Hizbollah: What’s in a Name?

By Gaither Stewart

Strange and scary names like Hamas and Mujahideen and Islamic Jihad and Hizbollah cited over and over in the news create sensations of tension and fear. Hizbollah is a familiar name, usually linked to repetitive scenes of tightly knit military formations marching shoulder to shoulder over streets of the Arab world. The more curious observer might wonder who they really are.

For how much can one understand from a name if one doesn’t even know what the name means? For example, how much information about terrorism is comprehensibly transferable to the West by the name, Hizbollah- Party of God?

As the Deputy Director of Ronald Reagan’s White House Task Force On Terrorism, Edward Peck once said, “The terrorist is in the eye of the beholder.” It depends on where and when the terrorist act occurs, on one’s point of view. Peck meant that what for the oppressed is resistance to naked power, for the oppressor smacks of terrorism. Nationalistic Hungarians in 1956 considered themselves freedom fighters; for their Soviet oppressors they were terrorists in a conspiracy against the New Order. When Israelis were fighting for the establishment of their state, their English oppressors considered them terrorists.

When the President’s man made that statement, Reagan had called the Libyan leader Ghedaffi “the most dangerous man in the world.” Today the Arab Ghedaffi is again a friend of the whole West.


The name rings grim. Just the sound of Hizbollah in English! The guttural sound strikes terror in the West. Well-informed people in the USA consider Hizbollah a violent terrorist organization. The US State Department labels it the crème de la crème of terrorists, worse than Saddam Hussein ever was and charges it with the 1983 bombing attacks on the US Embassy in Beirut and a Marine barracks, killing around 300 Americans. Hizbollah has also been charged with the 1994 bombing of the Jewish Cultural Center in Buenos Aires

Hizbollah considers itself a resistance organization. Like every resistance organization, Hizbollah counts on its fame to help its cause. Its leaders have often wanted Hizbollah to get the blame, or the credit—depends on your point of view—for terrorist attacks. Still today, the United States, Canada and Israel consider Hizbollah a terrorist organization while United Europe does NOT include it on its terrorist list.

For most Lebanese, American insistence on linking Hizbollah to Al Qaeda is ridiculous. But many Americans believe it to be true. Such misconceptions lie behind Washington’s whole strategy in the Middle East.

For Moslems of Lebanon, Al Qaeda is a terrorist group. But not Hizbollah. For Lebanese, Hizbollah is a resistance movement and a social relief organization. The distinction is fundamental. And besides, today it is a political party in the Lebanese Parliament.”

An Arab friend told me this: the best way to understand Hizbollah is to think of it first of all as a Shiite political party—the name means “Party of God.” In Arabic Hizb-allah. Hizbollah was founded in 1982 on the heels of the Iranian Revolution to lead a guerilla war against Israeli occupation of south Lebanon. When the Israeli troops abandoned Lebanon in 2000 after 22 years of occupation the entire Arab world considered it a great victory. Guns shot in the air to celebrate the first victory against Israel!

Hizbollah is today popular in the Arab world. It has organized schools and clinics. Its hospitals offer free medical care to its members. It has its own press and TV. Surveys after Israel’s war on Lebanon last year showed that 87% of Lebanese supported Hizbollah, including most Christians, Druse and Sunni Moslems.

Nonetheless, Hizbollah is an armed party.

But, after all, there are armed parties everywhere. America’s Republican Party has armed a whole fundamentalist people in the USA—plus the Blackwater secret militia—who also resort to terrorism, as a rule directed against America.

More recently Hizbollah has been defined as a political party that occasionally uses violence for political leverage. It is in fact both political party and resistance-guerrilla organization. For the Shiites of Lebanon, Hizbollah is practically a state-within-a-state. That is the way Lebanon is today. Hizbollah is a political party, with its own army and a social service network for the masses in the slums of south Beirut. And it has a budget of millions of dollars!

So where does the money come from?

Hizbollah claims it is funded by contributions from the Arab world. The United States believes its money and arms come also from Iran.

Similarly, everyone knows who arms and finances Israel. Even Brits have raised a stink about fleets of American planes carrying super weapons to Israel using British airports.


Hizbollah members wear red bandannas. Its soldiers dressed in green march in tight formations with automatic weapons in their arms. Their yellow and green flag has a fist holding the machine gun. The Hizbollah flag is an old idea, calling for an Islamic Revolution in Lebanon!

But in Hizbollah, they don’t talk much about an Islamic state anymore. In practice it largely ignores the Islamic Shariah. Lebanese nationalism is the order of the day—political alliances, trade unions, female activists.

In many ways, one might claim, Hizbollah is practically Social Democratic. The irony is that someday Hizbollah could become a member of the Socialist International together with the Israeli Laborites. They could form a Middle Eastern bloc together. Another irony: Lebanon and Israel are the two most Europe-oriented countries in the Middle East, both sometimes mentioned as candidate members of the European Union.

Hizbollah emerged as a Shiite resistance movement against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon twenty-five years ago. Fifteen thousand Lebanese died in that war. The victims were mainly Shiites, the poorest people of Lebanon who constitute 40% of the population. Hizbollah became their protector. Even non-believers felt socially driven to collaborate, despite the party’s initial religious fervor.

From the beginning, Iran’s Ayatollahs have been Hizbollah’s spiritual leaders, their holy men, and they share the same holy sites at Karbala in Iraq and Qom in Iran. Shiites all! Since Iran was busy with its war with Iraq in the 1980s, it trained Hizbollah militants and let them fight the war against Israeli occupiers for them. Hizbollah launched attacks against one and all—Israelis, American and French.

It was the same old story. For westerners it was terrorism. For Lebanese it was resistance. The result of the Israeli war against Lebanon then was that as ally and sponsor of Hizbollah, the Qom Ayatollahs gained a foothold in Lebanon and the Middle East.

One must grasp the significance of the Hizbollah “victory” against Israel in 2000 to understand Palestine, Iraq or Iran today. Hizbollah’s victory proved that resistance pays. It works. Not terrorism, but resistance! They fought with any arms they had and they forced foreign withdrawal. Guerrilla war and resistance are not synonymous with terrorism. No more than antiglobalists are terrorists.

The terrorist forgets goals. The terrorist forgets ideas in the name of pure terror. He’s a fake nationalist.

The guerrilla instead is a resistance warrior. A freedom fighter. A nationalist. Sometimes he uses the same methods as the terrorist but he has a purpose—liberty and independence for a people or a nation or support for an idea. European guerrillas who fought against the Nazis were the resistance, la resistence, i partigiani, la resistenza. They were not terrorists. The guerrilla warrior has an idea.

Though Hizbollah still gets support for its military operations from Syria and Iran and though it does a job for Iran and Syria too, it appears more and more autonomous. Long ago it ceased to be an Iranian-dominated and controlled militia.

Nationalism is the key word. Hizbollah moreover sets an example for other Arab peoples. Hizbollah has said that the question of the existence of Israel can wait. Lebanon’s Palestinian neighbors are impressed with Hizbollah’s winning ways—Hamas and Islamic Jihad adopted its martyrdom tactics.

But Hizbollah itself has become so political and nationalist that it denounces Al Qaeda attacks on Western civilians. It labels September 11 an act of terrorism and views the conflict with Israel as an existential struggle, not a conflict over land. In 2005 national elections Hizbollah alone obtained 11% of the vote, while the Resistance and Development Bloc to which it belongs obtained 27%. It has 14 parliamentary deputies and controls three key ministries—Foreign Affairs, Energy and Labor.

But what about Hizbollah’s recruiting and training kids for martyrdom?

First of all, Hizbollah today speaks a nationalist language in Lebanon but a language still saturated with Shiite theology. It stresses resistance and also martyrdom. Martyrdom is an ancient Shiite tradition, reaching back to the grandson of the Prophet, Hussein ibn Ali, who was slain by troops of the hostile caliph at Karbala in Iraq in 680 A.D. When Israel occupied Lebanon, Hizbollah exploited the Hussein cult to glorify the idea of kamikaze attacks. Though the Hizbollah TV station has promoted martyrdom theology, things began changing a decade ago.

Some Middle East observers are convinced that Hizbollah’s evolution is cosmetic, concealing its strategy to make Lebanon an Islamic Republic. Hizbollah denies such an intent. Europe-oriented Lebanese are too pragmatic for that. With their French, English, Greek and ancient cultures, they are too cosmopolitan. They have been cosmopolitan for millennia. Lebanese peoples love Europe. And Europeans love Lebanon and Beirut, the Paris of the Middle East. Unlike Saudis, Lebanese do not have Islamic fundamentalism in their DNA. They are too secular, also too politically oriented for Iran. They are the other side of the moon from Saudis.

Hizbollah had everything to gain by entering the Lebanese political arena. It wound down “terrorist” activities, although hanging onto its Katyusha rockets and its militia, just in case, leaving both options open—politics and resistance. Its leaders turned out to be right. For in July of last year Israel launched a long-planned 34-day war against Lebanon on the pretext of an unprovoked Hizbollah attack on Israeli military units. Israel bombed Beirut, destroying infrastructures and killing and wounding thousands of civilians and again reinforced Hizbollah’s image in Lebanon and its maturing nationalist stance.

Nonetheless, Hizbollah is still famed in the West to be the most violent terrorist organization. After the 2006 war, Human Rights Watch charged Hizbollah for indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israeli towns with the intent of killing and maiming civilians. 

Hizbollah rebutted that HRW is nothing but an American mouthpiece.

Islamic organizations, groups and splinter groups are not only elusive; they often change sides. They are also at war with themselves, just as Al Qaeda is at war with the Arab world. To many Arabs the suggestion of a war between civilizations is laughable. Some Arabs consider that an idea of western quirks. Or American religious fanatics. Or journalists trying to make a name for themselves. Friends today, enemies tomorrow. It is hard know who’s who among the Arab peoples. They forget themselves. You see it every day in Iraq.

In the end it all has to do with political power. And that’s where Hizbollah and to a certain extent Hamas in Palestine show their stuff. If anything they are in fact surprisingly less divisive than traditional power structures in the Arab world.

In an article “Is There A Good Terrorist” some years ago in the New York Review of Books, Timothy Garton Ash cited Schiller’s lines from Wilhelm Tell: “When the oppressed man can find justice in no other way, then he calmly reaches up into the sky and pulls down his eternal rights that hang there, inalienable and, like the stars, imperishable. When no other means remains, then he must needs take up the sword.”

-Gaither Stewart is a Senior Special Contributing Editor at Cyrano’s Journal and a seasoned professional journalist and essayist. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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