Hizballah is an international terrorist organization that has been killing Americans and other Westerners for decades. Indeed, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said if al-Qaeda is the B-team of terrorism, Hizballah is the A-team.
Hizballah has a very large capability to do harm throughout northern Israel, with hundreds of Grad missiles, dozens of short-range missiles like the “Fajar 3” and “Fajar 5,” and longer-range rockets of Iranian make that can reach 40-70 km.
Israel asked the Turkish government to prohibit the Iranians from using Turkish airspace to fly supplies to Hizballah via Damascus. The Turks agreed, had a couple of Iranian planes land for inspection, and the traditional supply route to Hizballah was closed. It is imperative to get Syrian policy to change.
Lebanese prime minister Harari believes Lebanon cannot be both “Hong Kong” (today, Lebanon carries on its shoulders the ability of Syria to survive economically) and “Hanoi” (an adventurous revolutionary state).
Hizballah, and the Iranians who back them, are currently more focused on supporting terrorist organizations in the Palestinian arena, primarily Islamic Jihad, which is directly responsive to Iranian directives. The spin that Hizballah and many others in the Arab world put on Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 has had a direct impact on the minds of the Palestinian leadership, who decided to return to the armed struggle.
The Israeli Withdrawal from Lebanon
To appreciate the situation Israel is in today, we must look back to the May 2000 withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon, an event that had a profound impact on all that we see around us. There was some hope at the time among many within Israel’s political circles that once Israel withdrew from Lebanon, Hizballah would turn into a new, somewhat tougher, but manageable version of Amal, an older, established Shiite political party representing the most down-trodden but largest of all Lebanese population groups. It was hoped that, in one way or another, Hizballah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah would follow in the footsteps of Nabih Berri and the Amal leadership, and merge into the Lebanese political landscape. Clearly, Hizballah made one essential step in that direction by becoming an active political party. They are the largest single bloc in the Lebanese parliament – if only for the reason that the Lebanese parliament is even more fractured than the Knesset. Eleven or 12 Hizballah-affiliated members are enough to make a very large political bloc. On the other hand, they have chosen to stay out of the government.
Hizballah has definitely not become a second version of Amal and has retained the key features of a terrorist organization. In this respect, Hizballah remains the terror group most wedded to the totalitarian promise of Islamic revolution in the Middle East in its purist form.
Hizballah: An Iranian Proxy
In this, Hizballah effectively serves as a proxy for the Iranian revolutionary regime and its “conservative” wing of unreconstructed revolutionary radicals who follow the line set by the Imam, Ayatollah Khomeini. The rule of the Imam is a revolutionary recasting of Islamist ideology, totalitarian in its mode and in its borrowings from modern European political models. It is Shiite only in the sense that it does borrow elements of the Shiite tradition, but these elements are embedded in a totalitarian political system. This is not Shiite tradition; this is not Iranian tradition; these are modern revolutionary concepts, heavily leaning on the operational mode offered by the Marxist and French “Third-Worldist” environment Khomeini knew during his years of exile in Paris, and translated into a bearded and black-clad version of the same revolutionary traditions that twenty years earlier carried a Kalashnikov in the name of Marx.
It is Hizballah that is perhaps the purist representative of “Khatt al-Imam” (the line of the Imam, in Arabic), while Iran itself has changed beyond comprehension and is torn by internal disagreements. Hizballah sees itself as the only successful one, from its point of view. This has made their revolutionary commitment of crucial importance to them, and Nasrallah is definitely not going to trade away Hizballah’s self-image as the one successful revolutionary movement that drove the Zionists out without an agreement – that beat Israel. We must put aside the fact that this is not exactly why Israel left Lebanon. The real consideration that drove Prime Ministers Barak and Netanyahu to make the commitment to leave Lebanon was a desire to disengage from the periodic casualties in Lebanon that were being used by the Syrians as a tool to pressure Israel.
Regardless of what Israel thought it was doing, what was important to Hizballah is what it thought it had achieved and the spin it has been able to put on the story in the media. Hizballah controls “Al-Manar,” a powerful TV station that reaches a very large audience in the Arab world and to some extent sets the tone for others.
A Model for the Palestinians’ Armed Struggle
The ability of Hizballah to tell its story – that it is the only revolutionary organization that has managed to do what no Arab Sunni regime has been able to do – has become tremendously important to the organization’s self-image. This self-image, moreover, has had a profound impact on the current conflict. Regardless of the real motives of Israel’s decision, the spin that Hizballah and many others in the Arab world put on Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 has had a direct impact on the minds of the Palestinian leadership, in particular, the young cadres of Fatah. They decided not just to launch a new “intifada,” but to militarize it: to transform it from some kind of test of wills in the streets to a return to the armed struggle. That decision was directly colored by the message of Hizballah.
The position of Hizballah is certainly not just confined to removing Israel from southern Lebanon. The Iranians and the Syrians have forced on the Lebanese the fiction of “Shib’ah Farms” so that Hizballah will have an excuse to keep fighting, even though Israel’s total withdrawal from Lebanon was confirmed by the UN. It is enough to look at a Lebanese 2000 lira note to see that the borders of Lebanon are drawn where Israel and the UN say they are rather than where Hizballah says they are. It is not really about southern Lebanon or “Shib’ah Farms”; it is about Israel’s existence.
Nasrallah said in 1998: “We will never, never agree to live side-by-side with the filthy bacterial growth Israel, the cancerous entity that expands wherever there is a talmudic remnant.” When they talk about liberating Jerusalem, they mean it; they mean the whole of Israel. On several occasions Nasrallah has spoken not about Zionists but about Jews, about Holocaust denial, about the need to deny the Jews not just a country but even a village anywhere where they might have sovereignty.
These are positions colored by the line of the Iranian leadership or, to be specific, the Khomeini camp and the people who are trying to keep Iran in line with the legacy of the Imam. All of the projections about Hizballah modifying itself or becoming an element Israel can negotiate with were based on sheer fantasy. Israel can negotiate with Hizballah only on the exchange of prisoners and bodies, because that is a manipulative element that Hizballah uses to remind the Israeli people of its presence and capabilities. At the same time, Hizballah proves that it can manipulate Israel better than any other player in the region, a claim with some validity. Nobody has read Israeli society and the Israeli leadership with greater accuracy than Hassan Nasrallah.
The Threat to Northern Israel
Hizballah currently has a very large capability to do harm throughout northern Israel, with hundreds of Grad missiles, and 107-mm rockets that can be carried by donkey and launched from everywhere. It also has dozens of short-range missiles like the “Fajar 3” and “Fajar 5,” and longer-range rockets of Iranian make, some that can reach 40-70 km.
During the past year Syria has begun to provide Hizballah with Syrian-made, 202-mm rockets that can reach all of northern Israel. Interestingly, this Syrian enterprise started only after Israel asked the Turkish government to prohibit the Iranians from using Turkish airspace to fly supplies to Hizballah via Damascus. The Turks agreed, had a couple of Iranian planes land for inspection, and the traditional supply route to Hizballah was closed.
“Hong Kong” vs. “Hanoi”
Three months after Israel was “driven out” of southern Lebanon there were elections in Lebanon, won, against the Syrian leadership’s wishes, by the current prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri, and his allies, the Druze. Hariri hopes to put an end to Hizballah activity because it threatens the prospects for reviving the Lebanese economy. Harari’s message was: Lebanon cannot be both “Hong Kong” (today, Lebanon carries on its shoulders the ability of Syria to survive economically) and “Hanoi” (an adventurous revolutionary state).
Nasrallah is acutely aware of the will of the majority of Lebanese and has had to tread carefully over the past two and a half years in order not to overstay his welcome. At Syria’s instructions, Lebanon has allowed Hizballah free rein in the areas from which Israel withdrew in May 2000. There is no real governmental authority and no international presence in these areas, which have become “Hizballah-land.”
Nevertheless, Hizballah is acutely aware that this sufferance is tenuous. If it actually crosses a certain line and provokes a massive Israeli reaction that will disrupt and destroy everything that Hariri has been trying to build in Lebanon over the last few years, Hizballah might suffer the consequences from within the Lebanese system.
The Syrians are also a factor. There is a balance of deterrence between Israel and Syria today and for the foreseeable future. The Syrians have a very large standing army that can inflict a lot of pain. They have systematically and deliberately provided Hizballah with the ability to inflict even greater pain in some ways, since it can now hit large populated areas of Israel relatively quickly, without having to deploy the Syrian military. At the same time, conventional deterrence of Syria works. Bashar Assad is under no illusions whatsoever as to what will happen to Syria in a general conflict, and this has acted to modify and restrain Hizballah on a day-to-day basis.
During the past two and a half years there have been limited breaches of the peace, such as attacks on Israeli positions at the “Shib’ah Farms.” There were some artillery duels with Hizballah in the north during Israeli operations in Jenin. There has been one major Hizballah-sponsored terrorist attack across the border near Hanita that killed five civilians and one soldier. Yet this is nowhere near the full use of Hizballah capabilities. How do we keep it this way in time of crisis?
Aiding Palestinian Terrorism
Hizballah, and the Iranians who back them, have to some extent reduced the level of direct activity across the border because they have turned much of their energy toward the manipulation of terrorist activity within the Palestinian areas and within Israel. Essentially, the Iranian establishment is more focused on supporting terrorist organizations in the Palestinian arena, with Hizballah as backers and suppliers of arms and technology. The major conduit they use is Islamic Jihad, which is directly responsive to Iranian directives. The infusion of Iranian money, support, and technology accounts for the tremendous rise in the effectiveness of Islamic Jihad operations, as compared to a couple of years ago.
Hizballah has also infiltrated the Palestinian Authority itself. The use of mortars in Gaza was begun by PA officers working under the influence and direction of Hizballah. The bombing on Tel Aviv’s Neve Sha’anan Street, which took 23 lives, was also the result of a link with Hizballah.
The “A-Team” of Terrorism
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has said of Hizballah that if al-Qaeda is the “B-Team” of terrorism, Hizballah is the “A-Team.” Hassan Nassralah was in the business of killing and maiming Americans when bin Laden was still taking CIA money to kill Russians in Afghanistan. Hizballah, with fundraising operations in the U.S., Canada, and Australia, helped carry out two attacks in Argentina and certainly qualifies as a terrorist organization with global reach.
Prospects for Change in a Post-Saddam Middle East
What is needed to stop Hizballah? First, Syrian attitudes will need to change. With Syria surrounded by Turkey, a new Iraq, Jordan with its current strategic orientation, Israel, and a restive population in Lebanon, Syria’s calculus could change very quickly.
There are many people in Iran who are hoping that change in Iraq will also facilitate a transformation of Iran. These are the same people who have shouted in the streets, “Why do we have to bother with Palestine? We have problems of our own.”
Should these changes occur, Hizballah will have to reconsider its arrogance. Until then, however, it remains a very serious risk. Israel must maintain a firm deterrent posture vis-a-vis Lebanese society, on the one hand, and the Syrians, on the other, in conjunction with a firm American message to Iran as to how it should act if it does not want to be next in line.
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Col. (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman is the Director of the American Jewish Committee’s Israel/Middle East office. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on 20 January 2003.