Briefing: What are Hezbollah's true colors?

Hezbollah has become an important player in Lebanese politics. While it still advocates the destruction of Israel and has offered to help Palestinians from Lebanon, it says that Palestinians must take the lead in securing their freedom.

Hussein Malla/AP
Women from Hezbollah prepare food to give to the poor in Beirut.
A marine surveys the ruins of the US barracks destroyed by a suspected Hezbollah suicide bomber in 1983. (Hezbollah denies any involvement.)

What are the origins of Hezbollah?

In response to Israel's 1982 invasion of southern Lebanon, Hezbollah was founded by a small group of Lebanese Shiite clerics inspired by the teachings of two radical religious scholars, Mohammed Baqr as-Sadr of Iraq and Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.

With the assistance of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah's early leadership mobilized Lebanon's Shiite population to resist the Israeli occupation. Beginning in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, hundreds of new recruits were given military training and religious indoctrination. During the 1980s, Hezbollah's influence spread from the Bekaa to Beirut, where it was blamed for the 1983 suicide bombings of the US Embassy and the US Marine barracks in which more than 300 people perished, as well as the kidnappings of foreigners. Hezbollah denies any role.

Lebanon's civil war ended in 1990, and all the militias were obliged to disarm. Only Hezbollah was permitted to keep its weapons so that it could continue resisting Israel's occupation in south Lebanon.

What does Hezbollah want?

Hezbollah seeks the end of the state of Israel, the liberation of Jerusalem, and an Islamic state in Lebanon.

Those ideological pillars remain unchanged since Hezbollah issued a 1985 manifesto of its ideology, although the group today acts more pragmatically than its stated goals would suggest. While it still advocates the destruction of Israel and has offered to help Palestinians from Lebanon, it says that Palestinians must take the lead in securing their freedom. Hezbollah officials also openly admit that Lebanon's many sects make the creation of an Islamic state there impossible in practice.

"Its public manifesto from 1985 simply reflects the times of militancy and uncompromising revolutionary fervor," says Magnus Ranstorp, research director at the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defense College in Stockholm. "In fact, Hezbollah has declared the idea of an Islamic state in Lebanon as a utopian ideal that should not be imposed in Lebanon as long as the country is so diverse."

Hezbollah champions the interests of Lebanon's Shiites, the lar­gest but traditionally most underrepresented sect in Lebanese politics. It provides an impressive range of social, health, and educational services in impoverished Shiite rural areas, guaranteeing broad grass-roots support.

Is Hezbollah a Lebanese political party or a proxy of Iran?

It is a bit of both. Since overturning its objection to Lebanon's political system at the end of the civil war, it has become an important player in Lebanese politics. Its future depends greatly on its ability to retain support among Lebanon's Shiite community, irrespective of Iran's backing.

At the same time, Hez­bol­lah answers to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – the group's ultimate source of religious authority and guidance.

"[Hezbollah] fluctuates between both being an indigenous Lebanese party and, when needed, a proxy militia of Iran," says Mr. Ranstorp.

Iran has played an instrumental role in building up the group's military capabilities over the years, which enabled Hezbollah's impressive military wing to oust Israel from south Lebanon in 2000 (see map; shaded area is now occupied by UN). It also fought the Israeli army to a standstill in the summer of 2006 – a war sparked by Hezbollah's abduction of two Israeli soldiers.

For Iran, Hezbollah's military strength serves as an important deterrent to any potential US or Israeli plan to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities. If they strike Iran, the thinking goes, Iran could turn to Hezbollah to attack northern Israel. On Nov. 10, Israel's army chief told lawmakers that Hezbollah had tens of thousands of rockets, some of which could reach Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Who leads Hezbollah?

Since being appointed as Hezbollah's chief in 1992, Sheikh Hassan Nas­ral­lah has emerged as one of the most venerated and credible figures in the Arab world. Soft-spoken in private, Mr. Nas­rallah saves passionate outbursts for his public performances. A brilliant orator, he whips up sentiment among Hezbollah and its supporters with powerful speeches that balance fiery rhetoric with humor.

How popular is Hezbollah?

Hezbollah's popularity lies chiefly with Lebanon's Shiites, although it also has the support of its political allies in parliament. It leads an alliance that includes mainly Shiites and Christians, with a few Sunnis and Druze. The alliance has a broad appeal to Muslims and Arabs in general for its anti-Israel activities

Hezbollah's popularity peaked in the late 1990s when its stubborn and successful armed resistance against Israel's occupation of south Lebanon earned it wide admiration and sympathy. However, Hezbollah's determination to keep its weapons following Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 has created unease among the party's opponents, who insist that only the Lebanese Army should have the right to bear arms and only the government should decide matters of war and peace.

In May 2008, Hezbollah and its allies briefly overran the western half of Beirut in a crushing display of force against its political opponents, an event that triggered the worst internal clashes since the civil war and left more than 100 people dead. In June 2009 elections, it narrowly lost to the ruling Western-backed March 14 coalition, and had to settle for two seats in the 30-person cabinet agreed on Nov. 9.

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