In the previous post we covered the evolution of Hamas in Gaza. In this post we will cover the background of Hezbollah who are strongest in Lebanon and the West Bank.
To understand Hezbollah, first we must understand some of the history of Lebanon. Geographically, Lebanon is very mountainous. 81% is Mountains. Lebanon is more mountainous than Switzerland. This has given rise to a diverse culture where many isolated communities have no interaction with their neighbours and many people may never have ventured outside their village.
The result has been religious diversity. There are equal parts of Sunnis, Shiites, and Christians. For centuries, one has not tried to dominate the other two. The political environment is set up to give each group equal representation. The President is always Christian, The Prime Minister always Sunni and the Speaker of the House is always Shia.
There are quotas for how many politicians of each religion can hold office. The quotas are based on the census, but the last census was in 1932. Nobody wanted to rock the boat, so they never held another census. Simple.
1970s – Palestinian Refugees
All was well until the 1970s. Palestinian refugees escaping from Israel or driven out by Israel flooded into Lebanon. These were predominantly Sunni Muslims. They used Lebanon as a base to attack Israel. At this stage, they were being organised and led by the PLO and Yasser Arafat.
The influx of refugees caused a sudden population imbalance as all the Pakistani Sunni refugees added to the existing Lebanese Sunni numbers. A civil war broke out in Lebanon. Meanwhile, the Israelis decided to wipe out the refugee terrorists in Lebanon and their army advanced into Lebanon and made it as far as the capital Beirut.
Arafat taunted the Israelis saying he wanted the war to end so he could return to his career as an engineer. He openly walked around Beirut urging on the troops. Israel tried to starve out the Palestinians but after 2 months, the PLO still held Beirut. At this stage, the US intervened and sent in a peacekeeping force. Arafat left on a ship to Tunisia to set up the PLO headquarters there.
Iran and Hezbollah
Remember at this stage in Beirut there was the PLO which was a nationalist terrorist group. There was unrest between Shia, Sunni and Christians which had sparked the civil war, and general unrest after Israel had invaded Lebanon. An opportunity existed for another player. Iran.
Iran is a Shia nation. They took the opportunity to organise the Shia population of Lebanon into a militia and named them Hezbollah which means Party of God. Iran provided initial training with 1,500 Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps instructors
Iran and Israel are by far the most advanced military forces in the region. Iran distrusted Israel and wondered when Israel might turn against them. A satellite army based in Lebanon, on the border with Israel, was a good strategic move. They equipped Hezbollah and trained their fighters.
Famously, Ehud Barak, the Prime Minister of Israel said:
“When we entered Lebanon, there was no Hezbollah. We were accepted by perfumed rice and flowers by the Shi’a in the south. It was our presence there that created Hezbollah.”
Hezbollah grew stronger and stronger. During the Lebanese Civil War, Hezbollah’s 1985 manifesto listed its objectives as the expulsion of “the Americans, the French and their allies definitely from Lebanon, putting an end to any colonialist entity on our land”. From 1985 to 2000, Hezbollah also participated in the 1985–2000 South Lebanon conflict against the South Lebanon Army (SLA) and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and fought again with the IDF in the 2006 Lebanon War. During the 1990s, Hezbollah also organized volunteers to fight for the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina during the Bosnian War.
They bombed the US Marine Barracks in Beirut killing 240. Their role is not to start a war with Israel. They only want to convince Israel that there is a threat that needs to be taken seriously. Israel must recognise and occasionally engage with Hezbollah. If Hezbollah carried out a full-scale attack on Israel, the outcome would probably be a win for Israel as it is equipped with the latest weapons by the US. That is not their goal. They want Israel to be afraid and commit resources away from Gaza.
1990 – Hezbollah Makeover
In 1990 Hezbollah had a makeover. They resorted to the role of an Islamic Group. With funding from Iran, they built mosques and provided charity to the Lebanese and the refugees. They own TV and Radio stations, and have started integrating themselves into Lebanese politics. Remember Hezbollah is an Islamic group. They are not focused on setting up Palestine and driving out Israel. Their focus is bringing Islamic law, culture and social norms to all countries in the region. This includes Lebanon, Palestine and Israel.
As we said the military wing is one of the best armies in the world. The geography of Lebanon helps their efforts. There are many valleys and caves to hide people and equipment, and it would be hard for anyone to fight Hezbollah in the mountains they know.
Since 2012, Hezbollah involvement in the Syrian civil war has seen it join the Syrian government in its fight against the Syrian opposition, which Hezbollah has described as a Zionist plot and a “Wahhabi-Zionist conspiracy” to destroy its alliance with Bashar al-Assad against Israel. Between 2013 and 2015, the organisation deployed its militia in both Syria and Iraq to fight or train local militias to fight against the Islamic State. In the 2018 Lebanese general election, Hezbollah held 12 seats and its alliance won the election by gaining 70 out of 128 seats in the Parliament of Lebanon.
When the war in Gaza started, one of the first actions by Israel was to bomb two airfields in Lebanon. The Israelis believed these airfields could be used by Hezbollah to support Hamas, so they took them out before the war got underway. Hezbollah continues to fire rockets into Israel and there are border skirmishes, but it has not ramped up as yet.
What is likely to happen with Hezbollah? This is the big unknown for Israel. If Hezbollah launched an all-out attack on Israel while Gaza was still fighting, it would be a close call for Israel. Fighting a war on two fronts, and one a highly trained militia backed by Iran could be too much for Israel. It might also encourage other countries to join the fray. Several Arab countries have expressed support for Palestine, and Iran is sitting in the shadows pulling strings and could potentially join the war.
If Iran joined, it could bring in the US although the US seems so fragmented at the moment that is not guaranteed, and if it did, might only be a token support effort. NATO may get involved however given their lack of involvement in the Ukraine situation, it might only be money and weapons.
After the War
If the war grinds to a halt with Hamas either defeated or they become a minor player, what happens to Gaza after the war. Netanyahu has said that Israel will have to stay and rule Gaza but there has been strong pushback from the US and many other countries. Those countries see that it is just the acquisition of Gaza by occupation. Israel will continue the policy it has used since 1948. Drive out the Arabs or govern them in a way that restricts food, medicine, water and building materials. Eventually, they either die out or leave. At the same time create Israeli communities as they have on the West Bank and Gollan Heights and give these people rights not available to the Arab communities.
If not Israel, who could govern Gaza? The three main options appear to be a UN Peacekeeping Force, the Palestinian Authority which partially controls the West Bank, or Hezbollah. Iran would be overjoyed to have Hezbollah take control of Gaza. That might be why they have not engaged to support Hamas. They want to put up a case for them to rule Gaza. Even if free elections were held, Hezbollah would probably win a good number of seats.
The more likely scenario is Israel continues to bomb, fire rockets and artillery until the infrastructure and homes in Gaza are completely destroyed. The 2 million residents are driven out as refugees to various countries. After peace, the Israelis restrict building materials and funding so people cannot resettle in Gaza. In a decade, Israeli settlements start to appear and in two decades, it is part of Israel.
I have to acknowledge Matt Bevan and the brilliant ABC Podcast “If you’re listening” from where much of this information came. Brilliant podcast and well worth following.