LATAKIA, Syria — Hezbollah, a group often misunderstood by Westerners, is a militant but also a political group.
The Arabic name means ‘Party of God’. Led by the charismatic Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the Lebanese Islamist Shia group was set up in 1982 to resist Israeli occupation of Lebanon during the brutal civil war. The group declared a political existence in 1985..
Hezbollah achieved their goal when Israeli troops withdrew from southern Lebanon on May 25, 2000. The Israeli withdrawal followed sustained Hezbollah attacks on its troops.
The political platform of Hezbollah calls for the destruction of Israel, but the group has successfully transformed itself from a radical extremist group into an effective political force which holds 18 percent of the seats in the Lebanese Parliament.
The United States, Britain, Israel and other Western countries consider Hezbollah a terrorist organisation that they say has received weapons and also financial and political support from Iran and Syria. Both these countries deny supplying arms to Hezbollah.
But both countries openly support the group politically. Iranian leaders have produced angry rhetoric in support of Hezbollah. In Syria massive demonstrations were held in Damascus, Latakia and several other cites. Demonstrations in support of Hezbollah were also held in cities across many Arab countries.
Throughout most of the Arab and Muslim world, Hezbollah is highly regarded as a legitimate resistance movement. The group follows a distinctly Shia Islamist ideology developed by the leader of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
In Lebanon the group had first hoped to transform the whole country into a fundamentalist Shia state. But it has now abandoned that objective for a more inclusive platform.
About 60 percent of the 3.8 million population of Lebanon is Muslim, most of them Shia. This is where Hezbollah draws its support. The rest of the population is almost all Christian. A 15-year civil war between Muslim and Christian groups ended in 1991.
The Shia movement in Iraq led by Muqtada al-Sadr is following in the footsteps of Hezbollah. It has won broad support in Iraq from millions of impoverished Shias there for similar reasons.
Hezbollah won the support of Shia Muslims by providing social services, healthcare and welfare when the Lebanese government failed. Hezbollah runs hospitals, news services and educational facilities for its followers in Lebanon. It is behind a large number of economic and infrastructure projects in the country.
The recent Israeli strikes in Lebanon destroyed the Hezbollah al-Manar Television station. But the group continues to broadcast messages from Nasrallah by other means.
Hezbollah has refused to integrate its forces into the Lebanese army despite political pressure. It considers itself a legitimate resistance movement in Lebanon that is also important to the entire Middle East region.
Hezbollah has long accused Israel of holding many of its members in jail, some for more than 20 years, and continues to demand their release. Hezbollah says it will continue to fight unless its prisoners are also released.
Hezbollah became the most powerful military force in Lebanon after Syria withdrew its troops last year. It now has a seat in the Lebanese cabinet.
During the civil war, which brought Lebanon to its knees, Hezbollah became infamous for its suicide bombings and kidnapping of Western hostages, primarily journalists.
The biggest Hezbollah suicide attack was the bombing of the barracks of U.S. marines in Beirut in 1983. The attack killed 241 marines and led then president Ronald Reagan to withdraw all U.S. troops from the country.
The group is also widely believed to have carried out an attack on the U.S. embassy, killing 63 people, and on the headquarters of the French multinational forces, killing 58 French troops.
Hezbollah’s political rise came substantially after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Harriri in February 2005. In May of that year Hezbollah won its biggest election victory.
Hezbollah was invited to join the government in July last year in hope that the move would bring national unity to Lebanon as the country struggled for stability and peace.
The current fighting between Hezbollah forces in Lebanon and Israel has left more than 200 Lebanese dead, along with several Israelis. Both Hezbollah and the government of Israel have declared open war with one another. International intervention has been lacklustre to say the least, and the crisis looks set to deepen.
As through its chequered history, Hezbollah is again winning praise and support from the Arab and Muslim world, while it is accused of terrorism by the West. Hezbollah is about the most prominent division points at present between the two worlds.