Publisher Council on Foreign Relations Press
Release Date February 2000
At first glance,Hizballah's position on the State Department's list of groups that sponsor terrorism would seem to be secure.1 This is not hard to understand, because since the early 1980s the Iranbacked Hizballah (Party of God) positioned itself as an opponent of U.S. policy in the Middle East and especially in Lebanon. Hizballah has been connected with a number of notorious incidents, including the 1983 attack on the Marine barracks in which more than 240 marines died, the kidnapping of U.S. citizens, including Terry Anderson and CIA station chief William Buckley, as well as at least one bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut.The policy humiliations of the Iran-Contra affair stemmed directly from the attempts of senior U.S. officials to gain the release of U.S. hostages held in Lebanon by Shi'i groups that were linked to Hizballah, if not a part of it. The hostage seizures were fully consistent with Hizballah's declared goal of expunging both the American diplomatic presence and Americans from Lebanon, and the hostages' fate was often manipulated in order to serve the interests of Hizballah's sponsor, Iran. Equally important, Hizballah has proven to be a deadly and effective foe of Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon, and it has persistently called for the liberation of Jerusalem and the destruction of Israel. In recent years, Hizballah has been a vocal critic of the peace process, and it has refused to countenance any direct negotiations with Israel. As though all of this were not enough to justify the opprobrium of Americans, Hizballah's close links to Iran, from which it has received generous financial and materiel support since 1982, seem to suggest that it is less a phenomenon of Lebanese politics than a geopolitical foothold for Tehran. Hizballah also maintains a close working relationship with Syria, with which it has willingly cooperated, at least in recent years. Hizballah's relentless attacks on the Israeli occupation zone in southern Lebanon have served Syria's purposes by violently underlining the insistence of Damascus that Israel withdraw completely from both the Golan Heights and southern Lebanon.
Still, although there is no denying that Hizballah has earned its reputation for radicalism. Nonetheless, U.S. policymakers have begun, especially in private off-the-record discussions, to come to terms with the fact that Hizballah may not simply be dismissed as an extremist or terrorist group.The party has managed to build an extremely impressive social base in Lebanon. Hizballah is arguably the most effective and efficient political party in the country. Hizballah provides an array of services throughout the areas where it enjoys a significant presence, especially in the dahiya (suburbs) of Beirut; the northern Biqaa valley, and Ba'albak in particular, and in parts of southern Lebanon, including Nabatiyya, the important historic center of Shi'i scholarship.