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Hizballah: Terrorism, National Liberation, or Menace?

Authored by Dr. Sami G. Hajjar. | August 2002

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Summary

In this monograph, the author advances the thesis that the conditions that give rise to acts of terrorism must be dealt with as urgently as combating those responsible for such acts. In the case of Hizballah, those conditions are essentially political. The situation contributing to the rise of Hizballah involves the political, economic, and social circumstances of the Shiite community of Lebanon as the country began to experience civil strife in the mid-1970s. The immediate cause for the creation of the organization was the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, resulting in the prolonged occupation of south Lebanon.

The monograph examines the formation and development of Hizballah in the context of the Lebanese confessional political system that rests on a delicate balance between the country?s religious sects. Historically, the system favored the Christian and the Muslim Sunni communities, but as the Shiite community became the largest sect in Lebanon, it demanded a greater share of the nation?s pie. Hizballah has its roots in this larger Shiite insurrectionist movement.

As a religious party, clerics occupy a central role in Hizballah?s leadership structure. The party organization is hierarchical with a definite link to Iran, since Iranian religious and political leadership is an important source of guidance. Several organizational entities direct and control the party?s functional and regional activities, including social services and military wings. Additionally, Hizballah?s ideological culture rests on a Manichean view that divides the world between oppressors and oppressed. Politically, the United States and Israel are viewed as having a symbiotic relationship, and regarded as oppressors and evil.

Hizballah?s work on the behalf of its constituency and its resistance activities against the Israeli occupation of SouthLebanon earned the party a respectable bloc of seats in the Lebanese Parliament, and the admiration of many Arabs and Muslims. In the dispute between Lebanon and Israel?also involving Syria and the United Nations (U.N.)?over the Shab?a Farms enclave located on the eastern slopes of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Hizballah plays a pivotal role. Even beyond the Shab?a Farms border dispute, the entire Lebanon-Israel border issue is made complicated for lack of clear documentations dating to the French and British mandate period, position adjustments made by Israel during its occupation of south Lebanon, and U.N. involvement in demarcating the border to certify Israeli withdrawal.

For the United States, Hizballah is regarded as a terrorist organization. The Arabs, on the other hand, view Hizballah?s activities as legitimate national liberation efforts. Both views are supported by objective evidence. Utilizing a geographic context, the author assesses the threat of Hizballah at the Lebanese, regional, and international levels. Lebanon remains a fragile body politic, and events on the Lebanon-Israel border involving Hizballah and possibly Palestinian refugees in the area could rekindle civil strife. At the regional level, Hizballah?s efforts on behalf of the Palestinians and the quest to liberate the Shab?a Farms could trigger a wider regional conflict especially because of the intimate involvements of Syria and Iran in these efforts. Finally, no credible evidence exists linking Hizballah to recent international terrorist incidents.

The author concludes with several observations: Hizballah is a complex party firmly grounded in the culture of its constituency and is part of Islamic national liberation movements, it is engaged in guerrilla warfare against Israeli occupation, and despite its identifiable organizational structure, has a mercurial center of gravity. His recommendations: The United States should not engage Hizballah militarily, should encourage Israel to vacate the Shab?a Farms, and should give priority to the Syria-Israeltrack in the peace process. The menace of Hizballah is related to what is fundamentally a strategic challenge to U.S. Middle East policy that cannot be resolved through tactical measures.

Conclusions and Recommendations.

This monograph examined at length the origin, structure, and goals of Hizballah. To a degree, it also alluded to Hizballah?s modus operandi involving the use of political, diplomatic, and military means to achieve its goals. What is critical in this concluding section is to speculate on the future and its implications for U.S. policymakers as they fashion an antiterrorism strategy.

It is my contention that a U.S. strategy premised on the simplistic assumption that there is no difference between a good terrorist and a bad terrorist, and no distinction should be made between terrorist organizations, is highly risky. Using the analogy of a disease, the object is to correct the abnormality?not to destroy the disease by destroying the patient. Lebanon?s stability, and potentially that of the whole region, hinges on how the United States decides to execute the war on terrorism beyond the effort in Afghanistan to destroy the Taliban and Al-Qa?ida.

An initial observation is that Hizballah is a complex party that is firmly grounded in the culture and the political experience of its Lebanese Shiite constituency. It is not a one-issue party that will wither away once that issue is resolved. Nor is it likely to disappear once its current goalsof liberating Lebanese occupied territories, seeing Palestinians achieve their aspiration of independence, and the return of Muslim holy places in Jerusalem to Arab sovereignty are reached. It is a powerful voice for the Shiites in Lebanese affairs and their link to the larger Shiite community in the region, especially Iran.

What this observation implies, furthermore, is that, while Hizballah is a religious-based organization like Al-Qa?ida and other Islamic groups in the area, it differs from Al-Qa?ida in a very fundamental way. Al-Qai?da, with its Wahhabi heritage, adheres to a messianic vision that would make the ?world safe for Islam,? so to speak. In seeking to please Allah, al-Qa?ida takes anti-Western, anti-Jewish and anti-Christian stances, and its foremost mission is to rid the land of Islam of nonbelievers. Also, it views itself as a Jihad movement fighting external enemies of Islam who must be dealt with more urgently than local enemies.

By contrast, Hizballah is part of Islamic national liberation movements, like Hamas, that come about because of circumstances affecting their countries. They have little interest in operations outside their immediate environment. Additionally, Hizballah, grounded in the history of repressed Shi?ism (Shiites having been a repressed and often despised minority in the Sunni-dominated Islamic world), pursues a less lofty vision that would ?make Shiites safe in the world.? In seeking to please Allah, Hizballah does so by pragmatically attending to the political, social, and economic needs of its constituency. Such pragmatism to satisfy the immediate needs of the community has also been manifested on many occasions by Iran?s Ayatollahs as they attempted to steer the ship of state. Khomeini?s accepting a ceasefire in 1988 to end the Iran-Iraq war that began in 1980 when continuation of hostilities would have threatened the Islamic Revolution, Rafsanjani?s attempts at liberalization in the 1990s, and current President Khatami?s attempts to institute social and political reforms?all indicate flexibility in response tochanging circumstances. This is a strategic culture that is in stark contrast to the Taliban or the al-Qa?ida who would rather perish than modify their rigidly held beliefs.

The second pertinent observation is that the exact location of the Lebanon?s borders with its neighbors, and especially in the Shab?a Farms region, is uncertain. Certain, however, is that the Shab?a Farms enclave is a territory occupied by Israel. Hizballah?s paramilitary operations against Israeli occupation forces in the area cannot be labeled terrorism. In this regard, Hizballah could be said to be engaged in guerrilla warfare, not terrorism. This, however, does not mean that Hizballah is not tainted by acts of terror, either unprovoked or in response to specific Israeli activities such as assassinations or abductions of Hizballah leaders. Therefore, pinning the exclusive label of ?resistance? or ?terrorist? organization on it is not possible with any degree of objectivity.

The third general observation is that Hizballah is a ?fluid? or umbrella organization. Although it has identifiable leadership structure, it is sufficiently decentralized and dispersed, enabling its mission-oriented military units to generate command and control structures to accomplish their goals. The experiences Hizballah has had battling the Israelis and their allied SLA militia, their access to Syrian supply lines, and ties to Iran?s Pasdaran and their weapons caches, make Hizballah a risky military target. Its center of gravity is mercurial, and its patrons are state actors capable of triggering a serious regional conflict.

In his June 24, 2002, speech on peace in the Middle East, Bush minced no words in labeling Hizballah a terrorist organization, along with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, for it seeks the destruction of Israel. This and the administration?s doctrine of preemptive action may lead to a U.S. precipitous military action against Hizballah with counterproductive results. My policy recommendations follow:

  1. The United States should not engage Hizballah militarily. The option of either sending the Marines or Special Forces to tackle Hizballah is unrealistic. Its end result will not amount to more than a ?feel-good? mission. If there was a military solution to Hizballah, then Israel, experienced in dealing with it and knowledgeable about its area of operations, would have exercised it. Furthermore, U.S. military intervention would be opposed by a majority of Lebanese, convinced that Hizballah is struggling to liberate occupied Lebanese lands.
  2. The United States should encourage Israel to vacate the Shab?a Farms. This strip of land has limited tactical and strategic value to Israel, which will eventually withdraw from it as part of a peace deal involving the Golan Heights. The argument against this suggestion is that unilateral withdrawal under pressure from Hizballah would give hope to Palestinian groups that pressure works against the Israelis. This argument, however, is fallacious since Israel had withdrawn unilaterally from south Lebanon while Palestinian resistance was already underway.
  3. More important, ceding the Shab?a enclave to Lebanese sovereignty would deny Hizballah its principal justification to be involved in guerrilla war operations against Israel. It will eliminate the major catalyst for border fighting. To be sure, Hizballah will continue to argue that Israel has not fully withdrawn from Lebanon as there remain other disputed areas along the Israel-Lebanon border, but these are small swathes of land that Lebanon would want to resolve diplomatically with Israel as part of a final peace settlement. Israeli withdrawal from the Shab?a Farms enclave would place the Lebanese government under intense international pressure, as well as domestic pressure from several quarters, to rein in Hizballah and deploy the Lebanese Army to the border region.

  4. The United States should give priority to the Syria-Israel track in the peace process. The old adage concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict, ?there can be noArab-Israeli war without Egypt, and there can be no Arab-Israeli peace without Syria? remains true today. A settlement between Syria and Israel will lead to a simultaneous peace between Israel and Lebanon. Syria would no longer have any cause to use the ?Lebanon and Hizballah cards? against Israel. Hizballah would lose its ability to operate militarily against Israel without Syria?s assistance and will be transformed into a regular Lebanese political party.

None of the above policy recommendations address Hizballah?s rejection of the legitimacy of Israel and the desire to seek its destruction. In this ideological stance, Hizballah seems to parallel the Iranian position. The Iranian Ayatollahs, and Hizballah likewise, have often acted more Palestinian than the Palestinians with respect to the peace process and Israel. At the same time, the Iranian leadership is on record as supporting a final peaceful settlement that is agreeable to the Palestinians. Should there be a peaceful settlement of the Palestinian issue, the wind of Palestine will no longer fan Hizballah?s ideological wings. In short, once all these political issues have been resolved, Hizballah?s national liberation, terrorist, or menacing activities will cease.

It should be evident that these policy recommendations correspond to the local, regional, and international levels of analyses. As such, they are linked to one another, so that an Israeli withdrawal from the Shab?a Farms enclave without the possibility of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights would lead Hizballah and Syria to raise other issues to perpetuate the conflict. This built-in dynamic of the situation gives Hizballah a seat at the table of the strategic game played by regional state actors. These actors hold the bigger stakes, and they decide if and how Hizballah plays the game. However, and because of the complexities of the Iranian-Syrian axis, Hizballah may succeed on occasion in manipulating these actors for its own purposes.

In closing, I see no military solution to the menace of Hizballah. Certain countermeasures to foil known planned operations, disrupt funding, and destroy training camps are indeed possible, and in some instances, even necessary. In the final analysis, however, such tactical measures will not resolve what is fundamentally a strategic problem and challenge to U.S. Middle East policy.