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Since 1992, Hassan Nasrallah has been the leader of the Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah, a political organization with a militant wing based in Lebanon. A popular political figure in Lebanon and the Arab world, Nasrallah is a driving force behind Hezbollah’s ongoing military operations as well as the group’s move into politics. In May 2008, Hezbollah captured international attention when it seized (NYT) much of western Beirut after battles that began when the Lebanese government took measures against Hezbollah’s private telecommunications network. Since then, Hezbollah has become the "most powerful single political movement in Lebanon." Under Nasrallah’s leadership, the group has ratcheted up vast support among its constituents by taking the place of the government in providing low-cost or free welfare services for Lebanon’s Shiite communities. In February 2010, a Pew Research Center survey showed that 97 percent of Lebanon’s Shiites have a favorable view of Hezbollah.
Who is Hassan Nasrallah?
As the secretary-general of Hezbollah, Nasrallah is the group’s highest-ranking official. He rose to that position in 1992, when an Israeli helicopter gunned down his predecessor and mentor, Sayyad Abbas Musawi. Viewed as an extremist by Israel and the West, Nasrallah is a prominent figure in Lebanese politics. Charismatic, highly intelligent, and deeply religious, his face appears on billboards, key chains, and screensavers; excerpts of his speeches are even used as cell phone ringtones.
Born in 1960 in East Beirut’s Bourj Hammoud neighborhood, Nasrallah, the oldest of nine children, aspired to religious leadership from a young age. In 1975, when a civil war broke out in Lebanon, Nasrallah’s family moved to its ancestral home in the southern Lebanese village of Bassouriyeh. While attending services in the nearby city of Tyre, Nasrallah caught the attention of one of the clerics, who encouraged him to pursue his theological education abroad. The following year, upon finishing secondary school, Nasrallah went to study in a seminary in Najaf, Iraq. It was there he first met Musawi.
In 1978, Iraq expelled hundreds of Lebanese religious students, and Nasrallah and Musawi were forced to return to Lebanon. There, Musawi established a religious school where Nasrallah taught and studied. His passionate sermons won him a number of Shiite followers, many of whom joined Nasrallah in organizing an armed resistance to the Israeli invasion in 1982. These fighting groups soon evolved into Hezbollah, and Nasrallah distinguished himself as an adept guerilla commander. In 1987, during a lull in the violence, Nasrallah resumed his religious studies at a seminary in Qom, Iran, but when hostilities resumed in 1989, he returned to Lebanon. By that time, a rift was emerging among Hezbollah’s leadership between those advocating broader Syrian influence in Lebanon--led by Musawi--and those who opposed Syrian involvement and pushed for a harder line against Israel and the United States--led by Nasrallah. Nasrallah found himself in the minority. Later that year he was sent back to Iran to serve as Hezbollah’s representative in Tehran in what experts say was likely an effort to sideline him.
In 1991, Musawi became secretary-general of Hezbollah and Nasrallah returned to Lebanon, apparently having softened his views on Syria. Nasrallah replaced Musawi as Hezbollah’s leader after his mentor’s assassination by Israeli forces. In December 2007, the London-based newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat caused a stir when it reported that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had ordered Nasrallah to hand over control of Hezbollah’s military wing to deputy chief Sheikh Naim Qasim. But Hezbollah and Iran’s foreign ministry have refuted this report.
What has Nasrallah achieved as Hezbollah’s leader?
When he became secretary-general of Hezbollah, Nasrallah lacked the credentials of his predecessors, who had spent many more years in religious seminaries, and his appointment to that post reportedly ruffled a few feathers within the organization. He won broad grassroots support by cultivating a social welfare network that provided schools, clinics, and housing in the predominantly Shiite parts of Lebanon.
Nasrallah also presided over Hezbollah at the time of Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon. Though he cannot claim full credit for the military operations that Hezbollah waged, he was largely responsible for the propaganda campaign that won Hezbollah broad Shiite support and helped sour Israeli public opinion toward the occupation of Lebanon.
Israel’s withdrawal caused Nasrallah’s popularity to surge both within Lebanon and throughout the Arab world. Though Hezbollah had held seats in Lebanon’s parliament since the early 1990s, this new esteem granted Nasrallah greater political capital. In January 2004, Nasrallah arranged a prisoner-exchange deal with Israel, which allowed for the release of over four hundred Palestinian, Lebanese, and other Arab prisoners.
In the 2005 parliamentary elections, the first polls to take place after Syria ended its twenty-nine-year occupation of Lebanon, Hezbollah made substantial gains and even won two cabinet seats. As Syria and Israel have withdrawn from Lebanon, Hezbollah has begun to "position itself as a Lebanese nationalist organization," says Hussein Ibish, communications director for the American-Arab Antidiscrimination Committee. The following year, Nasrallah boasted, "As long as there are fighters who are ready for martyrdom, this country will remain safe."
In July 2006, Israel launched attacks on southern Lebanon in response to Hezbollah aggression against Israeli soldiers patrolling the border. A month-long war ensued, during which Nasrallah was praised (IHT) by many in the Arab world for Hezbollah’s stiff fight against the Israeli army. In a rally after the fighting ended, Nasrallah declared a "divine, historic, and strategic victory" (NYT) over Israel and refused to surrender Hezbollah’s weapons, winning widespread support in Lebanon and beyond. He further enhanced his reputation (NYT) locally by helping reconstruct the homes of Lebanese who had been displaced in the fighting.
But Nasrallah has also faced criticism from a range of Lebanese politicians. State leaders around the world have expressed misgivings about Hezbollah’s activities, which included seizing much of western Beirut in May 2008. Following the takeover, Lebanon’s parliament approved a national unity cabinet. Hezbollah was granted eleven out of thirty cabinet seats and veto power. Even after its loss to the pro-Western March 14 coalition during the June 2009 parliamentary elections, the Hezbollah-led opposition was able to maintain veto power (AsiaTimes) within the cabinet after reaching an agreement with Prime Minister Saad Hariri. In December 2009, the national unity government under Hariri adopted a bill that allows Hezbollah to keep its weapons (AP).
What is Nasrallah’s role in the Lebanese government?
Nasrallah does not hold official office in Lebanon. "He’s seen as a messianic figure, much higher than any official in Lebanon" says Walid Phares, a Lebanese-born terrorism expert. Nevertheless, Nasrallah presides over Hezbollah as it is becoming increasingly politically active with representation in both the Lebanese parliament and cabinet. Hezbollah’s goal is to establish an independent Islamic state in Lebanon with Nasrallah as its leader, Phares says.
Is Israel trying to assassinate Nasrallah?
Yes. On July 14, 2006, Israeli war planes destroyed Nasrallah’s home and offices. According to Phares, "He and a number of Hezbollah officials are marked [for death] by Israel." Phares says Nasrallah was deeply affected by Musawi’s death and has studied the life of Yasir Arafat in hopes of mimicking the late Palestinian leader’s ability to withstand Israeli attacks. In an August 2006 interview with the New York Times, a senior Israeli commander said Israel is still committed to killing Nasrallah despite a cease-fire agreement with Lebanon. In October 2008, rumors surfaced that Nasrallah survived an attempt to poison him. Iraqi sources claimed Israeli intelligence was responsible for the failed attempt, while others pointed to political and internal opponents of Nasrallah. Hezbollah sources denied the reports.
How does Nasrallah view other terrorist movements?
Nasrallah has criticized some Islamic movements while indirectly supporting others. He told Washington Post reporter Robin Wright that the Taliban was "the worst, the most dangerous thing that this Islamic revival has encountered," and he condemned the May 7, 2004, beheading of U.S. contractor Nicholas Berg by al-Qaeda in Iraq, saying "It is unacceptable, it is forbidden, to harm the innocent." But when Wright asked Nasrallah about suicide bombings in Israel, he explained, "There [are] no other means for the Palestinians to defend themselves." While Hezbollah and Palestinian group Hamas do not have organizational ties, Nasrallah has met with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal several times, most recently in July 2010 when Meshaal traveled to Lebanon to discuss "regional developments" (Al-Manar) with Nasrallah. It has also been reported that Hezbollah gives military training, as well as financial and moral backing, to Hamas and has acted as a role model (PDF) for the group.
-- Michal Toiba contributed to this report.