A Layman's Guide To WWIII:
Who's Who in Palestinian Politics
By Kevin Filan
The Ba'ath Party |
The Grey Wolves
Among the major players in Middle East politics, few have been as successful as Hezbollah. While Hizbollah's membership is Lebanese, not Palestinian, they have become inextricably embroiled in the "Israel Question." To date, they are among the few groups which can claim a victory over Israel: they take credit for Israel's May 24, 2000 withdrawal from southern Lebanon. Hezbollah has been responsible for some of the region's most notorious terrorist incidents, including the 1983 suicide bombing which killed over 200 US Marines in Beirut and the 1988 kidnapping and 1989 murder of Colonel William Higgins, among others. Uncompromising in their hatred for the "Zionist state," they continue to fire mortars and shells into the Israeli-controlled Shabaa Farms region and may well drag Lebanon, Syria and Israel into a full-scale war.
While Lebanon is home to over 1 million Shi'a Moslems (the largest Moslem group in Lebanon), they have historically been among the region's poorest and most downtrodden people. The Ottomans who ruled the Damask Senjak (the area which later became today's Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel) were Sunni Moslems, and considered the Shi'ites to be heretics. In the wake of the Ottoman Empire's collapse, Lebanon was founded as a home for the region's Maronite Catholics, another group which had faced widespread persecution during the Ottoman years. Lip service was given to including the Shi'ites in a coalition government, but for the most part they remained outsiders, mistrusted by Christian and Sunni alike.
In the late 50s, a Shi'a clergyman named Sayyid Musa Sadr came to Lebanon from Iran. He helped organize Lebanese Shi'ites, and, by the time of his disappearance in 1978, had founded Amal, a Shi'ite Militia. This organization became increasingly radicalized first by Iran's Islamic Revolution and then by Israel's 1982 invasion of southern Lebanon and formation of a "security zone" there. The 1983 brokered peace between Israel and the Maronite-dominated regime in Beirut proved to many Shi'ites, who made up 80% of southern Lebanon's population, that the Christians and Zionists were in league against them. Their original distaste for the PLO (which had manifested in frequent gunfights and squabbles between PLO and Amal factions) became transferred to the rulers of Lebanon and Israel … and to the Western powers which backed them. A new party arose from the more moderate Amal militia, one which declared itself the "Party of God" - in Arabic, Hizb'allah.
Hezbollah received a great deal of support from Syria (whose leader, Hafez Assad, belonged to the minority Ala'wi sect, a group which considers itself Shi'ite although most Shi'ites do not). Much as Sadaam Hussein considers Kuwait part of Iraq, Assad and the Syrian government considered Lebanon to be part of Syria. In an effort to gain control over Lebanese politics, and to curry favor with Shi'ite-ruled Iran, he allowed Iranian arms and soldiers to flow freely through Syria into southern Lebanon and the Bekaa valley. They found a ready audience among Lebanon's disaffected and impoverished Shi'ite population, and soon Hizbollah and its militias became a major force in the region.
From its inception, Hizbollah was stridently anti-Israel. It denied Israel's right to exist, and stated that any efforts at mediation only strengthened the "Zionist occupying entity." It also rejected any political settlement which would give Lebanon's Christians an upper hand, stating that Lebanon's Maronite-dominated leadership had to be "changed by the roots." Their guerrilla attacks claimed the lives of over 1,200 Israeli soldiers, and turned the Lebanese occupation into "Israel's Vietnam." They were the first to use the technique of taking western hostages as bargaining chips, and were also key players in the decade-long civil war between Maronites, Sunnis and Shi'ites, a conflict which left much of Lebanon in ruins.
Many thought that Hezbollah would fade from the scene after the Israeli occupation ended and a tenuous peace was established between Lebanon's various factions. Instead, they have reinvented themselves as one of the most important political forces in southern Lebanon; Hezbollah-run schools and hospitals provide poor Shi'ites with healthcare and education, and help to cement their rule in the region. They continue to receive support from Iran and from the Syrians, who since the Israeli pullout has stationed thousands of soldiers in the region and who are now the de facto rulers of Lebanon. They continue to provide inspiration to the Palestinians, and have publicly stated that they are prepared to open a second front to aid the Palestinians in the intefada. As their influence continues to grow, it becomes increasingly possible that they will succeed in their dream of establishing an Iranian-styled Islamic state in Lebanon… and beyond.