In the seventh part of this series on the socioeconomic history of the Lebanese Shi’a group Hezbollah, Edwin Tran continues to chart the geopolitical, historical, cultural, and political currents that led to the rise of one of the most prominent Islamic militant groups in modern history.
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We left off in our last piece analysing the early foundations of Hezbollah in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Around this time, it became apparent that there was a need to create a more concrete organisation, and a manifesto was being written to prepare for such. This culminated in the creation of the Open Letter, announced to the world on February 16, 1985 by Hezbollah spokesman, al Sayyed Ibrahim Amine al Sayyed. The diction and rhetoric used in the Open Letter would be indicative of the route the organisation would take in the years to come. It would directly link Hezbollah’s solidarity with not just the Shi’ites of Lebanon, but with a class struggle that addressed the perceived injustices faced by many disenfranchised and socioeconomically deprived groups.
The title is indicative of this, establishing the document as being “addressed to the oppressed in Lebanon and the world.” Rather than framing conflict as being along religious or sectarian ties, much of the rhetoric employed in the Open Letter seems Marxist-Leninist, with heavy amounts of focus placed on “the countries of the Oppressor world.” When discussing Hezbollah’s goals for Lebanon, there is a nuanced view employed. Hezbollah does not declare for a wide spread implementation of Islamist policy and radical revolution. Rather, Hezbollah asserts in the Open Letter that they seek to root “any influence of any colonial power in Lebanon… to submit the Phalanges to just rule, and to make them stand trial for crimes they have committed against Muslims and Christians… [and lastly] to allow [the Lebanese] populace the right to self-determination; to freely choose the political system they aspire to.” It is important to note this rhetorical setup, and highlight that an Islamist ideation could cooperate with this more egalitarian, class-focused perspective, so as long as the latter served to preserve the interests of the former.
A succinct point made by Hezbollah in their manifesto was the idea that they were “committed to Islam,” but did not wish to “impose it by force.” Though Hezbollah maintained the principles and values of Islam and hoped that the Lebanese populace would aspire to such dreams, the organisation asserted that nuanced positioning and pragmatic change was needed. To that end, Hezbollah declared that “the bare minimum” of its goals was to adopt “a political system freely chosen by the sheer will and freedom of the populace.” Even more indicative of Hezbollah’s cautious approach could be found in its direct address to the Maronite Christians of Lebanon. In the Open Letter, Hezbollah made it clear that it recognised Lebanese Christians as distinct from the various Maronite paramilitary organisations and announced the following:
“You honorable oppressed… The time has come for the fanatic Christians to leave behind their sectarian bigotry and illusions of monopolising privileges at the expense of others… Jesus is absolved from the massacres committed by the Phalanges in the name of Christianity; and the Prophet Muhammad is absolved from the evils committed by Muslims who do not abide by the tenets of Islam. If you review your calculations and know that your interest lies in what you decide by your own free will, not in what is imposed upon you, then we renew our call to you.”
Though the document does assert Hezbollah’s commitment to the Islamist revolutionary principles seen in the Iranian Revolution, the Open Letter also highlights Hezbollah’s recognition of the Lebanese context. The organisation could not radically alter the political fabric of Lebanon because of the multi-sectarian and multi-religious makeup of the country. It would instead have to appeal to the country and establish popular support across the Lebanese population, rather than just focus on the plight of the Shiʿa.
Some Lebanese individuals found solidarity in Hezbollah’s rather anti-sectarian stance. Even Maronites were beginning to bluster against Phalangist operations. The Lebanese historian Nina Jidejian, for instance, remembered the traumatic events that took place under Maronite General Michael Aoun. She noted, that “Christians were shelled here; Muslims were shelled there… General Aoun was shelling [everyone] and would send out twelve shells.” Such points were directly attacked by Hezbollah in its Open Letter, and many Lebanese citizens were cognisant of this fact. The Open Letter was crucial in highlighting Hezbollah’s political stance in the Lebanese Civil War and would act as a backbone for the future course of the organisation.
After the Open Letter, Hezbollah’s actions and movements became publicised and widely recognised amongst the international community. CIA operatives recounted twenty-four acts of terror committed by the organisation in 1985. Principle events like the kidnapping of journalist Terry Anderson and the hijacking of Trans World Airlines Flight 847 brought global attention to Hezbollah. On the domestic front, Hezbollah immediately began to implement the ideas presented in the Open Letter into concrete policy. Naim Qassem recounted that shortly after the Open Letter, pathways were developed for attaining membership, a council and organisational framework was established, and “not one aspect of aiding the poor was neglected as the Party worked towards achieving joint social responsibility, answering to urgent needs and introducing beneficial programmes.”
With the removal of the PLO by the Israelis and the ineffectiveness of Amal, the Iranian-funded Hezbollah organisation was given the unique opportunity to supplant these two prior organisations and establish themselves within Lebanese civil society. Hezbollah found itself vying for control over territories in Southwestern Beirut and South Lebanon. The southern suburbs of Beirut were especially contentious, as they “lacked basic and necessary services for a population in need, and thus presented great potential for investments in institutions and services by the political actor controlling this space or its supporters.” It gained popularity for some of the sentiments expressed in the Open Letter. Hezbollah, it is noted, “took over basic functions… [and] established welfare programs to serve militia fighters and residents.” While Amal was forced to rely on charitable donations to fund its fighters, Hezbollah was able to provide its members with a salary of $300 USD per month.
Other ventures that were taken on by Hezbollah included the formation of several charity organisations that would provide aid and funding to individuals within Hezbollah’s domain. The Emdad Committee for Islamic Charity was established by Hezbollah in 1987 with an expressed goal of “social and development activities in the poor suburban and needy areas as well as in the fields of child welfare, mainly orphans and poor.” This charity specifically focused on providing financial aid, donations, basic health care, and emergency provisions for “mainly those remote areas in the South, which [were] constantly shelled by Israeli troops, and in regions where the presence of government services [was] scarce if non-existing.” Another organisation was the al Jarha Association, another charity developed in 1989 “which caters to the war-wounded and disabled and is one of the social services provided by Hezbollah.” This association was tasked with providing relief aid and funds to Hezbollah’s soldiers and their families. A personal account of Hezbollah’s services can be found in the testimony of Hassan Abdullah Ali, a construction supervisor who joined Hezbollah in 1985. After becoming blinded in a military operation against Israeli forces during the Lebanese Civil War, Ali’s “children’s schooling [was] paid for by the [al Jarha] Association, as [was] his home and the family’s expenditure.” Cases like Ali’s were common for many individuals residing under the jurisdiction of Hezbollah. The influx of Iranian funds gave the organisation flexibility and economic clout in order to develop extensively robust services that were effective.
Furthermore, it is important to recognise that many of Hezbollah’s services were not limited to just members of its organisation or members of the Lebanese Shiite community. It is well understood by many scholars that Hezbollah has been wilful in extending its social welfare “benefits beyond its core supporters and, in some districts, beyond the [Shiite] community.” An example is found in the case of Iman Atrasi, a woman who was injured and medically paralysed by gunfire during the Lebanese Civil War when she was eighteen. She recounted that initially she “just stayed in the house and was alone most of the time… but since the association [was]… established [the association] brings me here (to the headquarters) everyday [to] take classes and meet friends.” Other examples of this could be found in construction projects taken on by Hezbollah, where houses of all individuals who had been affected by shelling or fighting could receive some aid in reconstruction. The Jihad al Binaa Developmental Association, established by Hezbollah in 1988, was a clear example of this principle. Rather than focusing its charitable services onto only Hezbollah members or Lebanese Shiites, the Association declared that it would “serve the whole society…” with particular focus “on the development of rural and suburb regions and mainly the poor areas that contain efficient and productive people,” rather than single out any particular sect or entity. Other salient examples of social services for outside groups could be found in the formation of the think tank Consultative Centre for Studies and Documentation and the al Nour radio station in 1988.
While these acts seem to be charitable in nature, it is important to recognise that each of them were necessarily in creating a popular base for the organisation to mobilise around. By placing its actions within the context of the general populace, Hezbollah created solidarity between itself and its constituents. When areas of Southern Lebanon were destroyed by Israeli skirmishes, Hezbollah would undertake the steps necessary to address the infrastructural damage. According to Naim Qassem, these social welfare tasks were seen in examples like the restoration of “buildings damaged by the Bir al Abed bombing of 1985,” or when Hezbollah attempted in 1987 to “restore damage caused by torrential streams in the northern Bekaa [while] working in the same year on refurbishing homes in southern Lebanese villages of Kafra and Yater, which had been targets of Israeli aggression.” Naim Qassem proudly asserted (if perhaps untruthfully) that “every home damaged by Israeli raids since 1991 was restored by [Hezbollah], and this is true of other homes across Lebanese regions… bringing the total of refurbished buildings to 17,212 homes, shops, and public utility structures.” Hezbollah even engaged in less glamorous social service activities. Starting in 1988, the organisation “worked to remove all waste accumulation in Beirut’s southern suburbs, where more than half a million residents [lived].”
Though Hezbollah continued to wage war against Israel as the PLO had, Hezbollah’s popularity emerged because of its inclusive and effective social services coupled with the fact that Hezbollah was a nationalistic internal development. In addition to its implementation of crucial services, the organisation was able to identify itself in an anti-imperialist struggle against Israel, a point that was especially resonant amongst many Southern Lebanese. After a short war with Amal in the mid-1980s, Hezbollah’s main competitor, it became clear that Hezbollah was the more dominant of the two Shi’ite organisations. Conflict between Amal and the PLO during the War of the Camps (1984-1990) also helped cement Hezbollah’s position as the intermediary between Shi’ites and Palestinians during the conflict. By 1986, reports delivered to American President Ronald Reagan noted that Hezbollah’s services and anti-Israel sentiments had “[increased] the [group’s] stature among the Shiʿa population at the expense of the Amal.” In fact, the report concluded that “Hezbollah’s achievements appear to have influenced its efforts in gaining ground in south Lebanon.” This swing in popular approval towards Hezbollah was further emphasised by CIA operatives in 1987 who observed that “Amal’s power base [was] being diminished by the more militant Iranian-backed Hezbollah organisation.” Many of Hezbollah’s supporters had emerged from members of the Shi’ite middle class who “grew skeptical of the Amal movement and its corruption, and came to admire Hezbollah’s relative integrity.”
What one must recognise is that Hezbollah’s emergence and course of action reflected the historical context that had forced the Shi’ites of Lebanon into socioeconomic and political condition of disenfranchisement. Maronite domination and its following abuses for the first decades of Lebanon’s existence were only handed off to the PLO, who once again maintained the pattern of corruption and political favouritism that had marked the Maronite era. Hezbollah’s emergence was the zenith of the Shiʿa awakening. The organisation was an internal development that sought to redress the abuses and trials Lebanon’s Shi’ites faced, and though there was an Islamist tilt to Hezbollah, the group espoused inclusive terminology that was heavily focused on class divide over sectarian principles.
However, it must be affirmed that the group today remains an extremist organisation that has engaged in terrorist activity throughout its history. Through intelligent moves and shrewd action, the organisation as able to weave itself into the fabric of Lebanese civil society, thereby giving it legitimacy and support. The emergence of Hezbollah meant that Lebanon’s Shi’ite population finally had a cause to rally behind; they no longer required the reforms of Maronite leaders like Fuad Chehab, nor did they need to hide behind the banners of the Palestinian cause. Instead, the organisation acted as a literal manifestation of the Shi’ite desire for political representation, economic equality, and liberation from imperialist occupation.
Suggested books for in-depth reading on this topic:
- Compassionate Communalism: Welfare and Sectarianism in Lebanon (Melani Cammett)
- Hezbollah: A Short History (Augustus Norton)
- Hezbollah: The Political Economy of Lebanon’s Army of God (Joseph Daher)
- Israel’s Fateful Hour (Yehoshafat Harakabi)
Additional geopolitical reading suggestions can be found on our 2019 reading list.
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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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