Conflict with Israel Leaves Lebanon Bruised, Divided

Israeli airstrikes target southern Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold, on the fourth day of fighting between Israeli and Hezbollah forces. Lebanon's diverse communities are divided over Hezbollah's actions and the Israeli response.

Hezbollah's Changing Mission

Lebanese population and Hezbollah militants celebrate the Israeli army's pull-out from southern Leba

hide captionLebanese population and Hezbollah militants celebrate the Israeli army's pull-out from southern Lebanon, May 24, 2000.

Jacques Langevin/Corbis Sygma

Hezbollah was formed in 1982 as a response to Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon. The name means "Party of God," and the group derives its ideological inspiration from Iran.

Hezbollah garners moral support and financial assistance from both Iran and Syria, but analysts say the group acts independently. And over time, its original aim of driving Israel out of Lebanon has expanded into a powerful political and social force among Lebanon's Shiite Muslims, and possibly beyond.

Hezbollah entered Lebanese politics since 1992, and currently holds 14 seats in Lebanon's 128-seat national assembly, as well as the cabinet post of minister for water and electricity. It also draws support through its own private network of social and educational services. Its crowning achievement, though, was to force Israel's military to end its 22-year occupation in May 2000.

At the time, the militant group received widespread praise, including from Christian and secular Lebanese who opposed its hard-line ideology. But even as some hoped Hezbollah would then give up its arms and morph into a strictly political entity, Hezbollah set about expanding its influence.

Despite persistent international pressure, the group did not abandon its weapons nor deploy away from the Israeli border. And Lebanon's fragile government — a delicate balance of the country's Shia, Sunni and Christian communities — was not strong enough to force those measures.

Lebanon found itself in a bind after it promised to disarm all "militant" groups. But earlier this year, according to Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the government avoided a showdown by designating Hezbollah a "resistance" force against Israel instead of a militia. In this way, according to a State Department report Cordesman cites, Lebanon also exempts Hezbollah from money laundering and terrorism financing laws.

Just after the Israeli pullout, Hezbollah's TV station, Al-Manar, also went on satellite. One member said, "in this way, our jihad will continue."

The channel carries an odd mix of children's programming, anti-Israel game shows, and militant propaganda. Al-Manar has been banned in France, and declared a terrorist outfit by the United States.

In March 2004, again according to a State Department report, Hezbollah signed an agreement to join the Palestinian group Hamas in joint attacks against Israel.

Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has publicly referred to this assistance. And in recent years, Israel has accused Hezbollah of illicitly shipping arms to Palestinians via the Mediterranean Sea.

There is a long list of terror acts for which the United States and others blame or suspect Hezbollah, all the way back to suicide truck bombings of the American embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. The list also includes the 1985 hijacking of a TWA flight, in which a U.S. Navy diver was killed, and attacks on the Israeli embassy and cultural center in Argentina in the1990s.

Hezbollah has also seized Israeli soldiers before. In 2000, members disguised as U.N. soldiers, with a mock white U.N. vehicle, kidnapped three Israeli Defense Forces soldiers and a reservist. Sheik Nasrallah declared the reason was to trade them for militants held by Israel, and three years later, it worked. In a German-brokered deal, Hezbollah turned over the reservist and the bodies of the three soldiers (they had been killed). In exchange, Israel released 430 prisoners from Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinian territories.

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