Hezbollah (The Party of God) is currently proscribed as a terrorist organisation by Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States - but not the European Union. Hezbollah’s aim is the establishment of a Shiite theocracy in Lebanon, the destruction of Israel, and the elimination of US influence in Lebanon.
Hezbollah was founded in 1982 following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, as an umbrella organisation for Shiite Islamic Jihad resistance groups. From the beginning, it was inspired and supported by Iran.
Its most successful attacks in those early years were against the US Marine barracks and French military HQ in Beirut in October 1983, which resulted in the deaths of 241 marines and 58 French soldiers. (Both subsequently withdrew their forces from Lebanon.) It was also responsible for the attacks on the US embassy in Beirut in April 1983 and September 1984 that killed 58, including, in the latter case, many of the CIA staff.
Hezbollah’s first Secretary-General was Sheikh Abbas Mussawi. Israel assassinated Mussawi and his family with a helicopter-launched missile in February 1992. Hezbollah demonstrated its growing international capability with a retaliatory attack against the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in March 1992, killing 29. Hezbollah mounted another attack in Buenos Aires in July 1994, this time against the Jewish cultural centre, killing 85.
Paradoxically, the killing of Mussawi did Hezbollah a great service, bringing the more capable Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, then 32, to the leadership. Nasrallah has pursued a dual approach to gaining Hezbollah ascendancy in Lebanon by engagement in the political process and building up Hezbollah’s military capability. Today Hezbollah promotes social welfare and has 14 seats in the 128-seat Lebanese parliament. It also holds two cabinet positions. Its military wing has 500-600 well-trained full-time fighters with, according to Israel, up to 10,000 part-time fighters.
Its weaponry includes a substantial rocket force based on truck-mounted multiple launch “Katyusha” systems (a generic term for 122mm rockets, mainly of Soviet and Chinese origin) and it has some larger Iranian systems, like the Fajr-3 and Fajr-5. The Katyushas have a range of 25km, while the Fajr-3 and 5 have a range of 45 and 75km respectively (which will get them to Haifa from south Lebanon).
Hezbollah has hinted that it is keeping a big surprise for Israel. This could be the Iranian Zelzal-2 with a 600kg warhead and possible range of 200-400km. Its range is more likely 150km, which would still allow it to reach Tel Aviv from south Lebanon. However its size at 8 metres length makes it vulnerable to air attack. If Hezbollah has one or more Zelzal-2s, they would most likely be launched from a city area. All of these rockets are without guidance systems, so they are only useful against area targets. Even so, a rocket strike against Tel Aviv would be a great morale booster for Hezbollah and a psychological blow for Israel’s population.
Another development in recent years has been Hezbollah’s increasing co-operation with Palestinian Hamas. Hamas is also dedicated to the destruction of Israel and to a right of return for 5 million Palestinian refugees. Although Hezbollah is a Shiite group and Hamas is Sunni, common cause has brought them together in the areas of logistics and training.
Since 2000, Hezbollah attacks in south Lebanon have been a way of keeping pressure on Israel to give up Lebanese territory that it occupies, and to give up some of its 8,000-9,000 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners. The attack on the Israeli military border patrol on July 12, with the hostage-taking of two Israeli soldiers, was intended to lead to a prisoner swap, as had occurred in 2004.
Israel’s disproportionate response to the hostage-taking reflects its concern at Hezbollah’s growing military capability, particularly its ability to launch rockets deeper into Israel from south Lebanon. If Israel can create a permanent no-man’s land in the south, it will push the rocket launchers further from Israel. Israeli aircraft are also attacking suspect launch vehicles throughout Lebanon and trying to restrict the movement of vehicles to the south.
Israel believes that it can count on the Bush Administration to continue to support its military activities in Lebanon. Despite George Bush’s linking of Israel’s actions against Hezbollah to the broader “war on terror”, Hezbollah is not affiliated in any way to Sunni al-Qaida.
Israel’s stated aim is to break Hezbollah as an organisation but this is not achievable militarily, nor will it be able to sever Hezbollah’s links to Syria and Iran. If Israel succeeds in killing the charismatic Nasrallah that would be a major setback for Hezbollah, but Hezbollah would recover in due course.