The Terrorism of Hizbollah: Ideology, Scope, Threat
Co-sponsored by the Rabin Chair Forum, George Washington University; the Middle East Project; and the Division of International Studies
Speakers: Jeffrey Goldberg, Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center; Staff Writer, The New Yorker
Martin Kramer, Wexler-Fromer Fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy; Editor, Middle East Quarterly
Jeffrey Goldberg noted that although the Shi’ites at first welcomed the 1982 Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon as an event that would liberate them from oppression by the P.L.O, which had turned that area into “Fatahland” as a base for attacks against Israel, Israel’s continued occupation of southern Lebanon provoked, in that year, the formation of a group, Hizbollah, that quickly became the most successful terrorist organization in modern history.
Until September 11, 2001, Goldberg noted, Hizbollah killed more Americans than had any other terrorist group-—241 alone in a 1983 suicide truck-bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut. And it is the only Arab force that has driven the Israeli military out of Arab territory. It is supported financially by the Iranian government directly as well as by cells around the world. The strongly anti-American programming of its satellite television station, Al Manar, is watched by millions. Because Hizbollah is a very effective terrorist organization, it has been a model for other such organizations and has been stockpiling a very large number of rockets, mostly from Iran, for potential use against Israel. At the same time, it has become part of the fabric of Lebanese society, holds about 10% of the seats in Lebanon’s parliament, and maintains a network of social-service enterprises—-to which its defenders point when they deny that Hizbollah is a terrorist organization.
Hizbollah’s ultimate goal, Goldberg observed, is to build an Islamic republic in Lebanon, modeled on that of Iran, and to destroy Israel and remove its Jews. Its success in extruding Israel from Lebanon has emboldened its belief that it will defeat Israel. Its ideology is fiercely anti-Semitic, not just anti-Israeli, with an anti-Semitism that is almost biologically-based: Jews are not only believers in a satanic ideology but are genetically flawed. Its leader, Sheikh Nasrallah, has said: “If we search the entire world for a person more cowardly, despicable, sick and feeble in psyche, mind, ideology and religion we would not find anyone like the Jew.” And Nasrallah added: “Notice, I do not say the Israeli.” Goldberg noted that this anti-Semitism has become “eliminationist,” in a manner analogous to Nazism. Nasrallah has observed that the concentration of Jews in what he calls Palestine is actually convenient, implying that this makes it easy to eliminate them in one place. Goldberg said he believes that Hizbollah is more obsessed with the spilling of Jewish blood than even the Palestinian terror groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Hizbollah’s worldwide activities, intentions and lethality have led U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to call Hizbollah the “A-team” of terrorism and Al-Qaida the “B-team.”
What would provoke Hizbollah to strike American targets again, or awaken its cells in the West? Goldberg suggested that the tripwires could include a war in Iraq, actions against Hizbollah and any attempt by the U.S. to destabilize Iran. He noted that Iran has such great influence on and control over Hizbollah that, functionally, Israel shares a border with that country.
Martin Kramer focused especially on Hizbollah’s relationship with Iran; much more about this, and about Hizbollah in general, are, he noted, available on his website, www.martinkramer.org. He said that the Lebanese government, unable to control Hizbollah, has attempted to present it as a social service organization and to deny that it is a terrorist organization. He stressed that Hizbollah is, in essence, an extension of Iran—-that its terrorist actions are always compatible with Iran’s needs, that the organization is a client of and sometimes a proxy for Iran, and that its fealty remains primarily to Iran. It is, Kramer noted, a “tool in the Iranian toolbox” in international terms.
Notwithstanding widespread predictions a few years ago that the withdrawal of Israel would result in a moderated Hizbollah, Kramer noted that this withdrawal, in 2000, actually emboldened the organization and that, armed with an enormous number of rockets capable of striking Haifa, it is ready to open a military front against the Jewish state. Both Iran and Hizbollah have aided the Palestinian Intifadah in recent years, supplying logistical support and arms. And, ironically, the process of reform in Iran may be influencing Hizbollah to become more, not less, radical, since the reformers seem to be shoring up their revolutionary credentials by expressing ever more extreme anti-Israel positions, stressing, for example, that the establishment of a Palestinian state requires that there be no Jews left in the area that is now Israel. Moreover, Iran has an interest in using Hizbollah as a proxy in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and that others recognize its control over that group, in order to increase its diplomatic leverage on the world stage. Iran’s control over a central player in the conflict with Israel, its provision to that player of long-range rockets as well as plastic explosives that have been used by suicide bombers, have transformed the Arab-Israeli conflict into a wider one in which Iran plays a significant role, with, Kramer noted, most of the world, except for the U.S., looking the other way, and with the conservative Arab states accepting this change as a fait accompli.
Would Hizbollah initiate hostilities against Israel, or launch al-Qaida-like terror attacks against the U.S., in the event of a war against Iraq? Kramer said this would be controlled by Iran, and Iran would initiate such actions if it felt threatened, either during or after such a war. The possibility of Hizbollah resuming military or terrorist activities, including terrorism using weapons of mass destruction, justifies the inclusion of Hizbollah in America’s war on terrorism, and underlines the importance of keeping weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of not only Hizbollah but also its sponsor, Iran. This is especially true if the U.S. believes that, at some point, it will come into conflict with Iran over oil, the nature of a post-war Iraq, Israel, or nuclear proliferation. Kramer stressed that the fact that Hizbollah hasn’t been involved in terrorist activities lately doesn’t mean that it won’t initiate such activities, using al-Qaida-like means, should Iran decide that this would be in its interest.
Asked by a member of the audience about the role of Syria in connection with Hizbollah, Kramer said that if, as Deputy Secretary of State Armitage said, Hizbollah should be seen as the A-team of terrorism, then Iran should be seen as the team owner, and Syria should be seen as the team’s coach. Kramer explained that Syria is the transmission belt between Iran and Hizbollah.
To what extent does Hizbollah actually believe its own stated ideology? Is its fierce anti-Americanism merely rhetoric that can be moderated in some way? Goldberg said that, after the events of September 11, 2001, he decided to take the threats by leaders of anti-American terrorist organizations at their word.
Report by Walter Reich, Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Professor of International Affairs, Ethics
and Human Behavior, The George Washington University; Senior Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center