What is Hezbollah?
Hezbollah is a Shiite Muslim political group with a militant wing the United States defines as a terrorist organization. The group, which is active in Lebanon, is a major provider of social services, operating schools, hospitals, and agricultural services for thousands of Lebanese Shiites. Hezbollah's political standing was bolstered after a wave of violence in May 2008 prompted Lebanon's lawmakers to compromise with the group. In August 2008, the country's parliament approved a national unity cabinet, giving Hezbollah and its allies veto power with eleven of thirty cabinet seats. In the June 2009 parliamentary elections, Hezbollah lost to Lebanon's ruling (VOA), pro-Western "March 14" coalition, reflected in the reduction of its cabinet seats; it retained only two. Hezbollah also operates the al-Manar satellite television (PDF) channel and broadcast station, which the United States regards as a terrorist entity. Iran-funded Hezbollah backs al-Manar politically and financially so it can continue to broadcast Hezbollah's anti-Western agendas (MiddleEastQuarterly).
What are Hezbollah's origins?
Hezbollah was founded in 1982 in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and subsumed members of the 1980s coalition of groups known as Islamic Jihad. It drew inspiration from the Iranian Revolution, received training from Iran's Revolutionary Guards and funds from Tehran, and has close links to Iran and Syria (VOA).
Who are Hezbollah's leaders?
Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah was considered the group's spiritual leader. He died of a liver hemorrhage (NYT) on July 4, 2010, at the age of 75. His replacement will help provide more insight into the extent of Iran's clout in Lebanon (Bloomberg). There is a possibility that a more extremist Iranian brand of Islamic ideology will replace Fadlallah's relatively moderate (CSMonitor), and some might say liberal, views. Fadlallah had not tried to emulate Iran's ruling clerics; rather, he had even criticized (Telegraph) them and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for their excessive amounts of power.
Hassan Nasrallah is Hezbollah's senior political leader. Nasrallah was originally a military commander, but his military and religious credentials--he studied in centers of Shiite theology in Iran and Iraq--quickly elevated him to leadership within the group. Experts say he took advantage of rivalries within Hezbollah and the favor of the head of Iran's theocratic government, Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, to become the group's secretary general in 1992, a position he still holds.
For over twenty years, Imad Fayez Mugniyah was considered the key planner of Hezbollah's worldwide terrorist operations. Experts say Mugniyah trained with al Fatah during the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s. When the Palestine Liberation Organization and al-Fatah were expelled from Lebanon by Israeli forces in 1982, Mugniyah joined the newly formed Hezbollah and quickly rose to a senior position in the organization. On Februrary 13, 2008, Mugniyah was killed in a car bombing in Damascus. Hezbollah officials accused Israel of launching the attacks that killed him, but the Israeli government has denied involvement.
Where does Hezbollah operate?
Its base is in Lebanon's Shiite-dominated areas, including parts of Beirut, southern Lebanon, and the Bekaa Valley. In addition, U.S. intelligence reports say that Hezbollah cells operate in Europe, Africa, South America, and North America.
Despite Israel's 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon, Hezbollah continued to periodically shell Israeli forces in the disputed Shebaa Farms border zone. Periodic conflict between the group and Israel erupted into full-scale war during the summer of 2006. A UN-brokered cease-fire was formalized on August 14, 2006, ending the five-week conflict, but not before more than one thousand people were killed and hundreds of thousands were forced to flee. Israel-Hezbollah tensions remain high, causing fear of a third Lebanon war.
How big is Hezbollah?
Its core consists of several thousand militants and activists, the U.S. government estimates. Intelligence officials estimate that Hezbollah's weapons arsenal includes between 40,000 to 80,000 (ForeignAffairs) short and long-range rockets, as well as anti-aircraft, anti-tank, and anti-ship weapons.
What major attacks is Hezbollah responsible for?
Hezbollah and its affiliates have planned or been linked to a lengthy series of terrorist attacks against the United States, Israel, and other Western targets. These attacks include:
- a series of kidnappings of Westerners in Lebanon, including several Americans, in the 1980s;
- the suicide truck bombings that killed more than two hundred U.S. Marines at their barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983;
- the 1985 hijacking of TWA flight 847, which featured the famous footage of the plane's pilot leaning out of the cockpit with a gun to his head;
- two major 1990s attacks on Jewish targets in Argentina--the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy (killing twenty-nine) and the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center (killing ninety-five).
- a July 2006 raid on a border post in northern Israel in which two Israeli soldiers were taken captive. The abductions sparked an Israeli military campaign against Lebanon to which Hezbollah responded by firing rockets across the Lebanese border into Israel.
While Hezbollah has not claimed responsibility for any major international attacks since 2006, the group's weapons stockpile has increased and and its capabilities have strengthened. In November 2009, Israeli athorities intercepted a ship (TIME) carrying more than three thousand Iranian-made rockets and mortars which they believed were bound for Hezbollah. In April 2010, Israeli and U.S. officials also claimed that Syria transfered SCUD missiles (WSJ) to Hezbollah. On July 14, 2010, Naim Qassem, Hezbollah's second-in-command, said the group possesses an extensive list of Israeli targets (AFP) should a new conflict with Israel begin.
Does Hezbollah play an active role in the Lebanese politics?
Yes. The group's political strength has grown since the its May 2008 takeover of West Beirut, which followed a government-ordered shutdown of Hezbollah's communications network. In an Arab-brokered deal to end the fighting, Hezbollah was granted veto power in Lebanon's parliament, and controlled eleven of thirty seats in the cabinet. Despite the apparent political strengthening, however, some experts say Hezbollah's use of force in the West Beirut showdown--Hezbollah had said it would never turn its weapons on Lebanese civilians--eroded the group's credibility. In a May 2008 report, the International Crisis Group warned that a line had been crossed that would likely deepen the sectarian tensions among Lebanon's ruling and opposition parties. The June 2009 elections saw a drop in Hezbollah's political representation--it kept thirteen seats (WSJ) in the 128-member Lebanese Parliament and only two in the cabinet--but the loss has not diminished the group's influence. In a December 2009 vote, the Lebanese Parliament allowed Hezbollah to retain its arsenal of weapons (NYT), despite pro-Western lawmakers' objections.
In a 2009 Washington Institute for Near East Policy report (PDF), adjunct scholar Magnus Norell writes that Hezbollah was "strong enough to drag the country [Lebanon] into war against the will of the sovereign government." The UN has issued two Security Council resolutions, 1559 and 1701, calling for the disarmament of all Lebanese militias, including Hezbollah, but it has so far refused to relinquish its weapons.
--Jennifer Ching and Michal Toiba contributed to this report.