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Homeland Security

Hizballah: Terrorism, National Liberation, or Menace?

Authored by Dr. Sami G. Hajjar.

August 2002

59 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The author reviews the history of Hizballah since its inception in 1982, and examines its role in the recent political turmoil of Lebanon and the region. Not only is Hizballah's role central in the dispute over the Sheb'a Farms enclave between Lebanon and Israel, it is part of an entangled set of linkages involving Syria, Iran, the United States, the European Union, and the Palestinians. The challenge that Hizballah poses to U.S. policy in the Middle East involves complicated strategic issues, not merely problems of terrorism that could be dealt with by countermeasures.


In this monograph, the author advances the thesis that the conditions that give rise to acts of terrorism must be dealt with as urgently as combating those responsible for such acts. In the case of Hizballah, those conditions are essentially political. The situation contributing to the rise of Hizballah involves the political, economic, and social circumstances of the Shiite community of Lebanon as the country began to experience civil strife in the mid-1970s. The immediate cause for the creation of the organization was the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, resulting in the prolonged occupation of south Lebanon.

The monograph examines the formation and development of Hizballah in the context of the Lebanese confessional political system that rests on a delicate balance between the country’s religious sects. Historically, the system favored the Christian and the Muslim Sunni communities, but as the Shiite community became the largest sect in Lebanon, it demanded a greater share of the nation’s pie. Hizballah has its roots in this larger Shiite insurrectionist movement.

As a religious party, clerics occupy a central role in Hizballah’s leadership structure. The party organization is hierarchical with a definite link to Iran, since Iranian religious and political leadership is an important source of guidance. Several organizational entities direct and control the party’s functional and regional activities, including social services and military wings. Additionally, Hizballah’s ideological culture rests on a Manichean view that divides the world between oppressors and oppressed. Politically, the United States and Israel are viewed as having a symbiotic relationship, and regarded as oppressors and evil. Hizballah’s work on the behalf of its constituency and its resistance activities against the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon earned the party a respectable bloc of seats in the Lebanese Parliament, and the admiration of many Arabs and Muslims. In the dispute between Lebanon and Israel—also involving Syria and the United Nations (U.N.)—over the Shab’a Farms enclave located on the eastern slopes of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Hizballah plays a pivotal role. Even beyond the Shab’a Farms border dispute, the entire Lebanon-Israel border issue is made complicated for lack of clear documentations dating to the French and British mandate period, position adjustments made by Israel during its occupation of south Lebanon, and U.N. involvement in demarcating the border to certify Israeli withdrawal.

For the United States, Hizballah is regarded as a terrorist organization. The Arabs, on the other hand, view Hizballah’s activities as legitimate national liberation efforts. Both views are supported by objective evidence. Utilizing a geographic context, the author assesses the threat of Hizballah at the Lebanese, regional, and international levels. Lebanon remains a fragile body politic, and events on the Lebanon-Israel border involving Hizballah and possibly Palestinian refugees in the area could rekindle civil strife. At the regional level, Hizballah’s efforts on behalf of the Palestinians and the quest to liberate the Shab’a Farms could trigger a wider regional conflict especially because of the intimate involvements of Syria and Iran in these efforts. Finally, no credible evidence exists linking Hizballah to recent international terrorist incidents.

The author concludes with several observations: Hizballah is a complex party firmly grounded in the culture of its constituency and is part of Islamic national liberation movements, it is engaged in guerrilla warfare against Israeli occupation, and despite its identifiable organizational structure, has a mercurial center of gravity. His recommendations: The United States should not engage Hizballah militarily, should encourage Israel to vacate the Shab’a Farms, and should give priority to the Syria-Israel track in the peace process. The menace of Hizballah is related to what is fundamentally a strategic challenge to U.S. Middle East policy that cannot be resolved through tactical measures.

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