Reporting by Adam Bourahamdi, in the CNN Middle East newsletter. To subscribe to the newsletter (click here)
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (CNN) – The Lebanese “Hezbollah” group celebrated the fortieth anniversary of its founding, last Monday, with large-scale celebrations in southern Beirut, in which three-dimensional images of the party’s members who were killed in various battles appeared, and videos showing the historical confrontation of the group with Israel. In addition to confronting ISIS in Syria.
Over the years, the Lebanese Shiite group has attempted to reposition itself from an Iranian-backed paramilitary organization into a serious political and regional player. Forty years later, Hezbollah is militarily stronger than ever, but also more globally isolated than it has ever been.
Several countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Gulf Arab states, and the Arab League have designated the group a “terrorist organization”, while the European Union and France designate only Hezbollah’s military wing as such. The United States also classifies Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of a party, as a “terrorist” and as a result is subject to US sanctions.
The movement first emerged in 1982 in response to the Israeli invasion of Beirut during the bloody civil war in Lebanon. The Israelis achieved their goal of expelling the Palestinian fighters, but as a result they galvanized an even more formidable enemy, Hezbollah. The new Iranian regime found the group a convenient ally, because of its shared Shiite ideology and because of Hezbollah’s position in the heart of the Arab world. Iran began providing Hezbollah with funding and training shortly after its emergence.
Since then, Hezbollah has expanded its military power and display. In 2000, Israeli forces withdrew from southern Lebanon after a long struggle with the group there. In 2006, it maintained its position in a war against the Israeli army when Israel sought to disarm it. During the civil war in Syria, it succeeded in intervening on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad and helped bolster his defenses after he suppressed a popular uprising. The group’s political influence appeared to be on the rise, despite a local attempt – backed by Saudi Arabia – to curb its influence that was rapidly extending beyond Lebanon.
Opinions at home are divided, with 52% of Lebanese not believing that Hezbollah enhances the country’s stability, according to a 2021 Zogby poll, while the rest believe it still is. Sectarian divisions are more pronounced, with 80% of Shiites confident that Hezbollah benefits Lebanon’s stability, as do the majority of Druze (64%) and Christians (56%). While none of the Sunnis showed such a feeling, according to the survey.
Arabs once considered Nasrallah a hero for confronting Israel, but “Public attitudes toward Hezbollah among Arabs have been affected by the Arab Spring uprisings, the Syrian war, sectarian tensions in Lebanon, and Arab-Iranian rivalries,” says Shibli Telhami, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland.
Muhannad Al-Hajj Ali, a research fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said that “Hezbollah on the official level is a resistance movement, but its role has evolved beyond the borders of (Lebanon) as it has turned into a regional player,” adding that “the designation of Hezbollah as a resistance movement. It’s not accurate.”
Hezbollah has become a major player in the Lebanese political scene. Opponents describe it as a “mysterious state within a state”, led by Hassan Nasrallah since taking over as secretary-general in 1992. Nasrallah has rarely appeared in public since the 2006 war with Israel, apparently fearing assassination. On the group’s fortieth anniversary, he delivered his speech via video link.
The 2006 war with Israel was triggered by a cross-border raid by Hezbollah that killed 8 Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two. Approximately 121 Israeli soldiers and 49 Israeli civilians were killed. About 270 Hezbollah fighters and 50 Lebanese soldiers and police were killed. About 1,200 people were killed in Lebanon, most of them civilians, as a result of the Israeli attack.
“Hezbollah has always had an interest in a weak and obedient Lebanese army,” Emile Hakim, a research fellow in Middle East security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told CNN. “Whether Lebanon has been safer because of Hezbollah’s actions is controversial.” He added, “On the one hand, Hezbollah has established a level of deterrence against Israel. On the other hand, Lebanon is objectively weaker, isolated, economically desperate, and in a state of political chaos.”
For Israel, the Shiite group’s sophisticated weapons pose a greater threat than the Iranian-backed Palestinian groups in Gaza.
Over the past decade, Hezbollah has played an increasingly active role in the region, including in Iraq and Yemen. The group’s most important external military commitment was in Syria, where thousands of fighters have been deployed to defend the Assad regime.
“Hezbollah played a central role in the Syrian conflict, engaging in direct action, reversing the opposition’s gains,” Ali said. He added that Hezbollah’s interventions in Iraq and Yemen “are more on the political and logistical side, specifically training and political facilitation.”
Nasrallah regularly uses inflammatory language against the Arab Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia.
Al-Hakim said that “Hezbollah poisoned the Lebanese relations with the Gulf states, which served as a crucial economic lifeline for the Lebanese expatriates and the Lebanese state.” “In Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and elsewhere, Lebanon is seen as a threat, too weak to prevent its main political party from endangering their security,” he added.
Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese work in the oil-rich Gulf Arab states, sending billions of hard currency home. Incoming remittances account for 54% of Lebanon’s economy, according to the World Bank.
But it now appears that the group is softening its tone towards the Gulf. Nasrallah said in his last speech on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary: ”We do not have a problem in Lebanon’s relations with the Arab countries, especially the Gulf countries, and that these relations develop and strengthen.”
“Now that Iran is about to return to (the nuclear deal) and resume diplomatic relations with the Gulf states, logically, Hezbollah should follow suit and stop escalating its rhetoric,” Ali said.
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