Lebanese Prime Minister Pleads for U.N. Help Lebanon's prime minister renews his appeal to the United Nations to intervene and impose a cease-fire as the Mideast conflict continues to widen on both fronts. Israel expanded its targets while Hezbollah continued to fire rockets into northern Israel.
NPR logo Lebanese Prime Minister Pleads for U.N. Help

Lebanese Prime Minister Pleads for U.N. Help

Hear Ivan Watson and Eric Westervelt on 'All Things Considered'

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5559950/5559955" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Smoke rises after an Israeli raid near Bahman hospital in Haret Hreik in the southern suburbs of Beirut, Hezbollah's stronghold. Hassan Ibrahim/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Hassan Ibrahim/AFP/Getty Images

Smoke rises after an Israeli raid near Bahman hospital in Haret Hreik in the southern suburbs of Beirut, Hezbollah's stronghold.

Hassan Ibrahim/AFP/Getty Images


Hezbollah's Changing Mission

Hezbollah was formed in 1982 as a response to Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon. But after Israel withdrew in 2000, the group reshaped to expand its influence in the Middle East.

Scroll down to read about the history of Hezbollah.

Lebanon's Prime Minister Saturday again appealed to the United Nations to intervene and impose a ceasefire as the Mideast conflict continued to widen on both fronts.

Israeli forces expanded their targets, striking the port city of Tripoli far to the north, and hitting near a Lebanese border crossing into Syria to the east. In a strategy similar to past operations in the Gaza Strip, Israel bombed a series of bridges and roads across Lebanon, dividing the country and stranding citizens desperate to flee. One missile hit a van full of civilians, killing 15 according to local police.

Israeli forces also struck gas stations, and an upscale boardwalk in central Beirut, and continued to pound the south Beirut neighborhood that is Hezbollah's stronghold. Lebanese authorities say the total death toll has reached 100, almost all of them civilians.

Israel appeared to be trying to block the militant group Hezbollah from moving two Israeli soldiers it captured Wednesday. Their abduction touched off this latest escalation, but Israel now says it won't cease fire until it diminishes the power of the Shiite militia Hezbollah.

For its part, Hezbollah continued to fire dozens of rockets into northern Israel, also expanding its targets. At least two modernized Katyusha rockets hit Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee, the first such attack there since the 1973 Mideast war. Eight people were wounded. Four Israeli civilians, including a child, have been killed this week, and tens of thousands have been largely confined to bomb shelters.

An Israeli intelligence official warned that Hezbollah has long range missiles that could hit Tel Aviv, Israel's largest city.

In his first public speech since the fighting began, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora condemned Israel's actions as "collective punishment," and said it has "no moral or legal legitimacy." He also indirectly criticized Hezbollah, saying only the state had the right to make decisions of peace and war. Siniora repeated that he had no prior knowledge of Hezbollah's plan to kidnap the Israeli soldiers.

Siniora pledged to expand Lebanese government authority across the country. The government is a delicate mix of ethnic and religious factions, and is considered too weak to confront Hizbollah despite agreeing to a U.N. resolution to do so. This has left the Shiite militia group operating as a quasi-independent force in the south.

Arab foreign ministers met in Cairo to address the conflict, but ended up fighting amongst themselves when moderate states blamed Hezbollah for the current escalation.

With an air, sea and land blockade against Lebanon, the U.S. government is considering ways to evacuate some 25,000 Americans there. France said it would get its nationals out by ferry. The violence comes at the height of the tourist season. Lebanon had worked hard to revive tourism in recent years, and had spent hundreds of millions rebuilding after a devastating 15 year civil war.

The conflict between Israel and Lebanon is the worst in a decade. In 1996, the Clinton administration engaged in heavy diplomacy to hammer out a ceasefire after 17 days of cross border attacks. So far this week, President Bush has refused to pressure Israel to stop its attacks, but has called on Syria to rein in Hezbollah.

Both Syria and Iran offer financial and military backing to Hezbollah, but they are two countries with which the Bush administration has no official ties. The United States pulled its ambassador out of Syria last year, after that country was believed to have been behind the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Lebanese themselves are deeply divided about Hezbollah. The group has strong support from the large Shiite community. But the renewed conflict is inflaming resentment on the part of many Christians and Sunni Muslims. They oppose Hezbollah's ideology, and blame it for provoking Israel's devastating military campaign.

Hezbollah's Changing Mission

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

toggle 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.