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[lebanon] The history of Hizbullah (Sirois, Marc)

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  • Aziz H. Poonawalla
    http://www.yellowtimes.org/article.php?sid=804&mode=thread&order=0 The history of Hizbullah By Marc Sirois YellowTimes.org Columnist (Lebanon)
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 26, 2002
      http://www.yellowtimes.org/article.php?sid=804&mode=thread&order=0


      ''The history of Hizbullah''
      By Marc Sirois
      YellowTimes.org Columnist (Lebanon)

      (YellowTimes.org) - The war between Israel and Hizbullah was not simply
      born. It was conceived in a seething cauldron of all the things that make
      the Middle East a snake pit of unending bloodshed, unrivaled bitterness, and
      unfathomable duplicity.

      To understand how this violent relationship might evolve in the future, and
      how the international community can most effectively seek to keep it under
      control, it is best to start at the beginning - the real one, rather than
      the red herrings bred by a mainstream media that is alternately guilty of
      gross ignorance and shameless fabrication.

      The beginning was not in 1985, when Israel declared a memorably ill-named
      "security belt" in southern Lebanon. It was not in 1982, either, when the
      Jewish state's then-defense minister, Ariel Sharon, sent his forces crashing
      all the way to Beirut in a bid to eliminate the Palestine Liberation
      Organization.

      No, to truly understand why the water still running under this particular
      bridge is so heavy with blood and hatred, one has to go back to 1978. That
      was when Israel first occupied a strip of southern Lebanon in response to
      cross-border raids by Palestinian guerrillas fighting to regain lands lost
      during conventional wars in 1948 and 1967.

      By 1978, Lebanon was three years into a civil war that would last until 1990
      and kill approximately 250,000 people (something like 15 percent of the
      population). The war had many causes, but one of the main ones was the
      growing power and influence of Palestinian militant groups operating on
      Lebanese soil and drawing Israeli retaliation.

      The PLO and other organizations came to Lebanon as a last resort. Egypt and
      Syria had long since prevented them from using their respective borders with
      Israel as staging grounds for attacks, and in 1970, Jordan had ruthlessly
      put down a Palestinian rebellion that resulted when it sought to ban
      operations from its territory as well.

      The Palestinians were left with tiny Lebanon as a base, a situation that
      represented a double-edged sword of conspicuous lethality. On the one hand,
      Lebanon's government and military were too weak to keep the Palestinian
      movement from displacing their authority in selected areas, especially near
      the border. On the other, the very paucity of power that made possible such
      freedom of action also translated into extreme vulnerability to outside
      action: Israel might hesitate to invade Egypt to go after Palestinian
      militants operating from there, but there was nothing to stop it from
      running roughshod over Lebanon.

      Lebanon was left with the Palestinians, too. Its own internal divisions made
      it impossible to put up a united front in the face of what amounted to the
      creation of a state within a state. For all the might amassed by PLO's armed
      wings, however, they were certainly incapable of repelling an Israeli
      onslaught if and when it came. To make matters worse, until the full-scale
      invasion did come, Lebanon and the Lebanese - especially those in the
      South - would be subjected periodically to punishment by the Jewish state's
      vastly superior military.

      In effect, the Arab world's major players had abandoned two of its weakest
      links to one another. All that remained was for the Israelis to appreciate
      the gulf that had been opened up and dive in.

      Before doing so, however, they wanted to test the waters, and so the border
      strip was occupied in 1978. Even this relatively small step radically
      altered the equation in the South: It meant that even more of the fighting
      between Israeli and Palestinian forces would take place on Lebanese soil
      rather than inside the Jewish state. This caused no small amount of
      resentment among the local population, exacerbating some differences between
      sects but causing others to become blurred.

      There was, after all, a civil war going on that in broad strokes pitted
      Christians against Muslims. Certain camps in the former community saw the
      Israelis as potential allies against the latter. Little did they know how
      quickly the Israelis would discard them once their "usefulness" had expired,
      but that is another story.

      On the Muslim side, a new split was shaping up. By 1978, Lebanon's Shiites,
      a badly neglected under-class, was probably the largest religious group in
      the country if not yet an outright majority. Heavily represented in the
      South, their towns and villages bore the brunt of Israeli reprisals for
      Palestinian attacks. In addition, once the border strip was taken over, the
      proximity of Israeli combat forces put the Palestinians under greater strain
      than ever. They reacted by implementing tougher security measures,
      eventually imposing a de facto government on what had become known as
      "Fatahland" after the PLO's dominant faction, Yasser Arafat's Fatah.

      All through the Palestinian build-up in the South during the 1970s, entire
      families felt compelled to leave, many of them Shiite. The conjoined
      pressures applied by Palestinian militant groups and Israeli air and
      artillery strikes were too much to bear. Many of those who could afford to
      do so fled the country entirely, but the great majority of displaced Shiites
      ended up as illegal squatters in Beirut's southern suburbs, an overcrowded
      and squalid area known as Al-Dahhiyeh. Both those who left the South and
      those who tried to stay behind harbored tremendous resentment against the
      Palestinians, to whose presence they (often rightly) attributed, directly or
      indirectly, their misfortune.

      The Christians had expected to be pushed around by the Palestinians, whose
      goals were different and whose forces they had been fighting in the civil
      war, but the Shiites felt betrayed. The last thing they expected was to be
      oppressed by another "have-not" group. The seeds of Shiite bitterness
      against the Palestinians had been planted.

      Then came the infamous summer of 1982.

      On June 3 of that year, militants working for the radical Palestinian group
      Abu Nidal gunned down the Israeli ambassador in London, Shlomo Argov.
      Despite the fact that Abu Nidal was a blood enemy of the mainstream
      Palestinian resistance movement and had assassinated several of its key
      leaders, Israel targeted its "retaliation" for the London hit by launching
      air strikes at PLO ammunition dumps and offices in Lebanon, including
      Beirut. An undeclared truce had reigned along the border for several months,
      and the PLO was not about to take the escalation lying down. Instead, it
      pounded northern Israel with artillery.

      Then all Hell broke loose. On June 6, the Israeli Defense Forces rolled out
      of the area they already occupied and, despite a promise to the United
      States that they would advance no more than 40 kilometers, headed for
      Beirut. Given the rapidity with which a full-scale invasion was launched,
      the IDF had obviously been preparing for quite some time, and the shelling
      of Galilee offered the perfect pretext.

      For the most part, the only resistance they met came from Palestinian
      fighters, who acquitted themselves far better than had been expected, and
      the Syrian military, whose performance was more of a mixed bag. The Lebanese
      Army was too much in disarray to contribute anything of value. Two of the
      militias nominally allied with the Palestinians stayed out of the fight.
      Both the Druze grouping (then led by Walid Jumblatt, who would later serve
      as a Cabinet minister) and the AMAL force (a Shiite group led by future
      parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri) stood aside as Israeli troops and tanks
      slashed their way toward the capital. AMAL's formation and activities are a
      key part of Hizbullah's later emergence, but more on that later.

      Given the firepower at the Israelis' disposal, it is not surprising that
      these militias elected to stay out of the way. What amazed Israeli soldiers
      and their officers was the way they were greeted by the Shiite population in
      the South. In village after village, the interlopers were welcomed as
      liberators and showered with flowers and rice. Some Palestinian groups had
      so badly mistreated their natural allies that people threw their arms open
      to invading troops.

      It did not take long, though, for the Israelis to wear out their welcome. In
      short order, the Jewish state dispatched "experts" on civil administration
      in occupied areas who promptly replaced traditional village elders and other
      leadership figures with more "reliable" elements from among the local
      population. The result was anger at the Israelis and total distrust of the
      administrators they had installed.

      Over the succeeding months, Israeli occupation forces steadily eroded
      whatever remained of the locals' respect for them via such tactics as
      draconian restrictions on movement that kept farmers from tending their
      fields and collective punishment that penalized hundreds of people for the
      actions of a single individual.

      Just over six months after the Israelis arrived in the South, the kettle of
      rage among a community that had once invited them into their homes finally
      boiled over. On Nov. 11, a suicide bomber destroyed an eight-story building
      housing the IDF's headquarters in the occupied city of Tyre. At least 75
      Israeli troops and members of its proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army,
      were killed.

      Hizbullah did not yet exist as we know it today but the ingredients for a
      Shiite "awakening" were all on hand, and the catalyst of Israeli occupation
      was drawing them to the same place.

      Like their co-religionists everywhere else in the Islamic world, their Sunni
      counterparts had long treated Lebanon's Shiites as second-class citizens. By
      the mid-1970s, despite being the country's most populous sect, they were
      tired of a political system that froze them out of key leadership positions.
      The set-up, based on the colonial model imposed by the French, guaranteed
      half of the country's parliamentary seats and Cabinet positions including
      key portfolios like the defense and interior ministries to Christians. The
      Presidency was reserved specifically for a Maronite Christian.

      Shiites were denied even a proper share of the remainder, with Sunni
      representation among the ruling elite remaining unduly heavy and even the
      tiny Druze sect holding more than its share of influence. Those Shiites who
      were politically active were fragmented, operating under the banner of
      secular groupings like the Baathists, the Communists, and the Nasserites.

      One man tried mightily to change all that. Musa Sadr, an Iranian cleric
      whose family is said to have originally come from Lebanon, was invited to
      lead the Lebanese Shiite community in 1959. Tall and exceedingly
      charismatic, he captured the imagination of his followers and eventually
      inspired them to demand their rights.

      In 1974, Sadr founded the Harakat al-Mahroumeen (Movement of the
      Dispossessed), which, as the civil war approached, spawned a militia called
      the Afwaj al-Moqawama al-Lubnanieh (Lebanese Resistance Detachments),
      popularly known by the acronym AMAL, which means "hope."

      Sadr established a political forum designed to communicate the Shiite
      community's concerns to the state. Chief among their demands were better
      infrastructure, increased representation in politics, more access to
      government employment, and steps to either end the fighting between Israel
      and the Palestinians or help keep Shiites from getting caught in the
      crossfire.

      Once the war broke out, AMAL fought on the side of the Palestinians, the
      Lebanese Sunni and the Druze militias against the Christians. But
      eventually, Sadr concluded that the conflict was pointless and opted to back
      a Syrian-sponsored peace initiative. Shortly thereafter, he disappeared
      during a visit to Libya. He was last seen leaving a hotel in Tripoli for a
      meeting with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

      AMAL then fell under the sway of Nabih Berri, a secular lawyer-cum-warlord.
      Over the years, his uninspiring leadership, reputation for unabashed
      corruption, and tendency to shift loyalties at Syria's behest alienated many
      of the movement's cadres. When AMAL failed to help the Palestinians resist
      the Israeli offensive, many fighters quit in disgust. More left in 1985
      after AMAL launched its bloody "War of the Camps" against Palestinian
      refugee communities.

      Over the next few years, these militiamen and a group of Shiite clerics
      formed the core around which a new group congealed. Eventually it became
      Hizbullah, but along the way some of its members used other names such as
      Islamic AMAL, Islamic Jihad, etc. There were no less than 55 private
      "armies" operating in Lebanon at the time. It is, therefore, impossible to
      say with certainty which early actions taken against the Israelis and
      Western interests in Lebanon were the work of Hizbullah itself, which were
      committed by freelancers using the name, and which were carried out by
      actual members acting without authorization.

      What is undeniable is that the Israelis had acquired a deadly new enemy, one
      whose adherents were neither afraid to die nor willing any longer to sit
      quietly while the international community let a foreign occupier dominate
      their homeland. It took until late 1983, however, for the Israelis and just
      about everyone else to realize that the rules of the game had changed
      forever.

      On Oct. 16, 1983, the southern Lebanese town of Nabatieh was bustling with
      celebrations of Ashura, the Shiite holiday marking the assassination of
      Hussein at Karbala 13 centuries ago. Despite the Jewish state's subsequent
      claims that its units had orders not to interfere with the goings-on, an
      Israeli convoy proceeded to interrupt the procession so that its vehicles
      could pass through.

      When the crowd of 50,000 worshippers became restless, then hostile, some of
      the Israelis opened fire. Two people were killed and about a dozen wounded.
      It was not the casualty toll that caused the ensuing explosions of
      vengeance, though: It was the timing of yet another humiliation on the very
      day when Shiites bemoan the original persecution of their faith.

      One week later, a suicide bomber driving a truck packed with explosives
      destroyed the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. The blast killed 241 American
      troops serving with the Multi-National Force, ostensibly on a peacekeeping
      mission. Almost simultaneously, a building housing the French MNF contingent
      was also brought down, killing 59 paratroopers. Ten days after that, the
      Israeli military intelligence headquarters in Tyre was demolished by yet
      another bomb, killing about 30 Israeli troops and a similar number of
      Palestinians and Lebanese prisoners.

      Over the next few years, Lebanon became an exceedingly dangerous place for
      foreigners. Several Westerners were kidnapped and murdered, and despite what
      certain self-styled "experts" continually claim but fail to back up with
      evidence, the situation was too chaotic to identify those responsible for
      the vast majority of what qualified as terrorist attacks. Some were likely
      the work of Hizbullah in some shape or form, but others, for example, were
      "honor crimes" against Westerners who had abused positions of authority to
      seduce young women. In any event, before one deems that sufficient to
      condemn the group forever, one should understand the context of Lebanese
      hostility to the West.

      For starters, the MNF's activities, were simply not consistent with those of
      a peacekeeping force. This was especially true of the Americans, who took
      sides almost from the instant they came ashore and occupied an exposed
      position next to a Christian militia.

      In August 1982, the MNF's job had been to supervise the evacuation by sea of
      PLO militants from West Beirut. The Israelis had laid siege to this mostly
      Muslim section of the city, cutting off food and water to combatants and
      civilians alike. Under an agreement brokered by the United States, the PLO
      agreed to have its fighters leave by boat. The Israelis agreed not to enter
      either the capital or camps in the area that were home to tens of thousands
      of Palestinian refugees and displaced Lebanese. The U.S. undertaking was to
      guarantee the security of Palestinian civilians left behind.

      In mid-September, a powerful bomb ripped through a building in East Beirut,
      killing President-elect Bashir Gemayel, the man Israel had been counting on
      to serve as its viceroy in a new puppet state. Gemayel's Christian
      Phalangist supporters responded by entering the now-unprotected Palestinian
      camps of Sabra and Shatila and engaging in an orgy of violence. Estimates of
      the death toll vary from 800 men women and children to 3,000.

      Whatever the precise figure, the Israeli military was responsible under
      international law for the security of noncombatants on territory it
      controlled. As for the United States, it had broken a solemn vow to ensure
      the safety of Palestinian civilians.

      In addition, the Marines' proximity to Christian forces made it inevitable
      that when the latter exchanged shellfire with Muslim gunners, the former
      would be hit by errant rounds. Instead of telling the Christians to stop
      firing or move away, the Americans responded by using naval gunfire against
      Muslim positions.

      Thus, the October 1983 bombings did not come out of the blue. Like the
      destruction of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut a few months earlier, their
      background lay in a deep-rooted sense that the United States was anything
      but a neutral party - either between Israel (whose invasion had killed as
      many as 20,000 civilians) and the Palestinians or among various Lebanese
      factions.

      While these attacks were impossible to pin on any single group, from 1985
      on, however, there was no mistaking the source of armed resistance to the
      Israeli occupation in the South. Armed, financed, and initially trained by
      Iran, Hizbullah began to come into its own. Coupled with logistical backing
      from Syria, the party eventually grew into a highly professional guerrilla
      army that by 2000 had fought the IDF and its South Lebanon Army allies to a
      standstill.

      Along the way, there were actually precious few terrorist incidents in which
      Hizbullah was even a suspect, let alone a proven perpetrator. Among them
      were the bombings of the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish community center in
      Argentina in the 1990s - which together claimed more than 100 lives - but
      despite tireless propaganda to the contrary, no firm link has ever been
      established.

      Instead, what Hizbullah did - day after day, year after year - in the South
      was to engage the IDF on the battlefield. It was not foolish enough to
      confront the U.S.-armed juggernaut in set-piece battles, but its guerrilla
      tactics grew increasingly bold and its preferred targets were always
      legitimate military ones.

      When Hizbullah's operations did stray from IDF soldiers and facilities, it
      was in retaliation for Israeli and/or SLA attacks on Lebanese civilians.
      These were frequently preceded by several days of verbal warnings that the
      targeting of noncombatants on this side of the border had to stop or draw a
      response in kind. Typically, the warnings were ignored.

      Hizbullah's usual "punishment" for Israeli attacks on Lebanese civilians was
      to lob antiquated Katyusha rockets across the border. Seeing as how these
      weapons have little range and poor accuracy, they are deemed to be of little
      military value. This has caused Israel to claim that the rocket salvoes were
      evil acts of terror, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact,
      given that ample warning generally preceded them, most of the inhabitants of
      the areas they hit were in bomb shelters when the projectiles landed. That
      was the goal: to inconvenience and/or intimidate Israeli civilians into
      demanding that their government at least stop killing Lebanese civilians and
      at most withdraw altogether.

      So there you have it. Hizbullah was not hatched as an evil plot to destroy
      Israel but rather as an almost begrudging attempt to defend a community
      whose patience for oppression -be it foreign or domestic- had finally run
      out. That Israel happened to be the primary target of this organization was
      due to the fact that its forces were on someone else's land and that the
      international community - led by the United States - did nothing to make
      Israel withdraw its forces under U.N. Security Council resolutions.

      Thus it was that a combination of lopsided military power, undeserved
      diplomatic privilege, wholesale disregard for civilian casualties, and
      unbridled arrogance made the Jewish state suffer as badly as it did in
      Lebanon. Israel has every right to fear its long-time tormentors, but none
      to call them terrorists.

      [Marc Sirois is a Canadian journalist who lives in Beirut, Lebanon, where he
      serves as managing editor of The Daily Star. The proud and fanatically
      protective father of three beautiful princesses, his opinionated writing
      style owes to the fact that he is never wrong along with his holding
      monopolies on wisdom, logic, morality, and justice. He is also exceedingly
      modest.]

      Marc Sirois encourages your comments: msirois@...

      YellowTimes.org is an international news and opinion publication.
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      --
      Aziz H. Poonawalla
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