Members of 155 mm mobile gun crew play backgammon during a lull outside Beirut.

A Socioeconomic History of Hezbollah: The Israeli Intervention

In the sixth part of this series on the socioeconomic history of the Lebanese Shi’a group Hezbollah, Edwin Tran has charted the geopolitical, historical, cultural, and political currents that led to the rise of one of the most prominent Islamic militant groups in modern history. In this piece he chronicles the decision of the Israeli Government to intervene in Lebanon to uproot the Palestinian strongholds which had sprang up in the south of the country, and the far-reaching effects this would have in providing fertile ground for the ascendancy one of the most influential Islamic militant groups in the region today. 

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In the last few articles we have examined the major actors and blocs that influenced the socioeconomic trajectory of Lebanon’s Shiite population. The constant disenfranchisement of this demographic resulted in a political awakening that saw many Shiites take matters into their own hands. While conditions were slowly simmering, everything would boil over in 1982. On June 5th, 1982, the political situation of Lebanon, and the future of the region, was radically altered by the actions of a neighbour. Israel, invoking the attempted assassination of Ambassador Shlomo Argov by the PLO as a casus belli, launched Operation Peace for Galilee, invading southern Lebanon in the hope of dislodging the PLO from their bases of operations there. Israel’s intervention in the Lebanese conflict added a new dimension that sparked further chaos and confusion amongst Lebanese citizens. Few, including Israel itself, could fully recognize the butterfly effects that would ripple across the Lebanese fabric and culminate in the formation of Hezbollah.

The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) initially acted to destroy dislodge the PLO from its areas of operation in southern Lebanon in order to prevent the continual infiltration of PLO militants onto Israeli soil. However, having been met with rapid successes, mission creep led them to quickly spearhead an aggressive offensive push that would lead to an Israeli siege of Beirut. While much of the country was shocked and appalled by what appeared to be an overreach by the Israelis, there was initially a sense of gratitude amongst many Lebanese Shiites in the southern region. Anger and resentment over PLO abuses gave way to tacit support for the entrance of Israeli troops. The journalist Thomas Friedman recounted that in this early phase, “the Lebanese Shiites had originally greeted the Israelis as liberators from the PLO guerrillas, who had turned the Shiite villages into a battleground.”  Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak related similar sentiments, asserting that Israel was “accepted with perfumed rice and flowers by the Shiʿa in the south.” However, the good will and warm welcome were short lived. Critical mis-steps on the part of the Israeli leadership would severely damage Israel’s relationship with the Arabs of southern Lebanon. Such points are especially salient in the recollections of former Israeli Chief of Military Intelligence Yehoshafat Harkabi, who noted in 1988 that “to ensure that the PLO would not return to its bases in southern Lebanon, it was necessary to set up a new regime in Lebanon.”

To that end, Israeli leaders began to make overtures to the Christian Maronite camp. Meetings were conducted between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Maronite commander Bashir Gemayel, and plans were drawn up between Israelis and Maronites on how the future of Lebanon would look. When asked by interviewers in August of 1982 about Israel’s push into Lebanon, Gemayel justified the move, charging Arafat with destroying “the Lebanese Army… [and] the Lebanese State.” He emphasized the point that he “was not responsible for their entry… but definitely for [the Kateab], this was the only way to finish with all the [problems].” These moves were significant as they demonstrated to the Shiites of Lebanon that Israel was content with maintaining the socioeconomic status quo that they felt had disenfranchised their communities in southern Lebanon for decades. Reports from the time acknowledge similar frustrations. An interview with a Lebanese merchant conducted by the New York Times in 1985 revealed “‘when [the Israelis] came here, they had a 90 per cent chance to be the friends of the people… but [Israel] had to show they were the masters.’” Such political maneuvering was coupled with examples of Israeli military incompetence and blundering that would exacerbate Israel’s fall from grace amongst Lebanese Shiites. Thomas Friedman noted one special case in 1983, where “an Israeli military convoy tried to drive through [the Shiite town of] Nabatiya,” during the Shiite holiday of Ashura. Tensions increased dramatically and in the end, “Israeli soldiers panicked and opened fire on the crowd, killing at least two persons and wounding fifteen others.” Additionally, Israeli offensives were generally unable to completely dislodge PLO positions. Rather, these attacks were successful in “large-scale demographic disruptions as thousands of villagers, mainly Shiʿa, fled their homelands.” Other incidents, such as unlawful seizures and forceful interrogations, were characteristic of Israel’s involvement in southern Lebanon. In response, organizations like Amal began to decry the Israeli invasion and many Shiites became galvanized against this new external enemy.

Amal, for its part, continued to hold the legacy of the Imam Musa al-Sadr. However, the organization had lost credibility in the intervening years, having supported the Syrian invasion of 1976, which meant the group was already divisive among many Lebanese citizens by the time of the Israeli invasion. Other splinters occurred in the years after that, with some accusing the organization of allying with the Israelis in order to dislodge the PLO. Indeed, a CIA report noted that “Amal risks further erosion of its credibility in the south if its Israel contacts become [more] public knowledge.” Other groups were concerned by Amal’s ties to the United States of America, as the organization’s leader, Nabih Berri, held a green card and frequently travelled to America. However, the largest issues with Amal arose amid corruption and socioeconomic factors. Similar to the PLO, Amal’s leadership was often splintered, and infighting was common. A New York Times article from January 1985 recounted that “the… Shiite militia, Amal, which means Hope, is not an ordered, disciplined organization, but a rather amorphous movement, difficult to control and discipline.” Principle commanders and leaders within Amal often supported “accommodation with Lebanese clientelism” and saw themselves as comprising a new “Shiʿa bourgeoisie.” The combination of these factors were rather significant aspects that ultimately continue to haunt the group to this day.

Several disillusioned members of Amal began to take matters into their own hands. Individuals like Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, Naim Qassem, and Sheikh Subhi Tufayliall joined forces sometime between 1982-1985 to lay the groundwork for a new paramilitary organization that would stand in contrast to Amal. This new entity was focused on the Islamist tilt that had been espoused by Amal, while also ardently denouncing the Israeli invasion and pledging full animosity towards Israeli forces. Support for this new organization came from the Islamic Republic of Iran, who had emerged in 1979 and were seeking allies on the international stage. Iran sent volunteer forces into Lebanon and provided support and arms training to the members of this new organization. This support resulted in the unofficial formation of Hezbollah, the “Party of God.” The development of Hezbollah was a mark of major political changes heralded by the Islamic Revolution of 1979 that would culminate in a new wave of terrorism. At the same time, the establishment of this new organization signified the pinnacle of the Shiʿa awakening within Lebanon.

From 1982-1985, Hezbollah was not a “coherent organization,” but rather a motley crew of individuals espousing a reactionary ideology against Israel. While Israel had made huge advances in 1982, its forces would face newly charged resistance and guerilla attacks in the coming years. Although the Israelis were successful in dislodging the PLO and forcing Yasser Arafat and his leadership to vacate Lebanon and move to Tunisia, Israel continued to maintain an armed presence in the country. Indeed, the May 17th,1983 peace agreement between Lebanon and Israel noted that while Israel would “withdraw all its armed forces from Lebanon,” it would maintain “a security region…to implement… security arrangements” in the south, an occupation that would last until the year 2000. In response, these occupying troops “were subject to attacks by local armed groups claiming the right to liberate their country from occupation” like the upstart Hezbollah. For instance, on November 11th, 1983, a small Hezbollah unit led by Ahmad Qassir commit acts of terrorism against Israeli encampments and forward operating positions.

While Hezbollah did participate in attacks against Israel in this time, the years 1982-1985 were a formative period for the fledgling organization in other capacities. Naim Qassem, the current Deputy Secretary General of Hezbollah, recounted this period in his memoir Hizbullah: The Story from Within. In it, he describes the early days of Hezbollah as being necessary “to shape an effective jihad operation… [and] was enough time for the crystallization of a political vision, the facets of which were harmonious with faith in Islam as a solution.” A focus on social services was addressed both by Naim Qassem in his memoir and by senior Hezbollah official Hassan Fadlallah, who in a 1983 meeting emphasized the need for “Islamic work… and the necessity of a political movement that [expressed] a political position and has the legitimacy required.” This period would result in the formal codification of Hezbollah’s political and paramilitary apparatuses in conjunction with a solidification of the organization’s ideological makeup. Such points culminated in the formation of the 1985 Open Letter, Hezbollah’s personal manifesto, which, according to many scholars, represented the formal declaration of Hezbollah as a player in the Lebanese Civil War.

Ultimately, the intervention of Israel and Shi’a disillusionment with Amal resulted in the conditions necessary for Hezbollah to form. While the Israelis were originally seen as liberators of the Lebanese Shiite populace for their removal of the PLO, this era of good feelings became jaded when it was clear Israel would not be correcting any economic injustices inflicted on Lebanon’s south by Beirut and further corroded after Israeli operational ineptness and callousness. This coincided with the formation of a revolutionary, anti-establishment regime in Iran that was eager to secure new allies. In the next chapter, we’ll assess the 1985 Open Letter, the continuing competition between Amal and Hezbollah (with particular focus on the War of the Camps), and illustrate the development of Hezbollah’s social service apparatus.

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Edwin Tran is an independent writer focusing on geopolitics and the Levantine region. He is a graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno with degrees in History and International Affairs, and has published work in various sites from newspapers to academic journals. Edwin has spent time living and researching in the Levant region, and specialises in hybrid organisations and their historical contexts in order to understand their popularity and political successes within civil society.

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Photo credit: Israeli Government Press Office