Hezbollah (Hizbullah, Arabic for ‘party of God’) is an Islamic political party and militia group functioning within Lebanon. It was founded during the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990.
In June 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon and sided with one of the country’s ‘Christian’ factions against the many other, mostly Muslim, factions. Other powers, including Syria and several Western countries, also played various roles in the civil war.
Largely in response to Israel’s invasion, a group of Shiite Muslim clerics led by Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah established Hezbollah to promote Islam and to resist Western influences in Lebanon.
The clerics’ politics and theology were inspired by the Islamic Revolution of Iran, which had culminated in the overthrow of Iran’s secular government in 1979. They hoped that Iran (which was then fighting Iraq) would be able to export its revolution into Lebanon.
Hezbollah provided a more radical alternative to Lebanon’s mainstream Shia faction, AMAL (Afwaj al-Muqawimah al-Lubnaniyya; or Lebanese resistance detachments) — which also sought greater power for Muslims in Lebanon.
In early 1983 Hezbollah fighters launched a guerrilla war that forced Israel out of most of Lebanon, although the Israelis maintained their so-called ‘security zone’ in southern Lebanon.
In April a suicide bomber destroyed the United States embassy in Beirut, and in October another bomber destroyed the US Marines barracks in the city, killing more than 300 people. These attacks ultimately forced the United States to withdraw from Lebanon and media accounts linked Hezbollah to both attacks.
Over the next few years the group allegedly orchestrated the kidnappings of several Westerners living in Lebanon, prompting the withdrawal of many of the country’s remaining Westerners. The governments of Iran and Syria appear to have aided Hezbollah in a number of these acts.
In the late 1980s two events changed Hezbollah’s course. First, Iran and Iraq reached a ceasefire in 1988, ending their long-stalemated war. The war’s end — with little gain on either side — made it clear that Iran would not export its Islamic Revolution to Iraq and points beyond in the Middle East.
Secondly, the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990 signalled the gradual return of Lebanon to parliamentary rule. After these events many of Hezbollah’s leaders argued that the group should try to achieve power through politics, not just military action.
Hezbollah ran candidates in Lebanon’s 1992 parliamentary elections, winning several seats. It also sought to enhance its public image by establishing television and radio stations, philanthropic institutions such as hospitals and orphanages, and several private businesses. It won additional parliamentary seats in Lebanon’s 2000 elections.
But Hezbollah continued guerrilla operations against Israel who, maintaining the security zone in southern Lebanon, responded with counter-attacks. Hezbollah’s ongoing resistance earned it increased popularity among Shia Muslims, particularly those who had fled their homes to escape the fighting and had settled mainly in the slums of Beirut.
In April 1996 the United States negotiated an agreement between Hezbollah and Israel to restrict fighting to the security zone and to place civilian targets off limits. Nevertheless, sporadic firing between Hezbollah and Israel in southern Lebanon continued outside of these limits, with each side accusing the other of violating the agreement on numerous occasions. The latest escalation is a development from this long-standing conflict