Evolution of Terror IV: Complex Hezbollah a source of fighting, giving

Fellows Fall 2004

By Julie Goodman

June 02, 2009

Muhammad Haidar displays some belongings of his father, a

Muhammad Haidar displays some belongings of his father, a "martyr" who died fighting Israel. Haidar, 16, refused to wipe off the blood that dried on his father's watch.

BEIRUT — It has been 15 years since a piece of shrapnel struck Muhammad Haidar's father, plunged through his upper right arm and grazed his chest in a close-range exchange of fire near the Israeli border.

His father bled to death at a hospital as a young Muhammad darted around the neighborhood playground calling, "Where's Daddy?"

Muhammad's father was gone, but before he could feel the depths of the void, something else had stepped in — Hezbollah, the Party of God.

Party members began making daily visits to the family home, poised to offer guidance, medical assistance and instruction on college — all services Hezbollah watchers say is part of a $1 billion annual operation relying heavily on funds from Iran and local religious taxes. The visits continue to this day. And the party covers the $2,600 annual expense of private schooling for Muhammad and his sister, now teenagers.

"They embraced us, and they made sure we realized that they appreciated what we had offered," says Muhammad's mother, Nawal, whose husband was recruited to Hezbollah's ranks.

Hezbollah has showcased its battle against the Israelis, guerrilla style and in glorified fashion. The party, whose popularity came from its warrior appeal, helped drive out Israeli forces occupying the Lebanese border in 2000.

But over the years, the highly disciplined, media-savvy group also has gained control of 12 seats in parliament, a tricky evolution in this volatile region.

Hezbollah's experience, some Middle East experts say, could offer insight into the ways parties around the world can shed radical roots and become beacons of moderation.

Hezbollah — which the United States has designated a terrorist group — has evolved dramatically over the years into a political party that also provides social services to hundreds of thousands of Shiite Muslims.

It tends to people who had for years led lives of poverty and desperation. In short, Hezbollah created a state within a state.

It still spews anti-American rhetoric, and promotes hatred and violence toward Israel in children's coloring books and board games. But it also embraces a social agenda that includes everything from planting organic crops to teaching AIDS awareness.

A sprawling network of schools, agricultural services, hospitals and counseling centers has sprouted over the last two decades since Hezbollah's auspicious launch as a guerrilla group in the early 1980s.

Face of Hezbollah

In 1960, Abdel-Karim Nasrallah, whose wife was seven months pregnant, had a revelation.

A bright light and two figures emerged. "I don't know who they were, but they were obviously divine," he says.

He was going to have two boys, they told him, and one of them should be called Hassan Hussein, the names of the Prophet Muhammad's descendants.

As a child, Hassan would sometimes take his grandmother's black scarves, tie one around his head and another around his shoulders, then ask the neighborhood children to follow and pray.

And they would.

Four decades later, the young boy who donated his change to the poor is head of the political party U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has called the "A-team of terrorists."

The U.S. government blames Hezbollah for high-profile bombings and assassinations in Lebanon in the 1980s in which more than 200 Americans were killed.

But in Lebanon, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, as he is now known, commands a party with a reputation for being upfront and uncorrupt, and is upheld as an efficient steward of funds.

The party has developed strong American-style public relations and constituency services.

Nasrallah, the party's second leader, brought a "pop star" quality to Hezbollah. He delivered a new brand of pragmatism some observers say the party needed to survive in a country with a heavy Western influence.

Although Hezbollah has not abandoned its Islamic republic agenda, Nasrallah has helped cast aside the dour image of fundamentalism.

Recently, he helped market Hezbollah's message at an annual military parade, galvanizing supporters against Israeli occupation.

On that day in November, shimmering golden yellow Hezbollah flags flapped in the wind along the road leading east to Baalbek.

It was Jerusalem Day, and the town was electrified.

Nasrallah's face beamed down from posters — on buildings, buses and poles. The smell of smoke from celebratory fire crackers hung in the air. A town banner read, "Jerusalem is for Muslims and it should be given back to them."

A bearded Nasrallah stood at a lectern behind bullet-proof glass.

He told the dozens of reporters and thousands of spectators about the drone Hezbollah built to spy on Israel, which recently crossed into Israeli air space for 14 minutes — the first hostile aerial incursion from Lebanon in 17 years.

"It's operated by remote control and it can go to the target that pleases you. Pick and choose. You want a power plant? A water plant? A military base? Choose what pleases you."

Hezbollah has drones to sell, he says, turning to shoot a glance at the defense minister for Lebanon, whose army is considered inferior to that of Hezbollah.

The exchange was telling, for Hezbollah can run its military with or without the blessing of the Lebanese government.

Thousand of fighters, some children, parade in before onlookers chanting, "We are your soldiers, Nasrallah! Nasrallah!"

A special force of highly trained soldiers show off guerrilla warfare tactics.

Hezbollah impresses its party faithful but causes unease among other political leaders.

Hadi el Farr says his Syrian Social National Party in Lebanon does not believe in sectarian movements like Hezbollah, which serves its own Shiite constituency.

In Lebanon, seats are designated with a carefully calculated formula for Christians and Muslims to mandate a semblance of equality. The president is a Maronite Christian; the speaker, Shiite and the prime minister, Sunni.

Hezbollah's widespread effectiveness is limited by this sectarian government.

Abbas Hobballah of the Hezbollah-run Islamic Health Society says the society's services are generally only set up in Shiite territories so it won't be accused of invading another sect's turf.

Farr says he also clashes with the Hezbollah ideology. "We die for the land," he says. "Not for God."

Services at a cost?

Shiites who fled fighting over the last few decades near the Israeli border populate the crowded southern suburbs of Beirut. The government, they say, was in no hurry to provide water, electricity and other basic services.

In came Hezbollah.

Here, residents talk of offerings from the Party of God — food rations for the poor. Sugar, salt, rice, butter, milk, paraffin. The party provides care for orphans, clothes for needy families.

It trucks in water, helps mediate domestic disputes and circulates generators when the electricity fails, they say. It clears flooded streets and sewage backup. If someone dies, a Hezbollah party member comes to the funeral.

Perfume vendor Ali Shamas, who says Hezbollah paved the street outside his shop, shakes his head at the reconstruction in downtown Beirut, where boutiques and posh restaurants have begun to replace war-torn buildings.

"They have water and electricity," says Shamas, 37, who lives above his shop with his wife and five children, and donates $3 a month to Hezbollah. "And here, we don't even have water pipes to bring the water."

Reinoud Leenders, a Middle East analyst for the International Crisis Group, however, shows a different side of Hezbollah. He holds up a Hezbollah children's coloring book in his Lebanon office, pointing to illustrations of an Israeli war plane dropping bombs on children.

It tells a story of the resistance coming to the rescue after Israel attacked a Lebanese village. Children can color pictures of snarling Israeli soldiers fleeing the country.

On his wall hangs a children's board game whose objective is to reach the end, where dead Israeli soldiers lie in pools of blood.

The Islamic Emdad Charitable Committee, a Tehran-based organization that runs five religious schools under the philosophies of Hezbollah, says children are not forced into fighting.

"Of course we encourage and promote the concept because how will people defend their country otherwise?" Managing Director Ali Zreik says.

The party's welfare and military sides are inextricably linked, as the former is used to build the latter.

"These social services are very much in the service of resistance," says Leenders, who has researched the party.

Hezbollah's future success depends in part on how it handles its delicate transformation, says William Quandt, a Middle East expert who served on the National Security Council under the Nixon and Carter administrations.

He compared the radical-to-moderate transformation to what has happened to Communist parties in Europe that shed their revolutionary intentions once they had a democratic framework in which to work.

"They have to learn to form coalitions," he says. "So first you take the revolutionary part away as Communist parties in Europe did, and then the ideology gets diffused and broadened and maybe becomes something else."

Copyright © 2007 International Reporting Project. All Rights Reserved.