The origins, emergence and victory of Hizbullah, Lebanon’s Islamic resistance movement (Re-print)

Developing Just Leadership

Abul Fadl

Rajab 07, 1427 2006-08-01

Special Reports

by Abul Fadl (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 35, No. 6, Rajab, 1427)

The Hizbullah, which is now under intense attack in Lebanon from Israel, emerged as an Islamic movement representing Lebanon’s ordinary Muslims after the Israeli invasion of the country in 1982. Eighteen years later, in 2000, Hizbullah’s resistance led to a stunning victory when the Israelis were forced to withdraw from territories they had occupied in the 1980s.

Here we reprint an analysis of Hizbullah’s rise and modus operandi by Khalil Osman, first published in September 2000 to mark that triumph.

Israel's ignominious expulsion from south Lebanon under the unrelenting and determined attacks of the Islamic Resistance has focused attention on the Lebanese Hizbullah that spearheaded this intrepid and successful resistance movement. So, who or what is Hizbullah? What is the reality of the West's bete noir, the architects of the West's defeat in Lebanon? To understand Hizbullah and its remarkable achievements is to unravel the complexities of an evolving Islamic movement that helped infuse a sense of mission into the hearts and minds of many, not least a major segment of the Lebanese people. The task of constructing a clear historical picture of Hizbullah takes one from a fluid coalition of activist individuals and small groups, full of Islamic revolutionary zeal and a profound determination to reverse the shock of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon; to a mature, dynamic, broad and multifaceted political organisation, displaying outstanding political acumen, astute organisational and mobilisational competence, shrewd coalition-building and, most importantly, incisive strategic and tactical skills.

[Pic Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah]

The origins of Hizbullah date back to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 1982. During the early days of the invasion, the country's then-president, Ilyas Sarkis, set up a six-man National Salvation Committee, ostensibly to deal with the effects of the Israeli invasion and work towards national reconciliation. The decision of Amal's president Nabih Berri to attend the meetings of the Committee, alongside the pro-zionist Phalangist military commander Bashir Jumayyil, was met with a flood of protest from the movement's rank and file, some of it expressed by a wave of resignations. The Amal dissenters also looked askance at the fact that the Committee held its meetings at the presidential palace in Ba'abda in the occupied zone. Most of the resignations came from religious elements and cadres who had been working within Amal in the hope of transforming it into an Islamic movement committed to the establishment of an Islamic state in Lebanon. Among those who resigned were several of Amal's 25-member Command Council, including Hajj ‘Ali ‘Ammar, Hajj Hussein al-Khalil and the Council's deputy head Hussein al-Musawi, who split away to form his own group, which he called the Islamic Amal Movement. The defectors also included members of Amal's politburo, such as Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, now the secretary-general of Hizbullah.

These defectors came together with a range of other activists, led mainly by graduates of the Najaf religious schools in Iraq, who included former students of the late Ayatullah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr. These represented a broad trend that had emerged in the 1970s, maintaining its separateness from the activities of Sayyid Musa al-Sadr, the founder of Amal. Those who found their place outside al-Sadr's movement for the most part rejected the "finality" of the Lebanese nation-state to which he had vowed allegiance. Others were affiliated with the Iraqi Da'awa party, some of whom, having joined the party during their educational sojourn in Iraq, were active in the clandestine activities of its Lebanese branch. A number of Lebanese Da'awa activists were also active in the Lebanese Union of Muslim Students (al-Ittihad al-Lubnani lil-Talabah al-Muslimin), which operated under the spiritual patronage of Ayatullah Sayyid Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah.

Another group of radical elements found its organisational expression in the Islamic Action Committees (Lijan al-'Amal al-Islami). The Committees maintained close ties with the Palestinian Fatah movement and Iranian revolutionaries who operated in Lebanon against the Shah's regime during the 1970s. This group consisted largely of student activists following the revolutionary ideas of Imam Ruhullah Khomeini, but lacked the leadership of a prominent local ‘alim. However, some Committee activists sought guidance from Sayyid Hani Fahs, a junior ‘alim from the southern Lebanese village of Jibshit, who was famous for his eloquent polemical writings against the Lebanese left, his literary criticism, his elegant literary style, and his experimentation with uniquely Islamic literary genres.

Having enjoyed close ties with Islamic Iran, this loose coalition gained guidance, aid and training, as well as importance, from hundreds of Iranian Revolutionary Guards (Pasdaran) who were sent to Lebanon to help resist the occupation. The broad ideological spectrum represented in this coalition makes the success of the efforts to mold it into a cohesive, tightly integrated supra-factional political movement a testimony to superb persuasive and organisational skills.

At first this coalition, which represented the embodiment of a new political awakening for the Lebanese Shi'ah community, went largely unnoticed. Then, late in 1982, the government of Lebanese president Amin Jumayyil arrested a group of Islamic activists, including a number of ‘ulama, accusing them of working to form what were described as "Khomeinist cells" (khalaya Khomayniyyah). This was a sign of the coalition's growing importance as a cohesive political movement in Lebanon.

Gaining confidence, organisational experience and sizeable numbers (mainly from disaffected members of Amal), the coalition increasingly decided to make a public debut on the Lebanese political arena. The first signs of its existence came through numerous sundry attacks and mass rallies and protests against the occupation. In the fall of 1983, Hizbullah fighters took part in gun-battles with contingents of the Lebanese army and their Phalangist allies in the southern suburbs of Beirut. They also engaged US Marines stationed around Beirut Airport as part of a multinational force.

The group officially announced its existence on February 16, 1985, when it released its political programme at a rally held in a husayniyyah in al-Shayyah, a suburb to the south of Beirut, to commemorate the first anniversary of the martyrdom of Shaykh Raghib Harb, the Imam of Jibshit, who had been assassinated by Israeli agents in February 1984. The program characterised Hizbullah as a broad movement ("an Ummah linked to the community of Muslims all over the world") rather than a political party. Most notable among the goals identified in the programme were ending the zionist occupation of parts of Lebanon "as a step toward the annihilation of Israel and the liberation of holy Jerusalem from the throes of occupation", and the establishment of an Islamic state.

Subsequent events have proven that Hizbullah's commitment to the liberation of the south was no mere rhetoric of the kind that had prevailed throughout the Arab world for decades. Hizbullah quickly came to play a significant role in attacking the Israeli occupiers and their Lebanese collaborators. Of course Hizbullah, was not the only group active at the time; other groups, including Amal and various leftist groups, were also involved in the resistance. These were organised in the Lebanese National Resistance (al-Muqawamah al-Wataniyyah al-Lubnaniyyah).

But the Hizbullah-led Islamic Resistance (al-Muqawamah al-Islamiyyah) displayed an unparalleled ability to sustain protracted military and civilian resistance despite the climate of terror and violence inflicted by Israel's so-called "Iron Fist" policy, while the Lebanese National Resistance, by contrast, withered away. This resistance was dominated by the military skills of hundreds of trained resistance fighters, infiltrated from Beirut and the Beqa'a into the south to carry out attacks. These military operations were backed up by a network of village ‘ulama affiliated with Hizbullah, who made significant contributions to the resistance efforts, both in planning military operations and in mobilising mass protest-rallies and demonstrations. It was from this basis that the Hizbullah fought for well over a decade, until the victory finally achieved.

Amid the ecstatic jubilation of the recent victory of the Islamic resistance in Lebanon, questions surrounding Hizbullah's organisation and modus operandi have come to preoccupy those looking for ways to emulate its success in effecting a shift from the bitterness of occupation to the sweet joy of liberation. Hizbullah's success provides a beacon of hope in the midst of total despair. For Hizbullah's victory is like a flower that blossomed despite an atmosphere of intense pessimism engendered by the dark cloud of defeat hovering over the Arab world recently.

During its initial phases, the resistance against the Israeli occupation of parts of Lebanon took the form of small-scale and largely uncoordinated protests, strikes, boycotts of Israeli products, and homemade roadside bombs. It then developed into a well-organised resistance employing elements of classic guerrilla warfare, focusing mainly on booby-traps and hit-and-run attacks, as well as the novel "martyrdom-seeking" operations whereby fighters volunteer to drive vehicles packed with explosives into Israeli targets. The death-toll inflicted on Israeli soldiers forced the Israelis into a retreat from most of the south of Lebanon. On June 6, 1985, Israel completed its retreat to a self-declared "security zone" in the south of Lebanon, having previously occupied over half the country. This partial withdrawal strengthened the hand of Hizbullah, which had largely forced it.

In mid-1986, however, the Islamic Resistance reassessed its military efforts after losing 24 men in a single attack. The subsequent establishment of a naval unit was the beginning of a new stage in which the resistance combined elements of both conventional and guerrilla warfare. In general, the activities of the Islamic Resistance sought to overcome the enormous imbalance of power between itself and the enemy by striking at the zionists' main weakness: that is their lack of will to endure protracted combat resulting in extensive human losses. Enemy convoys, encampments and fortifications were constantly targeted in a war of attrition, disturbing enemy formations, interrupting supply lines, and ultimately demoralising both Israel's troops and its society.

Every measure taken by the Israelis and their local militia, the South Lebanon Army (SLA), failed in the face of the determination of the resistance. Moreover, the resistance, which displayed remarkable creativity in finding new ways to engage the enemy, also succeeded in penetrating the SLA, gaining in the process useful information on the enemy's movements. There is no doubt that accurate intelligence is important in every military confrontation.

The ensuing rise in the importance and popularity of Hizbullah did not come without a cost. For one thing, it raised Amal's ire. Amal was worried that it might lose the south to its rival. This, along with Syria's desire to curb the growth of Hizbullah, set the stage for armed clashes between Hizbullah and Amal that threatened to weaken the resistance by internecine fighting. However, Hizbullah's leadership succeeded not only in avoiding all the traps, and in staying focused on the resistance, but also in forging an effective alliance and coordination withDamascus.

Coordination with Syria, the main power-broker in Lebanon, enabled Hizbullah to lean on the Lebanese government and demand its total support for the resistance. During the presidency of Amin Jumayyil (1982-88), Lebanese authorities embarked on a repressive campaign against the resistance, in which its fighters were harassed, arrested and tortured. In September 1993, the government of prime minister Rafiq Hariri ordered the army to open fire on a demonstration organised by Hizbullah to protest the signing of the Declaration of Principles; several protesters were killed and scores wounded. Had Hizbullah succumbed to the pressure to react in kind, the resistance could have been consumed in a whirlpool of internecine fighting. Instead, it understood that succumbing to this temptation would play into the hands of the main enemy.

The support of the Lebanese government, Iran and Syria was instrumental to victory. Aside from the diplomatic cover and international legitimacy it provided, this support facilitated the conduct of resistance activities. The Lebanese government's support, for instance, allowed the resistance to maintain a media infrastructure and rear bases in areas under the government's control, such as the southern suburbs of Beirut and the eastern Beqa'a Valley, and to move supplies, equipment and personnel freely in and out of the south.

Acutely aware of the complexity of Lebanese society as a polyglot mixture of seventeen sects, the Hizbullah-led Islamic resistance took pains to steer clear of sectarianism in any form, although its main source of manpower was the country's Shi'i community. Its concentration on the common goal facilitated the emergence of a broad-based Lebanese national consensus around the cause of total liberation. Ennobling and morally transcending, the resistance therefore became a pillar of national unity and cohesion in a fractured social context that can well be described as a sectarian and political minefield.

Parallel to the growth in its military activities, Hizbullah developed a vast welfare system, complete with healthcare facilities, educational aid and institutions, and monetary assistance, geared toward the welfare of the poor and needy. Hizbullah's welfare system benefited a great deal from the expertise and financial largesse of a host of Iranian revolutionary organisations, such as the Martyrs' Foundation (Bunyad-e Shahid), the Foundation of the Oppressed (Bunyad-e Mustad'afan), Imam Khomeini's Relief Committee (Hay'at Imdad al-Imam al-Khomayni) and the Construction Jihad (Jihad-e Sazindagi). Its Islamic Health Committee (al-Hay'ah al-Suhhiyyah al-Islamiyyah) operates a multitude of hospitals and clinics throughout the country. Hizbullah's welfare system also runs several orphanages and centres for the physically handicapped. It provides farmers with equipment, improved seed, livestock, training and advice, to start enterprises ranging from cultivating cash-crops to raising cattle, beehives and fish-farms. Families supported by Hizbullah's welfare-system receive a range of assistance from food, household supplies and clothing to financial aid and scholarships. Hizbullah has also been involved in large-scale business operations, including real-estate ventures and a chain of discount co-operative supermarkets.

Aside from being an expression of its genuine commitment to the well-being of the poor, Hizbullah's welfare system had obvious benefits for the resistance. For one thing, it was instrumental in undermining the enemy's strategy of striking civilian targets in order to terrorise people into pressurising the resistance to cease its operations. These efforts also deepened the roots of Hizbullah in Lebanese society, thus making it increasingly difficult to undermine or obliterate its political role, influence or existence.

Now that the south has been liberated, pressure has been mounting on Hizbullah to become a political party, giving up its military activities and abandoning its firm stand on the liberation of Palestine and Jerusalem. During a meeting in June with a Jordanian delegation from the Association Against Zionism and Racism, Hizbullah secretary-general Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah revealed that Washington has actually offered to pay hundreds of millions of dollars, in the guise of aid to rebuild southern Lebanon, if Hizbullah reduces itself to a political party. Nasrallah assured the delegation that Hizbullah had no intention of giving up its traditional approach or its arms.

Even in the darkest hours of the occupation, Hizbullah's leadership never considered the possibility of a compromise. All the attempts of Israel, its international supporters or defeatist "pragmatists" in the Arab world to lure Hizbullah into a shady deal with the enemy or an implicit recognition of Israel were in vain. They are hardly likely to change their approach now.

The decisive victory of Hizbullah has implications far beyond Lebanon. Hizbullah has radically recast the boundaries of political discourse in the Arab world. It has made possible the return of the rhetoric and logic of resistance into Arab political discourse – elements that have been largely suppressed since the hallucinogenic haze of the "peace process" descended on the region. The recovery of the discourse of resistance helps prune a dense web of defeatist assumptions that masqueraded as pragmatism and realism. The essential questions at issue in this discourse will from now on turn not on the possibility of rolling back and defeating the zionist occupation, but rather on the means, tactics and strategies that need to be employed in order to ensure victory. This does not augur well for Israel, which will soon realise that it has not seen the last of the Hizbullah-inspired resistance movement.

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