What is Hezbollah and what is its involvement in the Israel-Hamas war? | Explained

The story so far: More than 19,000 people have been displaced in Lebanon amid growing tensions between Israel and the Hezbollah group in West Asia, the United Nations announced on Monday. The ongoing Israel-Hamas war is now on day 23, with the death toll crossing 1,400 in Israel and 7,500 in Gaza.

During a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, Israel President Isaac Herzog said on Tuesday that the country is not looking to wage war with Hezbollah militants on its northern border, but is focused instead on battling Hamas in the Gaza Strip, news agency Reuters reported.

“I want to make clear, we are not looking for a confrontation on our northern border or with anyone else … But if Hezbollah drags us into war, it should be clear that Lebanon will pay the price,” the report quoted President Herzog as saying.

What is Hezbollah?

Hezbollah, which stands for “party of God”, is a Shia Islamist political party in Lebanon as well as a militant group designated a terrorist organisation by the U.S., the U.K., Israel, Germany, Australia, and other countries.

Origin of Hezbollah

In 1982, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) invaded Lebanon, where the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) was active. Hezbollah was established soon after the invasion as a resistance effort against the Israeli forces. In addition to Lebanon’s Shia population, Hezbollah’s resistance to Israel gained support of Palestinian groups as well as State sponsorship from Iran, which underwent an Islamic revolution in 1979.

Even though it was established in the 1980s, the roots of Hezbollah go back to Lebanon’s confessional system established after the country got independence from the French colonial rule in 1943. The National Pact, signed by the new leaders of the country, agreed to a power division among the major religious groups – a Sunni Muslim to serve as Prime Minister, a Maronite Christian as President, and a Shia Muslim as the Speaker of the Parliament.

The influx of thousands of displaced Palestinians into Lebanon caused the country’s demography to shift in favour of Muslims of the Sunni sect. In 1971, PLO relocated its headquarters from Jordan to Lebanon. The religious and political sects in the country continued to fight for greater power shares, resulting in a civil war that began in 1975 and ended in 1989. Syria also sent troops to Lebanon in 1976, intensifying an already volatile geopolitical situation.The involvement of the U.S. and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon further complicated matters.

Israel invaded Lebanon when it was engrossed in civil war. Named “Operation Peace for Galilee” by Israel, the invasion was aimed at “removing the military threats from northern Israel, destroying PLO’s forces [in Lebanon], ending Syrian presence and influence, and assisting in forming a more friendly government in Lebanon that would be able to sign a peace treaty with Israel.” The invasion followed the shooting of Shlomo Argov, Israel’s ambassador to the U.K. by the Abu Nidal Palestinian Organisation.

A group of Shia extremists, influenced by Iran’s newly-formed theocratic government, took up arms against the Israeli forces in Lebanon and came to be known as Hezbollah. The group was financially and militarily supported by Iran; the two were tied together by a similar ideology and the goal of seizing power in West Asia.

According to Israel, its Operation Peace for Galilee achieved some of its goals — PLO leadership was expelled from Lebanon and forced to relocate to Tunisia, but the newly-formed Shia militant group Hezbollah continued to attack Israeli forces in Lebanon. The IDF withdrew from southern Lebanon in May 2000, but it still keeps the Shebaa Farms, a Lebanese territory on the border, under its control.

Hezbollah’s “goals and principles”

In an “open letter” issued in 1985, Hezbollah called the U.S. the “first root of vice”, and also seconded the views of Ruhollah Khomeini, the former Supreme Leader of Iran. “Imam Khomeini, the leader, has repeatedly stressed that America is the reason for all our catastrophes and the source of all malice. By fighting it, we are only exercising our legitimate right to defend Islam and the dignity of our nation,” the letter read.

The letter blamed the U.S., France, Israel, and the Phalange [Lebanon’s Maronite Christian party] for the destruction of Palestine and the displacement of nearly half a million Muslims from their homes. Hezbollah listed removing the U.S., France, and their allies from Lebanon, and the removal of IDF from the country as well as Israel’s eventual “obliteration” as its objectives in Lebanon.

Hezbollah’s growth

The U.S. embassy in Beirut was attacked in April 1983, in which 63 people were killed. In October of the same year, around 300 people were killed in suicide attacks on barracks housing U.S. and French troops. A U.S. court blamed Hezbollah for the attacks, but the group denied responsibility.

In 1984, multiple people were killed in a bombing at the U.S. embassy annex in Beirut. The attack was attributed to Hezbollah.

A bomb attack on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1992 killed more than 20 people. The Islamic Jihad Organisation claimed responsibility for the attack; this according to the U.S. Department of State, is another name for Hezbollah.

In 1989, Lebanese parliamentarians met in Taif, Saudi Arabia and reached an agreement to end the Lebanese Civil War. The members accepted a constitutional reform package that modified the 1943 pattern of governance in Lebanon — the powers of Maronite Christian President were reduced in comparison to the Sunni Prime Minister and Shia Speaker. The agreement also banned all militias, except Hezbollah.

Hezbollah’s electoral success and alleged terrorist activities

Following the Taif Agreement, Hezbollah decided to contest elections in Lebanon. In 1992. The militia-party contested national polls for the first time, winning eight seats. Hezbollah won the seats under the leadership of Hassan Nasrallah, who is still its Secretary-General. Nasrallah took over after the IDF killed his predecessor Abbas al-Musawi in February 1992.

Hezbollah has held parliament positions in Lebanon since 2005. In the 2018 election, it won 13 seats— 71 in total along with allies. Currently running a political party, a militia, and a social services network of schools, hospitals, and youth programmes, Hezbollah has been described by the Centre for Foreign Relations as a “state within a state”.

In the 2022 general elections, Iran-backed Hezbollah and its allies lost their majority in the Lebanese Parliament, winning 62 of the Parliament’s 128 seats.

Despite its electoral success, multiple international terrorist attacks were attributed to Hezbollah. In 1994, a car bomb at Israel’s embassy in London injured more than a dozen people, and another at a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires killed 85 people. Both these attacks were attributed to Hezbollah, although the group denied involvement.

Hezbollah was also implicated in the 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a car bombing in Beirut. Mr. Hariri’s assassination led to the ‘Cedar Revolution’ in Lebanon, a peaceful civic resistance to drive out Syrian influence and military from the country and hold free elections.

Five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian bus driver were killed in a bomb attack in Burgas, Bulgaria, in 2012. Bulgarian courts convicted two Hezbollah operatives in absentia in connection with the bombing.

What is the structure of Hezbollah?

According to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), Nasrallah oversees a seven-member Shura Council of Hezbollah and five sub-councils, which include the political assembly, the jihad assembly, the parliamentary assembly, the executive assembly, and the judicial assembly. Shura is a generic Islamic term denoting a council or an advisory body.

How is Hezbollah involved in the Israel-Hamas war?

Hezbollah Secretary-General Nasrallah met leaders of the Palestinian militant factions Hamas and Islamic Jihad on Wednesday to discuss what the alliance must do to “achieve a real victory for the resistance,” Reuters reported. The Iran-backed group has had daily exchanges of fire with Israeli forces since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, the report added. 

Despite Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, sporadic clashes between the two have continued over the years on Lebanon’s southern and Israel’s northern border. In 2006, Hezbollah attacked an Israeli patrol unit, reportedly killing three and abducting two Israeli soldiers. The attack led to an intense month-long war where more than a thousand Lebanese people and around 160 Israelis were killed before a ceasefire was reached.

Israel and Hezbollah exchanged fire in 2019 and then again in 2021, CFR reported.

Experts believe that if the war spills on to a second front apart from Gaza, it will be on the Israel-Lebanon border.

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