An Islamic Janus Face – Hezbollah as a power-political factor in the Middle East

by Patrick Truffer

Hezbollah’s foundation and pan-Islamic strategy

1983 Beirut barracks bombingAugust Richard Norton cited in his book “Hezbollah a Short HistoryEhud Barak, the former Prime Minister of Israel:”When we entered Lebanon […] there was no Hezbollah. We were accepted with perfumed rice and flowers by the Shia in the south. It was our presence there that created Hezbollah”. Ehud Barak’s realisation that it was Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon that created Hezbollah only sheds light on one specific factor in the history of Hezbollah. The rigid domestic political system in Lebanon, which discriminated against the Shiites politically, socially and structurally for decades, was more likely the fundamental cause. In the long term, the stability of a social system cannot be secured with rigid mechanisms, for example through different political influences that depend on religious affinity (cf.: Social Mobilisation). The discrimination of the Lebanese Shiite was exacerbated by militant Palestinian refugees, which can be traced back to the Israeli policy that destabilized the security situation of the entire region. This unsatisfactory situation of the Shiites provided a fertile ground where the ideological ideas of the Islamic revolution could thrive, while paving the way towards overcoming discrimination. The Israeli invasion 1982 and the subsequent Israeli occupation were the initial triggers for the foundation Hezbollah’s. However, it did not establish itself by chance. It was the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, which has worked systematically to build it up and provided long-term support.

The main objective of Hezbollah was to overcome the discrimination and oppression of Muslims. With its pan-Islamic strategy, it suppressed the influence of foreign countries in Lebanon and sought to start an Islamic revolution. Using terror, they have prompted the withdrawal of US, French, Italian, and British troops as part of the multinational forces and drove Israeli forces out of Beirut to southern Lebanon. With kidnappings of Western nationals, Hezbollah could force the release of prisoners. On his part, Iran used these hostages to assert its political, military and financial demands towards the west. The US arms sales to Iran in exchange for the release of hostages (Iran–Contra affair) and the possibility of Iran’s interfering through Hezbollah in the Israeli-Arab conflict without having to maintain geostrategic points of contact with Israel, underscore the political power of Hezbollah in the Middle East. However, Hezbollah could not fully achieve the objectives of a pan-Islamic strategy. Indeed, the Israeli forces still occupied southern Lebanon and all attempts to spark an Islamic revolution failed.

Hezbollah’s Guerrilla strategy

The Israel Army bombing South Lebanon (April 1996)The failure of the pan-Islamic strategy had two main causes: First, Hezbollah’s leaders considered the signing of a ceasefire agreement between Iran and Iraq an Iranian defeat and as a result the Islamic revolution failed to spread. An Iranian victory would have helped the Islamic Revolution in Lebanon to break through. Second, following his death, Ayatollah Khomeini, was succeeded in power by the more moderate Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. After eight years of war with Iraq, Rafsanjani gave priority to the economic reconstruction of Iran and cut temporarily the financial support for Hezbollah. While the importance of Hezbollah as a foreign policy tool for Iran has been decreasing, Syria has strengthened its influence over Hezbollah. On the face of it, Syrian influence ended the Islamisation efforts of Hezbollah. By supporting Amal as a rival to Hezbollah, Syria has put a stop to its pan-Islamic strategy and the use of terror as a means for its implementation. During the Israeli-Syrian peace process from 1989 to 2000, Syria used Hezbollah as an instrument of exerting political pressure on Israel to return the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to Syria under the most favourable terms. Under these circumstances, Hezbollah changed to the guerrilla strategy, which as the Lebanese civil war ended, was favoured by the return of the population in southern Lebanon and by the reconstruction of the country. The large proportion of part-time fighters who earned their living by having a civilian job has blurred the line between Hezbollah militants and the civilian population. Therefore, the Israeli armed forces in southern Lebanon were de facto fighting against the Lebanese population. Offensive operations against the Hezbollah have inevitably resulted in civilian casualties and the destruction of civilian infrastructure. This in turn has increased the levels of support for Hezbollah among the Lebanese population.

With the end of the pan-Islamic strategy, Hezbollah took part in the Lebanese parliamentary elections as a political party. This has shaped its Janus-faced character: on the one hand, Hezbollah was a fundamentalist, militant freedom fighting or terrorist organization, and on the other, a political party capable of compromising. Since both sides of Hezbollah were pursuing the common objective of ousting the Israeli forces from southern Lebanon, the armed struggle has not lost importance as a result of Hezbollah’s involvement in internal politics. Thus, the two faces of Hezbollah became markedly apparent only at the time of the withdrawal of Syrian troops in 2005 and the domestic political debate on disarmament.

Hezbollah’s guerrilla strategy led to the withdrawal of Israeli troops in 2000. The increasing losses suffered by the Israeli forces due to the guerrilla tactics of Hezbollah were the most important, but not the sole reason for the withdrawal. As an Israeli ally in southern Lebanon, the South Lebanon Army (SLA) had to bear the brunt of the fighting. The SLA gradually disintegrated under the weight of operations carried out by Hezbollah. The Israeli withdrawal was also motivated by Ehud Barak’s hope that Hezbollah would then stop its armed operations against Israel and focus exclusively on political activities in Lebanon. By withdrawing from Lebanon, Israel has complied with the demands of the UN Security Council Resolution 425. Nonetheless, Hezbollah was the driving force behind the Israeli withdrawal in 2000, which has increased its importance as a political power in the Middle East.

Hezbollah’s Palestinisation and its use as a defensive power-political instrument

Hisbollah's child soldiersApart from the political success of Hezbollah in the parliamentary elections in 2000, the Israeli withdrawal posed a dilemma. The leaders of Hezbollah could not continue their direct struggle against Israel outside the Lebanese territory, as it would have undermined its legitimacy as a freedom fighting organization inside Lebanon. Moreover, this would have put Hezbollah in the firing line of the US war on terror. A sole focus on domestic political activities would not only lead to disarmament and a complete loss of power of Hezbollah, but it would also damage their credibility with the young, religiously indoctrinated fighters. As a compromise, it limited its activities to few smaller operations in the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms that in Hezbollah’s view belong to Lebanon, and the support of the Palestinian resistance organizations.

This indirect strategy and its domestic political involvement as a social institution and a political party have prevented a direct confrontation with the United States. Indirectly, the US sought to exert pressure on Syria and Iran to stop weapon shipments to Hezbollah. However, the aggressive Middle East policies of the Bush administration, which have culminated with the invasion of Iraq, had the opposite effect. The growing perceived Syrian and Iranian threat led to a quantitative and qualitative increase in arm shipments to Hezbollah, which has in turn secured the political position of power for both countries. Equipped with long-range missiles, Hezbollah could, at the request of Syria and Iran, launch attacks on Israeli industrial centres thus throwing the Middle East into chaos. In this way, they were in possession of the decisive power-political factor in the Middle East that had to be reckoned with even by the United States.

Hezbollah’s evasion of disarmement

After the withdrawal of Syrian troops in late April 2005, Hezbollah filled the existing power vacuum in Lebanon. At the same time, it increased its operational independence from Syria albeit little changed in terms of its objectives and strategies. Hezbollah compensated for the reduced protection against the US war on terror with the Syrian withdrawal and by getting more involved in the Lebanese government as it took over two ministries. In this way, it started to use the Lebanese state in its fight against Israel. A fired Katyusha rocket which struck Israeli territoryIn 2006, the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers triggered the Lebanon war in which the Israeli forces wanted to defeat Hezbollah. Hassan Nasrallah publicly justified the operation as having the aim to swap the captured Israeli soldiers for captured Hezbollah fighters. He admitted to having underestimated the Israeli reaction. Besides this obvious reason, there were probably three more covert reasons in play. First, Hezbollah increasingly regarded itself as a “spearhead of the Islamic faith community” and sought to provide its militant arm with a new raison d’être. Second, Hezbollah tried to evade disarmament by pointing out the necessity of resistance against Israel. Third, the aggressive actions of Hezbollah are likely to be the direct result of the reduced operational control of Syria. Even if Hezbollah had instigated the war, Israel’s disproportionate use of military force and also Nasrallah’s leadership and Hezbollah’s long-term support for the reconstruction after the war, have led to a brief surge in Hezbollah’s popularity across all religious groups. Nevertheless, by the end of 2006 discussions about the responsibility of Hezbollah for the war have broken out and efforts at disarmament were becoming more apparent. Faced with this, Hezbollah tried to force the Lebanese government to resign and risked a renewed outbreak of the civil war.


In Hezbollah’s open letter to the “oppressed in Lebanon and in the world” from 1985 the its leaders clearly stated their philosophical beliefs, and their objectives. Despite some strategic adjustments to its domestic political involvement and moderately worded election manifests, in the minds of Hezbollah’s leaders the objectives remain the same to this day. In particular, the existential struggle against Israel still has high priority. Even an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Shebaa Farms would not change that. The “2006 Lebanon War” and the use of the Lebanese government as a tool in the fight against Israel shows that Hezbollah is not at all prepared to give up its weapons. In contrast, the arms shipments after the Lebanon war and the expansion of Hezbollah’s positions within Lebanon has contributed to the securing of its power-political influence in the Middle East – the outbreak of another war with Israel is therefore, only a matter of time.

List of images

At the top, left: A US-Marine, who survived a bomb attack by a Hezbollah suicide bomber on the building housing US-forces on 23th October 1983. 241 US-Marines died in this attack. The blast was the most powerful explosion after World War II (and the elimination of leftover munitions from World War II on Helgoland). 80 French paratroopers lost their lives in a second bomb attack on the French military cantonment 20 seconds later.
In the middle, right: The Israel Army bombing South Lebanon in April 1996 (Photo: Ziv Koren/Corbis).
In the middle, left: Already preschool children are monopolised by Hezbollah. They carry only dummy weapons, but the hate on Israel is implanted them from the cradle. Disarmament of Hezbollah would reduce its attractiveness for young, religious indoctrinated fighters. This is one reason why Hezbollah evades insistently on disarmament (Photo: Coskun Aral).
At the bottom, right: Hezbollah’s rocket attacks on Israeli infrastructure should not be underestimated. Disregarding the damage from the impact of the rocket and its shrapnels, these attacks have a psychological dimension, which paralyse the public life.

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