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Commentary

The Not-So-Secret Weapon: Hezbollah

October 23, 2000|GRAHAM E. FULLER | Graham E. Fuller is former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA

The Oslo peace process is dead and perhaps American dominance of the peace process as well. A new process will eventually emerge after perhaps a prolonged period of violence. Meanwhile, Israel's conflict on its other borders with Syria and Lebanon will not remain quiescent. The struggles are interrelated like the workings of a complex, geopolitical mobile.

The most important non-Palestinian force in the conflict today is the Shiite Islamic organization in Lebanon, Hezbollah. Formed in the 1980s, Hezbollah has fielded the most lethal guerrilla-terrorist group of all, whose punishing attacks managed to expel both the U.S. and Israel from Lebanon in the mid-1980s and then proceeded to harass Israeli occupation forces in southern Lebanon to the point of ultimately inducing a unilateral Israeli pullout this spring.

Except for a small area involving a disputed farm on the border, Hezbollah has so far been careful not to launch attacks against northern Israel across the new international border. But Hezbollah's ideology of commitment to a broader Islamic front against Israel impels it to press its confrontation with Israeli forces through kidnappings of border patrols. Most recently, it has seemingly lured to Lebanon and captured an Israeli intelligence officer operating against Hezbollah in Europe, although the Hezbollah account, not surprisingly, is denied by Israel. It has played lethal cat-and-mouse games with Israel over many years, and each side accumulates hostages for periodic prisoner swaps.

But Hezbollah is not a routine "terrorist organization" by any stretch of the imagination, which is what makes it so hard to deal with. Although Hezbollah has been involved in genuine terrorism against non-official targets in the past, it has focused in the last decade primarily on guerrilla warfare against combatants.

Hezbollah's many faces are characteristic of much Islamic strength in the region: It is at once a paramilitary force and a social movement with great clout within Lebanese Shiite society, providing widespread social welfare and administrative services and fully in charge of the poor Shiite neighborhoods of south Beirut. It is also a movement that seeks to introduce more Islamic values into society and politics even while realizing that an Islamic state in multisectarian Lebanon is not an appropriate or realistic goal. It is also a full-fledged political party with multiple seats in the parliament, where it enjoys full acceptance for its professional approach to national political issues. Despite some of the nervousness that its armed power elicits among some elements of Lebanese society, Hezbollah is an acknowledged national Lebanese institution in this battered society that now seeks to get back on its feet.

Hezbollah came into existence with the strong financial and organizational backing of Iran, and with Syria's logistical support and blessing.

While not truly controlled by either, it still receives various forms of support from them. For Iran, Hezbollah offers the chance to perpetuate the longer-term struggle against Israel's very existence, while for Syria, it is one of the few valuable instruments of pressure against an otherwise overwhelmingly powerful Israeli state. Yet it would be a serious strategic mistake to view Hezbollah as simply the puppet of either state: It has deep roots in Lebanese society and emerges from within the long-marginalized Shiite community, now no longer so oppressed or marginalized.

Even the Lebanese government views Hezbollah as the only domestic force available to it to give weak Lebanon some cards in dealing with Israel.

Hezbollah's international guerrilla functions--as opposed to its domestic political functions--are its ace in the hole and will continue to operate as long as the conflict is unresolved between Israel and its neighbors. Its guerrilla functions are too useful to the Palestinians, the Syrians and even the Lebanese to be dispensed with at a time when Arab irregular warfare represents the only possible match against overwhelming Israeli conventional force. Islamist Hezbollah also represents the international Muslim face of the struggle, in which Arab combatants try to universalize the scope of their struggle through appeals to the Muslim world. If the violence remains high, it is likely Hezbollah may come to figure prominently in clandestine military operations within Palestine as well.

When settlement is eventually reached after, sadly, what may be more prolonged agony on all sides, Hezbollah will almost surely revert to its more political and social functions. That day, however, is far from sight at the moment.

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