted that it was also devoted to “the removal of Israel from existence and liberating Jerusalem.”

In the 1990s it began to test the waters, becoming more politically involved. In 1995 Amal representatives informed US intelligence sources in Lebanon that Hezbollah was taking “steps preparatory to an eventual transition from militia to legitimate political party.” Interestingly, the source noted that “Hezbollah’s mainstream has overestimated Syrian willingness to protect the party once [Syrian] peace with Israel is achieved.”

A cable by US Ambassador David Satterfield notes: “Until now Hezbollah has had the best of two worlds: It is a legitimate political party with a strong bloc in parliament, yet it is also an armed militia,” an organization with “party terrorist cells and terrorist associations... the US will not differentiate between an ‘acceptable’ Hezbollah and the Hezbollah which is involved in terror.”

THE US has attempted for years to encourage EU countries to designate Hezbollah as a terror organization. In March 2005 Austrian foreign ministry wonk Johann Froehlich told a US representative that “certain member states objected to designating Hezbollah because they continued to believe the organization could play a constructive role in the Middle East Peace process.” This was a month after Hezbollah members assassinated Lebanese prime minister Rafik Harriri.

In the same month French terrorism experts told the US, “French intelligence services remain unconvinced that Hezbollah was a terrorist organization.” The French expressed concern over “proof” of its terrorist activities and the “potential destabilizing impact of EU designation on Lebanese internal stability,” and cited concerns that such a move might make Hezbollah more pro-Syrian – as though Hezbollah was not the reason Lebanon was unstable, and wasn’t already allied with Syria.

The Irish also told the US that evidence of terrorism was “several years old” (for instance the Hezbollah attack in March 12, 2002, that killed six Israelis in Shlomi) and Lebanon was “politically fragile,” and thus it was not an opportune time to inflame tensions. In 2008 Cyprus and Greece made similar claims; “We can designate if you want, but that will shut down our political role,” Giorgos Ayfantis of the Greek foreign ministry told a US consular officer. Italy noted it would “shy away from supporting a designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization out of concern for safety of Italian UNIFIL troops.”

THE EXTRAORDINARY thing about the Wikileaks cables is that they reveal that most EU governments know Hezbollah is dangerous; they prefer to leave it be because they fear to provoke it. The Italian claim that the mere mention of “terror” would cause Hezbollah to terrorize Italian troops is like the boy who is afraid of calling the bully a bully because he might be bullied. How can an organization like Hezbollah intimidate the entire EU? Perhaps because Hezbollah operates as far away as South America and its agents have been detained in Spain, Cyprus, Texas in the US, Nigeria, and its operatives were involved in the Burgas bombing in Bulgaria in 2012.

Even as thousands of Hezbollah fighters were pouring over the border into Syria after a nighttime convoy from their bases in the Bekaa valley, The Jerusalem Post reported that Ireland was “leading” opposition to labeling Hezbollah. Can anyone imagine a political party in Europe arming its followers and sending them to invade a neighboring state in support of a brutal dictator’s crackdown on opposition without condemnation? The same European states that have lifted the embargo on arms shipments to Syrian rebels still make excuses for Hezbollah. How can an organization whose very flag depicts a rifle and which is responsible not only for numerous suicide bombings, but the assassination of a Lebanese prime minister, be anything but a terrorist organization? The organization inspires terror among not only among the Lebanese who live next to its “state within a state,” but also among the Israelis and Syrians who are victims of its pan-Shia ambitions. The Hezbollah invasion of Syria has alarmed the Sunni world; religious leader Yousef al-Qaradawi has called on all Sunnis to join the jihad, “Iran and the party of Satan [Hezbollah] is pushing forward arms and men [to back the Syrian regime], so why do we stand idle?” On June 9th a Shia anti-Hezbollah protester from the Option Party was shot dead outside the Iranian embassy in Beirut while protesting Hezbollah. If the Sunni and Shia Arabs can see Hezbollah for what it is, why can’t Europeans?


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