The Hezbollah (“Party of God” or “Party of Allah” in Arabic) terrorist organization is a byproduct of the 1975 Lebanese civil war, which erupted partially over conflicting views on how an influx of Palestinian refugees into the nation affected the Sunni population, with Shiites upset over Christian governance.
This already volatile situation in Lebanon was compounded in complexity when Israeli military forces targeted south Lebanon in 1978 and 1982 in hopes of killing Palestinian guerilla fighters that had attacked Israel. The whole combined situation in what is already considered a powder keg for violence indeed erupted, as one may expect.
Meanwhile, a group of Shiites took notes on how Iran runs its theocratic government and took up arms about this time, hoping to implement a similar regime in response to Israel penetrating Lebanon. In response, Iran, along with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, provided some financial resources and training to a grassroots militia that was forming in Lebanon, and this grassroots militia took on the name Hezbollah.
The group based many of its initial ideologies around the teachings of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, which includes the teachings of velayat-e-faqih/wali al-faqih, which is a political theory of government within Islam that believes a high-ranking religious official should run government. Other influences have emerged from the religious clerical students studying at various Islamic seminaries in southern Iraq, seeking ways to counter both secular and leftist ideologies and better promote Islamic values as an attractive ideology for Arab youth. Since then, Hezbollah has maintained a close connection with Tehran. Hezbollah is sometimes considered a “state within a state.”
In 1985, Hezbollah established what amounts to a vision statement or charter that stated the goals of evicting western influences from Lebanon and ultimately the Middle East, destroying Israel in its entirety, liberating Jerusalem from Jewish influences, promoting an Islamic regime ideally based on Iran’s government for Lebanon, and pledging ongoing allegiance to Iran’s supreme leader even if there should be changes in power.
This latter point has indeed been upheld, with Iran providing ongoing training, weapons supplies, and millions in funding for Hezbollah over the years. Iran is the primary financial support for Hezbollah, though the group also receives a significantly less but still noteworthy amount of support from the Syrian government, certain criminal groups around the world, and Lebanese expatriates faithful to the Hezbollah cause or at least charitable efforts to improve the quality of life and standard of living among the Palestinian people, and especially refugees.
The vision statement, however, also affirmed that the people of Lebanon should have some freedom of self-determination regardless of political power in the nation. More recently, Hezbollah has interestingly accepted that perhaps the Islamic state style of government is not totally appropriate for Lebanon and is open to considering other forms of government while not totally dismissing the concept of an Islamic state in Lebanon’s mode of governance. Hezbollah has tried to walk the line between preferring an Islamic state and not wanting to impose Islam on anyone involuntarily.
While the group primarily operates out of the Shiite portions of mostly the southern portion of Lebanon (e.g., Beirut, though that has become a relatively modern westernized city compared to much of the rest of Lebanon, the eastern Bekaa Valley, which is known as a haven for criminal enterprises, drug smuggling, and terrorist activities, and the greater southern portion of Lebanon in general), the charter makes clear that operations are not limited only to Lebanon. Terror operations can and should be targeted beyond Lebanon’s borders to the United States, Africa, Asia, Canada, and any other entity that supports Israel or the Jewish people, according to Hezbollah’s ideology.
For example, when the United States attempted to intervene in affairs in Iran in the early 1980s, Hezbollah had no shame in bombing an American embassy twice as well as some military barracks. The United States, France, and Israel were named in the 1980s as the primary enemies of Hezbollah, but this view has at least somewhat softened (by the standards it can soften when you are speaking of a terrorist organization), as Hezbollah does engage in at least somewhat open dialogue with foreign entities such as the European Union today.
The terrorist group appointed Hassan Nasrallah as secretary-general in 1992 after Israeli forces assassinated some of the previous leadership of Hezbollah, and the group was then further organized to include a Shura council and five sub-councils, which include political, parliamentary, jihad, executive, and judicial assemblies.
In addition to its military operations (it is the only militia to be allowed to keep arms under the 1989 Taif Agreement), Hezbollah has established a social services network of schools, medical facilities, and children’s programs, and these social services are how the group has gained the support of the average Lebanese people. Some even deem one of Hezbollah’s hospitals to be “one of the best in Beirut.”
Furthermore, Hezbollah has the capabilities and infrastructure to operate a satellite television channel known as Al Manar, broadcast radio messages, and operate a website. Partly through such outreach and communications and partly out of fear that its ability to maintain arms could be reasonably threatened, Hezbollah has morphed to integrate itself into politics and has held positions in the Lebanese cabinet since 2005.
Hezbollah certainly holds no majority in the Lebanese government and has received criticism from the Lebanese people for not doing enough regarding such issues as unemployment, poverty, and national debt, especially after the COVID-19 lockdowns. Criticism of Hezbollah has mounted even more after allegations emerged that Hezbollah may have had something to do with the assassination of a Lebanese prime minister in 2005. Others would like to see Hezbollah disarmed for various reasons of their own, and therefore support for Hezbollah has waned among many Lebanese citizens. There are likely other Lebanese citizens and groups who oppose Hezbollah for their own various reasons but are too afraid to say anything openly.
As one might naturally expect, Hezbollah and Israel are not friends, as part of Hezbollah’s founding was in direct response to anger about Israel targeting Lebanon in 1978 and then as officially stated in its charter from the mid-1980s. There has never been a direct, full-blown declaration of war between Israel and Hezbollah (perhaps a month of what could be considered a full-blown war in 2006, but basically no long-term wars), but there have been numerous skirmishes over the years, including car bombings, rocket launches, air strikes, and attacks on various bases and underground tunnels. Israel is primarily concerned that Hezbollah is funded by Iran, and therefore Hezbollah will remain an ongoing threat to Israel because of the support from Tehran.
The United States declared Hezbollah to be a terrorist organization officially in 1997, which was instrumental in the sanctions being levied against the paramilitary group. The Obama administration did provide some assistance to the Lebanese military, hoping to overpower Hezbollah and gain a reputation as a stronger military force in the region than Hezbollah. However, Congress was uneasy about providing any additional funding after that due to concerns about the Lebanese military actually partnering with Hezbollah in some efforts at the Syrian border to defend against outside Islamic forces and al-Qaeda. Congress was afraid Hezbollah might be funded if money were to be given to the Lebanese military at this time. Hezbollah is considered a terrorist organization not only by the United States, the seven Arab countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (except Iraq), and other nations.
In 2015, however, Congress did pass the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act, and this legislation was further amended in 2018. The legislation seeks punitive action against any foreign entity that tries to finance Hezbollah by passing money through United States bank accounts.
The current Commander-in-Chief of the United States has sanctioned some people that have financial connections to Hezbollah, and the Treasury Department has clamped down on money laundering efforts that have been believed to finance Hezbollah and indirectly Iran. Meanwhile, the European Union has created some task forces to crack down on the effects of Hezbollah’s terrorism on the European continent, though some European nations have independently decided to go further in condemning Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
It is debatable to what extent any of the sanctions have really had any impact on Hezbollah and its activities. If anything, some believe that Hezbollah’s influence is expanding internationally, not diminishing, though the group does not seem to be thirsty for war with either Israel or western nations at this time. Hezbollah seems content with performing random acts of terrorism rather than any outright, full-blown ongoing war and ignoring any sanctions mounted against them, regardless of who attempts to issue the sanctions.
Violence has continued over the years, with the late 1990s seeming to be the time in history when Hezbollah had its “glory years” per se and the most widespread acceptance it was going to have. In 2006, facing some political blowback for some acts of terrorism, Hezbollah staged a walkout against the government of Lebanon. Protests and tensions flared, and the Lebanese government, among other things, did cut off Hezbollah’s television network a couple years later, to which Hezbollah responded with more violence.
All of this eventually resulted, either directly or indirectly, in a new Lebanese government being formed. However, Hezbollah’s reign of terror has continued, igniting uprisings and violence in Syria during the Arab Spring. This, of course, was not contained within Syria’s borders and naturally spread across the border into Lebanon. There have been other violent protests over the years. There are some suspicions that Hezbollah may have something to do with an explosion of ammonium nitrate at the Port of Beirut in 2020.
In 2022, Lebanon held a parliamentary election, and Hezbollah did win some seats, though it lost its majority. Hezbollah remains a formidable political entity in Lebanon despite losing its political majority.
Even today, Hezbollah essentially maintains its original platform that was penned in the mid-1980s: obliterate Israel no matter the cost, velayat-e-faqih/wali al-faqih, and the ideal of living in an Islamic state under Sharia law, though it accepts that may not be realistic with the current demographics and situation in Lebanon. Hezbollah does recognize that Lebanon is more religiously diverse than other Arab nations and that a hardcore Islamic state is not conducive to conversations between people of different religious backgrounds.
Interestingly, Hezbollah seems to be somewhat open-minded about what an acceptable alternative form of government may entail and recognizes that people of different faiths can co-exist in the same nation without having to blow one another up.
Another interesting point is that Hezbollah seems more open to women having a place in society, unlike some of the other hardline Islamic theocracies in the world. Hezbollah is even open to gainfully employing women in its charitable organizations or telecommunications networks.
Today, Hezbollah remains a formidable force to be reckoned with on the world stage, even if it is not a sovereign nation of its own. Hezbollah is supported in terms of finances and weapons by such nations as Iran, Yemen, and Lebanon and maintains a firm stance against Israel’s existence to this day. It does face some public relations challenges, walking the fine line between being beholden to Iran and also being faithful to some of the needs of the Shiite community in Lebanon, both politically and socioeconomically. Regardless, Hezbollah has been no friend to Israel at any point in Hezbollah’s existence, and that point of contention has never been softened, even the slightest, to this day.
Disclaimer: This article was never intended to stand as a complete analysis of the history of Hezbollah or of relations between Hezbollah and Israel. That is a deep, complex topic that would require a multi-article series to unravel and fully understand, and even that may be inadequate. This article is meant solely to give an overview of who Hezbollah is in light of current world events.