What Is Hezbollah?

Members of Lebanon’s Shiite movement Hezbollah take part in Ashura commemorations in a southern Beirut suburb. Anwar Amro/AFP via Getty Images

Military experience gained from fighting in Syria’s civil war and decades of clashes with Israel have made the Iran-backed group stronger than ever, but the biggest threat it faces may be upheaval in its own backyard.

Last updated January 22, 2020

Members of Lebanon’s Shiite movement Hezbollah take part in Ashura commemorations in a southern Beirut suburb. Anwar Amro/AFP via Getty Images
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Hezbollah is a Shiite Muslim political party and militant group based in Lebanon, where its extensive security apparatus, political organization, and social services network fostered its reputation as “a state within a state.” Founded in the chaos of the fifteen-year Lebanese Civil War, the Iran-backed group is driven by its opposition to Israel and its resistance to Western influence in the Middle East.

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With its history of carrying out global terrorist attacks, parts of Hezbollah—and in some cases the entire organization—have been designated as a terrorist group by the United States and many other countries. In recent years, long-standing alliances with Iran and Syria have embroiled the group in the civil war in Syria, where its support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime has transformed Hezbollah into an increasingly effective military force. But with Lebanese politics in upheaval over mass discontent with the ruling class, and with U.S.-Iran tensions rising, Hezbollah’s role in Lebanese society may change.

How did Hezbollah originate?

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Hezbollah emerged during Lebanon’s fifteen-year civil war, which broke out in 1975 when long-simmering discontent over the large, armed Palestinian presence in the country reached a boiling point. Various Lebanese sectarian communities held different positions on the nature of the Palestinian challenge.

Under a 1943 political agreement, political power is divided among Lebanon’s predominant religious groups—a Sunni Muslim serves as prime minister, a Maronite Christian as president, and a Shiite Muslim as the speaker of parliament. Tensions between these groups evolved into civil war as several factors upset the delicate balance. The Sunni Muslim population had grown with the arrival of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, while Shiite Muslims felt increasingly marginalized by the ruling Christian minority. Amid the infighting, Israeli forces invaded southern Lebanon in 1978 and again in 1982 to expel Palestinian guerrilla fighters that had been using the region as their base to attack Israel.

A group of Shiites influenced by the theocratic government in Iran—the region’s major Shiite government, which came to power in 1979—took up arms against the Israeli occupation. Seeing an opportunity to expand its influence in Arab states, Iran and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) provided funds and training to the budding militia, which adopted the name Hezbollah, meaning “The Party of God.” It earned a reputation for extremist militancy due to its frequent clashes with rival Shiite militias, such as the Amal Movement, and attacks on foreign targets, including the 1983 suicide bombing of barracks housing U.S. and French troops in Beirut, in which more than three hundred people died. Hezbollah became a vital asset to Iran, bridging Shiite Arab-Persian divides as Tehran established proxies throughout the Middle East.

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Hezbollah bills itself as a Shiite resistance movement, and it enshrined its ideology in a 1985 manifesto that vowed to expel Western powers from Lebanon, called for the destruction of the Israeli state, and pledged allegiance to Iran’s supreme leader. It also advocated an Iran-inspired Islamist regime, but emphasized that the Lebanese people must have the freedom of self-determination.

 

How is it organized?

Hezbollah is led by Hassan Nasrallah, who took over as secretary-general in 1992 after Israel assassinated the group’s cofounder and previous leader, Abbas Al-Musawi. Nasrallah oversees the seven-member Shura Council and its five subcouncils: the political assembly, the jihad assembly, the parliamentary assembly, the executive assembly, and the judicial assembly. The U.S. State Department estimates that Hezbollah has tens of thousands of members and other supporters worldwide.

More on:

Lebanon

Iran

Syrian Civil War

Political Movements

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Hezbollah controls much of Lebanon’s Shiite-majority areas, including parts of Beirut, southern Lebanon, and the eastern Bekaa Valley region. Although Hezbollah is based in Lebanon, its manifesto clarifies that its operations, especially those targeting the United States, are not confined by domestic borders: “The American threat is not local or restricted to a particular region, and as such, confrontation of such a threat must be international as well.” The group has been accused of planning and perpetrating acts of terrorism against Israeli and Jewish targets abroad, and there is evidence of Hezbollah operations in Africa, the Americas, and Asia.

Iran continues to support Hezbollah with weaponry and more than $700 million per year, according to 2018 State Department estimates. Hezbollah also receives hundreds of millions of dollars [PDF] from legal businesses, international criminal enterprises, and the Lebanese diaspora.

What role has it played in Lebanese politics?

Hezbollah has developed strong political and social arms in addition to its military operations. It has been a fixture of the Lebanese government since 1992, when eight of its members were elected to Parliament, and the party has held cabinet positions since 2005. The most recent national elections, in 2018, granted Hezbollah thirteen seats in Lebanon’s 128-member Parliament, three more than the Amal Movement, once its rival but now a coalition partner. The party marked its integration into mainstream politics in 2009 with an updated manifesto that was less Islamist than its predecessor and called for “true democracy.”

Additionally, Hezbollah manages a vast network of social services that includes infrastructure, health-care facilities, schools, and youth programs, all of which have been instrumental in garnering support for Hezbollah from Shiite and non-Shiite Lebanese alike. A 2014 report from the Pew Research Center found that 31 percent of Christians and 9 percent of Sunni Muslims held positive views of the group.

At the same time, Hezbollah maintains its military arm. Under the 1989 Taif Agreement, which was brokered by Saudi Arabia and Syria and ended Lebanon’s civil war, Hezbollah was the only militia allowed to keep its arms. The International Institute for Strategic Studies estimated in 2017 that the militia had up to ten thousand active fighters and some twenty thousand reserves, with an arsenal of small arms, tanks, drones, and various long-range rockets. Analyst and Brigadier General (Ret.) Assaf Orion, of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, says Hezbollah possesses “a larger arsenal of artillery than most nations enjoy.”

Critics say Hezbollah’s existence violates UN Security Council Resolution 1559—adopted in 2004—which called for all Lebanese militias to disband and disarm. The United Nations Force in Lebanon (UNFIL), first deployed in 1978 to restore the central government’s authority, remains in the country and part of its mandate is to encourage Hezbollah to disarm. The United Nations has implicated Hezbollah members in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Hezbollah blames Israel for the attack.

In October 2019, Hezbollah saw itself become a target of mass protests. Government mismanagement and years of slow growth have saddled Lebanon with one of the world’s highest public debt burdens, at 150 percent of its gross domestic product, and hundreds of thousands of Lebanese citizens disillusioned by the economic slump demanded the removal of what they see as a corrupt ruling elite. Demonstrators called for the government, including Hezbollah, to cede power to a new, technocratic leadership. The monthslong protest movement has spanned religious backgrounds, and even Lebanese Shiites have openly criticized Hezbollah.

Where does it stand on Israel?

Israel is Hezbollah’s main enemy, dating back to Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon in 1978. Hezbollah has been blamed for attacks on Jewish and Israeli targets abroad, including the 1994 car bombings of a Jewish community center in Argentina, which killed eighty-five people, and the bombings of the Israeli Embassy in London. Even after Israel officially withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, it continued to clash with Hezbollah, especially in the disputed Shebaa Farms border zone. Periodic conflict between Hezbollah and Israeli forces escalated into a monthlong war in 2006, during which Hezbollah launched thousands of rockets into Israeli territory.

Hezbollah and Israel have yet to relapse into full-blown war, but the group reiterated its commitment to the destruction of the Israeli state in its 2009 manifesto. In December 2018, Israel announced the discovery of miles of tunnels running from Lebanon into northern Israel that that I claims were created by Hezbollah. Hezbollah has attacked Israel with sophisticated anti-ship and anti-armor weapons, which Western officials suspect are supplied by Iran. Orion told CFR that the more precise weaponry being provided by Iran ensures that Hezbollah will become an increasingly dangerous threat to Israel.

How is Hezbollah involved in the Syrian Civil War?

Hezbollah finds a loyal ally in Syria, whose army occupied most of Lebanon during Lebanon’s civil war. The Syrian government remained as a peacekeeping force in Lebanon until it was driven out in the 2005 Cedar Revolution, a popular protest movement against the foreign occupation. Hezbollah had unsuccessfully pushed for Syrian forces to remain in Lebanon, and has since remained a stalwart ally of the Assad regime. In return for Tehran’s and Hezbollah’s support, experts say, the Syrian government facilitates the transfer of weapons from Iran to the militia.

Hezbollah publicly confirmed its involvement in the Syrian Civil War in 2013, joining Iran and Russia in supporting the Syrian government against largely Sunni rebel groups. Prior to 2013, the group had sent a small number of trainers to advise the regime. More than seven thousand Hezbollah militants are estimated to have fought in the pro-Assad alliance, which has been instrumental in the survival of the Assad regime, including by winning the 2013 Battle of al-Qusayr, which secured a route for regime forces between the major cities of Damascus and Homs.

Analysts say that Hezbollah’s experience fighting in Syria has helped it become a stronger military force, but that it faces a growing sentiment in Lebanon that focusing on the war led the group to neglect its domestic interests. Additionally, Hezbollah’s support from Sunni Muslims in Lebanon has waned over the group’s backing of the Assad regime, which particularly threatens Sunni Muslims. In recent years, Sunni extremists have committed terrorist attacks in Lebanon, including 2015 suicide bombings in Beirut claimed by the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Hezbollah’s involvement in the war has also provoked Israel, which has struck targets in Syria thought to be supplying Hezbollah with weapons.

How have the United States and other countries treated the group?

U.S. policymakers see Hezbollah as a global terrorist threat. The United States designated Hezbollah a foreign terrorist organization in 1997, and several individual Hezbollah members, including Nasrallah, are considered specially designated global terrorists, which subjects them to U.S. sanctions. The Barack Obama administration provided aid to Lebanon’s military with the hope of diminishing Hezbollah’s credibility as the country’s most capable military force. However, Hezbollah’s and the Lebanese military’s parallel efforts to defend the Syrian border from the Islamic State and al-Qaeda-affiliated militants have made Congress hesitant to send further aid, for fear that Hezbollah could acquire it.

In 2015, the U.S. Congress passed the Hizballah International Financing Prevention Act, which sanctions foreign institutions that use U.S. bank accounts to finance Hezbollah. Lawmakers amended it in 2018 to include additional types of activities. Additionally, the Donald J. Trump administration has sanctioned some of Hezbollah’s members in Parliament, as part of its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. While Trump’s approach has disrupted Iran’s economy, analysts say the country’s increasingly self-sufficient proxies are weathering the worst of the sanctions.

The European Union has taken a less aggressive approach to Hezbollah. The bloc designated its military arm a terrorist group in 2013, over its involvement in a bombing in Bulgaria and its backing of the Assad regime, though some EU states feared the move would bruise relations with Lebanon and hurt stability in the region. In 2014, the EU’s police agency, Europol, and the United States created a joint group to counter Hezbollah’s terrorist activities in Europe.

Hezbollah has scorned the largely Sunni Gulf Arab countries over their alliances with the United States and European powers. The Gulf Cooperation Council—comprising the seven Arab states of the Persian Gulf, with the exception of Iraq—considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization. Additionally, Saudi Arabia and the United States co-lead the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center, created in 2017 to disrupt resource flows to Iran-backed groups such as Hezbollah.

What is the future of the organization?

Experts say that Hezbollah’s international network is expanding, but that the group isn’t eager for outright war with Israel or the United States, pointing to its muted response to an Israeli drone strike in Beirut in August 2019. Instead, some analysts say, Hezbollah would rather rely on covert operations and terrorist activities, especially if Israel or the United States was to declare war with Iran.

U.S.-Iran relations worsened further after a January 2020 U.S. air strike that killed Qasem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force, which is responsible for the corps’ external operations. In response, Nasrallah promised that Hezbollah would attack U.S. forces but not target American civilians.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah could see a more pressing threat in its own backyard. The January 2020 formation of a Hezbollah-backed government failed to appease antiestablishment protesters, who saw it as a win for the country’s entrenched elites. Demonstrations have continued, but experts suspect that Hezbollah will not bend to protesters’ demands for fear that a new, politically independent government would weaken the group’s power and force it to disarm. Some argue that the protest movement could undermine Hezbollah’s influence more effectively than any U.S. policy ever has, by opening the floodgates of criticism of the group and potentially reinventing the system of government it has become expert in exploiting.

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Resources

CFR’s Global Conflict Tracker follows Lebanon’s history of political strife.

This CFR Backgrounder looks at Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Brian Katz argues that Hezbollah poses a bigger threat to Israel than ever before in this Foreign Affairs analysis.

Monahad Hage Ali examines Hezbollah’s relationship with Syria in this 2019 analysis for the Carnegie Middle East Center.

The Wilson Center discusses Hezbollah’s evolution from an underground militia to a political powerhouse.

Journalist Michal Kranz argues in Foreign Policy that Hezbollah’s base of support is spreading beyond its Shiite roots.

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