Hezbollah's Evolution from Militants to Politicians

Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international affairs and Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College, talks with Alex Chadwick from Beirut about Hezbollah's evolution from an armed militant group into a powerful political force. Gerges, author of Journey of Jihadist: Inside the Muslim Militancy, brought his family to his native Lebanon for the summer, and now is looking for a way to escape the escalating violence.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

We're joined again today by Fawaz Gerges. He's a scholar of Mid-East Studies who teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.

Yesterday, we learned that Professor Gerges had taken his children to visit their grandparents outside Beirut this summer, and they are all stuck there.

Professor, welcome back. How are things today?

Prof. FAWAZ GERGES (Professor, Sarah Lawrence College): Well, things are the same. The bombing continues. Civilian casualties are accumulating, even though, I think, Israel is becoming more selective in its targets. Israel has been bombing Hezbollah targets all over southern Lebanon, and it also bombed some targets in and around Beirut.

CHADWICK: We wanted to ask about Hezbollah, which touched off this crisis after its soldiers raided Israel, killing three Israeli soldiers and capturing two others.

Hezbollah means The Party of God. This is the group that, more or less, is in charge of things in southern Lebanon.

In what sense is Hezbollah a party as we would understand that word?

Prof. GERGES: Hezbollah was a product and a child of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. And Hezbollah was born after this turmoil, the upheaval that dropped(ph) Lebanese societies in the 1980s. It was very conservative, ultra-conservative.

Initially, when the group was founded, it was ideological. It was militant. It was reactionary. It was paramilitary. And it also was an underground movement. It has transformed itself, yet it still has one leg in the Lebanese political system. In fact, it has two members in the Lebanese cabinet.

CHADWICK: In your most recent book, Journey of the Jihadist, which is about militant Islam, you interview senior Hezbollah leaders who talk about their desire to practice politics. So what happened to that?

Prof. GERGES: Well, Hezbollah really is, is a political party now. Hezbollah has actively engaged and participated in Lebanese politics since 1990.

Yet, at the same time - and this is the irony - it has a paramilitary wing which basically subscribes to a military resistance against the Israeli occupation. And it's this dual - dual purpose, that has really plunged Lebanon into an existential crisis, because the state itself, the Lebanese state, must have a monopoly on the use of force. In fact, Hezbollah is more powerful than the existing sovereign Lebanese state.

CHADWICK: Here's a quote from a big newspaper in Lebanon, the Daily Star. This is from four years ago in an interview with a Hezbollah leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the man who's speaking for Hezbollah today. He said then: If they, the Jews, all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.

Prof. GERGES: A very disturbing quote. The rhetoric of Nasrallah and his cohorts, very hostile. I think if you're going to focus on the rhetoric, I think the rhetoric is very volatile. It's very insensitive, and it's very racist. But I think - let me stress this particular point - Hezbollah has come a long way. It has evolved. It has a long way to go. Yet, I think, it has a blinder when it comes to Israel. I think it's obsessed, because I think Hezbollah and other militant groups in the Middle East believe that Israel occupies Arab lands, it imprisons Arabs, it humiliates Arabs and Muslims, and the only way the Arabs can really liberate their land is by using force and violence to meet the Israeli military armada.

So it reflects the particular mindset that is very powerful, very dominant, within Hezbollah and other militant Islamic groups when it comes to Israel. But remember, this is an essentially political conflict. But of course, the political struggle, the political conflict between Arabs and Jews, has taken its toll in terms of politics, in terms of culture, in terms of rhetoric, in terms of sensitivity, and Nasrallah's quote is a case in point.

CHADWICK: Fawaz Gerges teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. He's speaking with us from just outside Beirut, in Lebanon, where he and his family are stranded at the old family compound. Professor, good luck there.

Mr. GERGES: Thank you.

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Hezbollah's Changing Mission

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

Lebanese population and Hezbollah militants celebrate the Israeli army's pull-out from southern Lebanon, May 24, 2000. Jacques Langevin/Corbis Sygma hide caption

itoggle caption 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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