Hezbollah at 40 stronger than ever but has more enemies


BEIRUT (AP) — Forty years after Hezbollah was founded at the height of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the group has grown from a motley organization into the largest and most heavily armed militant group in the Middle East. .

The Iranian-armed and funded Hezbollah, which has celebrated the anniversary with ceremonies in its strongholds in recent weeks, dominates Lebanese politics and is instrumental in spreading Tehran’s influence in the Arab world.

But the Shiite powerhouse, once hailed in the Arab world for its relentless opposition to Israel, faces fierce criticism on several fronts.

In Lebanon, a significant part of the population opposes his grip on power and accuses him of using the threat of force to prevent change. Many across the region resent his military interventions in Iraq and Syria’s civil war, where they helped tip the balance of power in favor of President Bashar Assad’s forces.

There is no specific date when Hezbollah was founded, beginning as a small group of shadowy fighters aided by Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guards. But the band says it happened in the summer of 1982.

The 40th anniversary comes this year as Hezbollah officials warned of a possible new war with Israel over the disputed gas-rich maritime border between Lebanon and Israel.

Over the years, Hezbollah has strengthened its military power. It boasts of having 100,000 well-trained fighters. And now its leader says they have precision-guided missiles that can strike anywhere in Israel and prevent ships from reaching Israel’s Mediterranean coast, as well as advanced drones that can strike or collect information.

“Hezbollah has evolved tremendously over the past four decades in its organizational structure, global reach and regional implications,” says Middle East analyst Joe Macaron.

Hezbollah’s greatest achievement over the past 40 years has been its guerrilla warfare against Israeli forces occupying parts of southern Lebanon. When the Israeli army was forced to withdraw in May 2000 – without a peace deal like those it struck with Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians – the victory drew praise from Hezbollah across the Middle -East.

“Who would have imagined that our enemy could be defeated? Hezbollah chief spokesman Mohammed Afif said at a press conference held in July to mark the anniversary.

But since the withdrawal, controversy over Hezbollah has grown steadily as its role has changed.

In 2005, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the country’s most powerful Sunni politician at the time, was killed in a huge truck bomb in Beirut. A UN-backed court accused three Hezbollah members of being behind the assassination. Hezbollah denies the charges.

Hezbollah was blamed for other assassinations that followed, mainly targeting Christians and Sunni Muslim politicians and intellectuals critical of the group. Hezbollah denies the charges.

“The danger from Hezbollah for Lebanon is enormous,” says journalist and former minister May Chidiac, who lost an arm and a leg in a 2005 assassination attempt with explosives planted in her car. She said Hezbollah was expanding Iran’s influence in Lebanon, “and that’s a long-term plan they’ve been working on for 40 years.”

When asked if Hezbollah was responsible for the attempt on his life, Chidiac replied: “Of course. there is no doubt. All these murders are linked.

The Lebanese are sharply divided over Hezbollah’s determination to retain its weapons since Israel’s withdrawal. Some call for its disarmament, saying that only the state should have the right to bear arms. Others support the group’s position that it must continue to be able to defend itself against Israel.

Hezbollah fought Israel to a draw in a 34-day war in the summer of 2006. Israel today views Hezbollah as its most serious immediate threat, estimating that the militant group has some 150,000 rockets and missiles aimed at him.

In early July, the Israeli army shot down three unmanned planes launched by Hezbollah towards an area where an Israeli gas platform had recently been installed in the Mediterranean Sea. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has warned that Israel will not be allowed to tap into its gas fields in the disputed maritime border area until a deal is reached with Lebanon.

Major General Ori Gordin, the new head of Israel’s Northern Command, described Hezbollah as a “serious threat” because of both its proximity to Israel and its arsenal.

“It’s a very powerful terrorist army,” he told The Associated Press in Jerusalem. “Not as strong as the Israeli army, not as strong as the Israeli air force. We are in a completely different position with regard to our military capabilities. But it can do significant damage. I have to say it.

Afif, the Hezbollah spokesman, said that “as long as there is aggression, there will be resistance”.

In 2008, the government of Western-backed Prime Minister Fouad Saniora decided to dismantle Hezbollah’s telecommunications network. Hezbollah responded by forcibly capturing Sunni neighborhoods in Beirut. It was the worst internal fighting since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war and marked a violation of Hezbollah’s pledge never to use its weapons at home.

Perhaps Hezbollah’s most controversial move has been to send thousands of fighters to Syria since 2013 to support Assad against opposition fighters, as well as fighters linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group.

The intervention “meant getting entangled in the internal conflict of a neighboring Arab country rather than fulfilling Hezbollah’s claimed mandate of resistance against Israel”, Macaron said.

In the Arab world, it cemented an image of Hezbollah as a sectarian Shiite force primarily fighting Sunni insurgents and extending Iran’s power.

Hezbollah has also been accused of aiding Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, leading at least six Arab countries to list the group as a terrorist organization.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah has used its strong support within the Shia community and hardline tactics to gain political dominance.

In 2016, he won the election of his Christian ally Michel Aoun as president, then he and his allies won a parliamentary majority in the following elections.

But it also sealed his role as part of a system of government whose decades of corruption and mismanagement have been blamed for Lebanon’s economic collapse, beginning in late 2019. With the collapse of the currency and a large part of the population plunged into poverty, the political elite, which has ruled Lebanon since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war, has resisted the reforms.

Massive protests demanding the removal of these politicians began in late 2019, and days later hundreds of Hezbollah supporters attacked protesters in downtown Beirut, forcing them to flee. In October, Hezbollah supporters and a rival militia had a gunfight in Beirut over investigations into the devastating 2020 explosion at Beirut’s port.

Voters punished Hezbollah and its allies in this year’s elections, causing them to lose their parliamentary majority.

A former senior Hezbollah operative, Sobhi Tufaili, highlighted the group’s new image as an integral part of the system in a recent interview with a local TV channel.

“There is a ship full of thieves,” he said, “and Hezbollah is its captain and protector.”

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Associated Press writer Josef Federman contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

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