Revival of the Lebanese Shiite Community and Hezbollah’s Beginnings (1982-1990)

Joe Hammoura

For the past few years, Hezbollah has accumulated a wide range of power and influence in many regions of the Middle East, particularly in Lebanon, the country of its origin. The “Party of God” has the ultimate domination over the Lebanese Shiite community and is currently the sole “legitimate” defender of Lebanon against Israel’s aggression. Hezbollah’s position today is the result of a series of changes within the Lebanese Shiite community, and to the many wars and “revolutions” that began with the activities of Imam Musa Al-Sadr between the 1950s and 1970s, to the creation of AMAL movement that led to the establishment of Hezbollah in 1982, and to the control it possessed over a large part of lands and population during the last years of the Lebanese civil war. Understanding the circumstances of Hezbollah’s emergence and the changes within the Lebanese Shiite community is key to understand the essence of Hezbollah’s power today.

Keywords: Hezbollah – Lebanon – Lebanese Shiite Community – Transnational    Organizations – Lebanese Civil War

Introduction

Hezbollah constitute today one of the leading forces engaged in the Syrian conflict. Backing the Syrian regime, occasionally fighting Israel, and interfering in the Yemeni war, the “Party of God” secured itself a wide range of power and influence in the Middle East and in Lebanon. The Lebanese Shiite community is almost fully in support of the party. In fact, thousands of militiamen have been fighting alongside Hezbollah since 1982 against what the party’s rhetoric labels as: “the infidels”, “the traitors”, and “the Zionism”.

Hezbollah’s strength dates back to the early years of the 1980s, when the party was formed in parallel with the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. The party never hides its deep relations with Iran, its ideological affiliation with the Islamic Revolution or its conservative Shiite sectarian thoughts.[1]

The party was engaged in a long list of confrontations during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1991), and became, after that period, the sole group with a de facto legitimacy to fight Israel from southern Lebanon. Hezbollah’s position today is the result of a series of changes within the Lebanese Shiite community, in addition to many wars and “revolutions” that started with the movement of the Imam Musa Al-Sadr between the 1950s and 1970s, and continued with the establishment of the party in 1982, which eventually granted it control over a large part of Lebanon during the last years of the civil war.[2]

            Before and After Musa Al-Sadr: Lebanon and the Shiite Community

            Ever since Lebanon’s independence in 1943, the Lebanese regime was dominated by the two leading communities at the time; the Christian Maronites and the Muslim Sunnis who controlled the most powerful positions in the state[3], alongside a Christian dominance over the private sectors; education, media, banking… etc. On the other side, the Shiite community was marginalized and far from playing a leading role in the Lebanese body-politic or decision-making process. This marginalization was not solely due to the type of the political regime or to the power distribution, but has deep social, political, economic and geographic reasons.

During the early years of the 19th century, the Shiite community in Lebanon faced a serious problem related to the absence of an enough number or well-educated Islamic scholars.[4] The perception of the Islamic clergy was negative within the Shiite community, while rich families tended to orient their children to study scientific majors or pursue their studies abroad. The Shiite community was a semi-feudal one during the early decades of the last century, which led some of the poor, the educated and those living in the rural peripheries of the country to affiliate with the leftist parties.[5]

The Shiite community in Lebanon can be mainly found in the southern region of the country, near the Israeli borders, and in the Bekaa Valley, located east of the country near the Syrian borders. In the capital, a small number of Shiite used to live before the 1970s; mainly in the suburbs, while Beirut was dominated by Sunnis and Christians. Moreover, a very small number of Shiites lived in Mount-Lebanon and in the Northern region. The fact that the community presence was limited to some areas and distant from the capital in a centralized state had resulted in a low influence in the country’s affairs.

Coming from Iraq, Imam Musa Al-Sadr had settled in Lebanon since 1958. The man who would seek the renaissance of the Shiite community was a high profile religious figure and a well-educated man with a charismatic personality.[6] Since then, new members of the community showed interest in learning religious studies and were sent to Iraq and Iran to do so. Al-Sadr established the Supreme Islamic Shiite Council in 1967 as an official religious institution in charge of the affairs of the Shiite community[7], and occasionally attacked feudal figures. He worked on strengthening the Shiite’s religious and cultural identity, and raised the voice in the face of their deprivation from positions in the administration, the regime and the private sectors. He even created the “Movement of the Deprived” in order to remove the deprivation the Shiite regions and youth were suffering from, and established the “Lebanese Resistance Battalions” (AMAL) as the military wing of the movement to resist against Israel and protect the Shiite community’s interests.[8]

Solidifying the power of the community by Al-Sadr was accompanied by socio-economic conditions that helped to achieve his goal. Between the 1960s and the 1970s, Beirut became a well-developed liberal city, which encouraged many members of the Shiite community to move to the capital in order to work and live in its suburbs.[9] This displacement increased the size of the community in Beirut and established areas with a Shiite majority, like the southern suburbs of Beirut.

In comparison to the left-wing parties, Al-Sadr’s rhetoric dominated within the community. His work on the religious and cultural revival and his slogans about the deprivation and injustice coincided with the difficult economic conditions the community’s members were experiencing in the rural areas and in the suburbs of Beirut. The revival and the strengthening of the community’s identity were achieved during those years.[10] Eventually, the Shiite community was ready to confront its first depriver: the Lebanese regime.

            Shiites during the Early Years of the Lebanese Civil War

            The establishment of Israel in 1948 and its war with the Arab countries in 1967 resulted in an influx of thousands of Palestinian refugees into Lebanon. Consequently, the military operations of the Palestinian militias were on the rise during the 1960s and 1970s, especially in Lebanon, where authorities failed to protect the country’s borders with Israel. The Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) leadership transferred its command center to Lebanon, after the Black September confrontations in 1970 led to the expelling of the Palestinian leadership from Jordan. Between 1969 and 1975, Palestinians established a virtual state-within-the-state[11]  in Lebanon and attacked Israel from the Lebanese borders on a regular basis. In return, Israel responded by attacking both Lebanese and Palestinians living in Lebanon.

Internally, a heterogeneous alliance emerged, joining many forces before and during the first years of the Lebanese civil war. PLO’s Palestinians, leftists, Shiites, Sunnis, Druze and many others formed an alliance in order to change the Maronite-dominated regime. Palestinians wanted a Lebanese rule that backs their resistance and cause. Leftists wanted social justice. Sunnis, Shiites, and Druze wanted separately a bigger share in the political and economic regime.

The AMAL militia established by Al-Sadr, has fought separately in many areas against both the Lebanese Army and the Christian militias. The war led to the militarization of the Shiite community, to the elimination of what was left of the semi-feudal system, and to the emergence of a “new class” within the community composed of conservative religious clergymen who possess military, social and political influence. It was out of this “class” that Hezbollah’s leadership would emerge.

The political regime was not changed due to a balance of military power between the fighting groups. The Syrian army invaded some parts of Lebanon in 1976, and the Israeli army occupied part of the Shiite-dominated area of Lebanon’s southern region in 1978, leading to a new wave of displacement of the community’s members to the suburbs of Beirut. During the same year, Al-Sadr and two of his aides disappeared after having departed for Libya to meet with government officials at the invitation of President Muammar Gaddafi.[12] The disappearance of Al-Sadr remains a mystery until today; nevertheless, many suggested that he was kidnaped and assassinated by the Libyan President.

The loss of the Shiite community led to a search for new leadership; consequently, many AMAL members started to show hostility to their new leadership due to its tendency to reconcile with the Maronite-dominated rule between 1980 and 1982. During the same period, Ayatollah Khomeini was establishing a new regime in Iran after the success of the Islamic Revolution pledging to spread the Islamic revolution in the world, and Israel was invading Lebanon, which resulted in occupying Beirut in 1982.

All the local and regional circumstances were suitable for the emergence of Hezbollah: the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the expiration of the semi-feudal system in the Shiite community, the civil war and the militarization of the youth, the failure to change the regime, the emergence of a “class” of conservative religious figures, the disappearance of Al-Sadr and the rejection of the policies of the new AMAL leadership. Practically, some of the AMAL leadership defected from the militia and created the “Islamic AMAL” in 1982 then merged with some other Shiite groups.[13] The “Party of God” was created in that same year, but was officially declared in 1985.

            Hezbollah’s Ideology and Loyalty to Iran

            Iran played a decisive role in the emergence of Hezbollah. Before the formation of the militia, many Iranian revolutionary guards settled in the Bekaa Valley, mainly in the Shiite-dominated city of Baalbek, in order to spread the Islamic Revolution ideology. In that city:

“The Iranians facilitated a coming together of various Lebanese Shiite militants, including […] activists within AMAL, Islamic AMAL, student associations and other groupings. The different groups’ delegates formed a nine-man committee to lay the basis of a new organization dedicated to the novel Iranian conception of theocratic rule (wilayet al-faqih) and the struggle against Israel. [..] Five members of the committee formed the Council of Lebanon, which held its first meeting in early 1983. This council […] gradually created the organizational structures of Hezbollah and gave it its ideological identity”.[14]

On the 16th of February 1985, Hezbollah declared its manifesto addressed to the “Deprived of Lebanon”. The party took many ideological stances that showed its ideological association with Iran. In its self-identification, the party stated that:

“We are the sons of the Umma – the Party of God – the vanguard of which was made victorious by God in Iran. The vanguard succeeded there to lay down the bases of a Muslim state which plays a central role in the world. We obey the orders of one leader, wise and just, that of our tutor and faqih (jurist) who fulfills all the necessary conditions: Ruhollah Musawi Khomeini. […] Our behavior is dictated to us by legal principles laid down by the light of an overall political conception defined by the leading jurist (wilayat al-faqih) […] As for our culture, it is based on the Holy Koran, the Sunna and the legal rulings of the faqih who is our source of imitation (marja’ al-taqlid)”.[15]

Additionally, Hezbollah listed its enemies, allies, and goals:

“We declare openly and loudly that […] America, its Atlantic Pact allies, and the Zionist entity in the holy land of Palestine, attacked us and continue to do so without respite […] this is why we are, more and more, in a state of permanent alert in order to repel aggression and defend our religion, our existence, our dignity […] Let us put it truthfully: the sons of Hezbollah know who are their major enemies in the Middle East – the Phalanges (Lebanese Christian militia), Israel, France, and the US. […] Only an Islamic regime can stop any further tentative attempts of imperialistic infiltration into our country. […] As for our friends, they are all the world’s oppressed peoples”.[16]

After its retreat from Beirut in 1982, attacks against the Israeli Army concluded. Many groups, including leftists, Palestinian parties, and many Shiite factions, were attacking the army. However, Hezbollah’s attacks stood out in terms of quality, style, and targets. Suicide attacks against the Israeli army headquarters in Tyr, a city in the southern region of Lebanon, killed 71 Israeli personnel in 1982.[17] Other attacks targeting the American embassy (April 1983) and the bases of the multinational forces in Beirut (October 1983) resulted in the death of 241 U.S. marines and 58 French paratroopers.[18] The suicide attacks gave a new meaning to the concept of sacrifice from the pro-Iranian revolutionary cradle.[19] Hezbollah was praised by many in Lebanon as a result of its success. Between 1982 and 1992, Hezbollah took many American, French and Russian diplomats, journalists, businessmen and clergymen as hostages. The party took hostages as a mean to pressure Western governments against funding or arming Iraq in its war against Iran, or to give Iran an upper hand in its negotiations with the West.[20]

            Internal Wars and Interim Peace

            In 1985, Hezbollah was controlling some small parts of the southern suburb of Beirut and some other areas in the southern region of Lebanon. However, this minimal control didn’t fulfill the party’s ambitions. Thus, between 1986 and 1990, Hezbollah engaged in many internal wars against other factions and militias in order to expand its control. Since 1986, the party started to clash with the Communists and other leftist and nationalist militias in the southern region and in Beirut and assassinated many Communist cadres.[21]

The aim of Hezbollah was declared on many occasions. The future leader of the party Hassan Nasrallah declared during these clashes that “Our strategy is to build a future for ourselves through confrontation with the Zionist enemy. Let [the Communist] therefore leave us alone to fight Israel […] the border zone should be left to us”.[22] Hence, the aim of Hezbollah was to strengthen its dominance in Lebanon and become the sole militia fighting Israel.

Alongside the Communists, the party continued its fights in 1986 against Christian militias and AMAL. With the latter, the confrontation was the longest and the ferocious. Between 1987 and the early months of 1990, fights broke out in the vast areas dominated by AMAL; in Beirut and the southern region. Eventually, Hezbollah won many new areas and dominated AMAL, and a ceasefire was signed between the two groups under the supervision of Syria and Iran.[23]

Alongside its dominance over the Bekaa Valley, these fights resulted in an unquestionable dominance of Hezbollah over the southern region of Lebanon and vast parts of Beirut and its southern suburb. Since 1989, Hezbollah has become the sole de facto force with a mission to fight Israel. Later on, the fight with Israel gave Hezbollah more popularity and dominance, thus more control over Lebanon and the Shiite Community.

In 1989, most Lebanese political groups and fighting militias came together in order to end the war. The Taif Agreement was signed under the supervision of Saudi Arabia, Syria and the United States, and a “new” regime was agreed on. At first, Hezbollah rejected the new proposed regime since it states on the equality in representation between Christian and Muslims in the parliament and the government while leaving the presidency and the head of the army to the Maronites. After securing recognition from the Lebanese government as the sole military resistance movement against Israel, the “Party of God” recognized the Taif Agreement. In 1990, the interim peace deal was signed between Lebanese under the motto “no winner – no loser”[24] and Hezbollah continued to fight Israel since then and became the only militia that kept its arms and military structure, while others handed their heavy arms to the national army.

            Conclusion

            As a conclusion, Hezbollah’s power and dominance today is the result of fights and struggle that the party practiced during the 1980s. Benefiting from the work of Imam Musa Al-Sadr, the pro-Iranian party passed through several phases; from fighting the Lebanese regime, to fighting Israel and the Western presence in Lebanon, to fighting many local militias. The party emerged from the Lebanese civil war as the most victorious faction and became the sole force engaged in fighting Israel and possessing heavy arms, local support, and Iranian backing.

In the early years following the establishment of Hezbollah, the organization witnessed an increase in its size, influence, and military dominance. It has also won the respect of many Lebanese and Arabs for fighting Israel. Today, the status of the party has been altered, as it is no longer viewed as a champion to Arabs or as a resistance to most Lebanese, but rather a terrorist conservative organization affiliated with Iran.

Despite sustaining its many source of power, the West, International Community and Israel have become more determined to restrain the party and drive it more deeply into different Arab conflicts to become merely a local organization fighting other similar organizations, not as it was once, a strong military organization fighting Israel and posing a threat to the regional order in the Middle East.

[1] Al-Agha, J. (2006). The Shifts in Hizbullah’s Ideology: Religious Ideology, Political Ideology, and Political Program. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, pp. 13-15.

[2] Schinella, A. (2019). Bombs without Boots: The Limits of Airpower. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, p. 147.

[3] Lebanon has a consensual political regime that grants representation to sectarian groups. Before the Taif Agreement (1989), seats in parliament were divided on a 6-to-5 ratio of Christians to Muslims. The Christian’s reserved seats were divided between sects: the Maronite had most of them followed by the Greek Orthodox, the Greek Catholics, and Armenian Orthodox. On the Muslim side, the seats were divided between the Sunnis who controlled the highest number of seats, followed by the Shiites and the Druze. Moreover, the constitutional norms dictated that the President of the Republic is a Maronite, the Prime minister is a Sunni, the Speaker of the House is a Shiite, the deputies of the Prime Minister and the Speaker of the House are Greek Orthodox, and the Head of the Army a Maronite. Before the Taif Agreement, the President of the Republic had many constitutional powers giving his community dominance in the political, social and economic fields of the country.

[4] Charara, W. (2008). Dawlāt Hizb-Allāh, Lubnan Mujtami’an Islamiyyān. Beirut: Dar al-Nahar, p. 24.

[5] Ibid, pp. 36-38.

[6] Al-Agha, J. (2006). Op. cit., pp. 26-27.

[7] Qāsim, N. (2008). Ḥizb Allāh, al-manhaj – al-tajribah – al-mustaqbal. Beirut: Dar Al-Hadi, p. 19.

[8] Ibid, p. 20.

[9] Norton, R. A. (2007). Hezbollah: A Short History. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, p. 13.

[10] Abi Saab, R. (2015). Sayyid Musa al‑Sadr, the Lebanese State, and the Left, Journal of Shi‘a Islamic Studies, McGill University, Montreal, Canada, V. III, N. 2, pp. 132-133.

[11] Norton, R. A. (2007). Op. cit., p. 14.

[12] Michael Newton, M. (2002). The Encyclopedia of Kidnaping. New York: Facts on Files Inc. p. 3.

[13] Shaery-Eisenlohr, R. (2008). Shi’ite Lebanon: Transnational Religion and the Making of National Identities. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 37.

[14] Chehabi, H. (2006). Distant Relations: Iran and Lebanon in the Last 500 Years. Oxford: Center for Lebanese Studies, p. 218.

[15] Rabinovich, I. & Reinharz, J. (2008). Israel in the Middle East: Documents and Readings on Society, Politics, and Foreign Relations, Pre-1948 to the Present. United States of America: Brandeis University Press, p. 424.

[16] Ibid, pp. 424-426.

[17] Jones, C. & Catignani, S. (2010). Israel and Hizbollah: An Asymmetric Conflict in Historical and Comparative Perspective. Oxon: Routledge, p. 75.

[18] Greenberger, R. (2007). Suicide Bombers. New York: The Roren Publishing Group, p. 13.

[19] Azani, E. (2009). Hezbollah: The Story of the Party of God: From Revolution to Institutionalization. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 66.

[20] Matthew Levitt, M. (2013). Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God. Washington: Georgetown University Press, p. 35.

[21] Charara, W. (2008). Op. cit., pp. 349-50.

[22] Blanford, N. (2011). Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s thirty-Year Struggle against Israel. New York: Random House, pp. 80-81.

[23] Rabil, R. (2011). Religion, National Identity, anad Confessional Politics in Lebanon: The Challenge of Islamism. New York: Palgrave Macmillian, pp. 56-57.

[24] El-Ezzi, G. (2009). Le Liban, de Problèmes en Crise. Confluences Méditerranée, p. 13.

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Joe Hammoura, Revival of the Lebanese Shiite Community and Hezbollah’s Beginnings (1982-1990), MEIRSS (Middle East Institute for Research and Strategic Studies), March 6, 2019. 

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