By Clive Bradley
The Lebanese political system, from 1943 until its collapse in the 1970s, enshrined the religious divisions in the population. There was a Christian president, a Sunni Muslim prime minister (and a much weaker Shi’a Speaker of the House); parliamentary seats were allocated with six Christians to every five Muslims. The Shi’a Muslims were often poor, and this “confessional” system discriminated against them.
In the 1970s, this system broke down under the impact of a huge presence of the Palestinian guerrilla movement, and consequent Israeli anxiety. An Israeli invasion in 1978 was followed by a full-scale assault in 1982, which aimed to drive out the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). 30,000 people lost their lives. The Israeli army stood by as hundreds were massacred in Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, where many Lebanese Shi’a had sought refuge.
It was out of this terrible situation that Hizbollah (the Party of God) emerged and grew.
A Shi’a militia, Amal, has been formed in 1975, but after the Israeli invasion, it was outflanked by a new and more militant movement, which announced itself officially as Hizbollah in 1985. Amal still exists, with close links, now, to Hizbollah: in fact it gets more electoral support. (Its leader is Speaker of Parliament.)
Hizbollah is ideologically Khomeini-ist; that is, it advocates direct political control by clerics and looks to Iran for leadership. Its “spiritual leader” is widely regarded as Muhammed Hussayn Fadlallah, but officially Ayatalloh Khamanei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, is its “object of emulation”.
Its links to Iran are close. In 2002, when Hizbollah decided to take part in Lebanese elections, the party “set up a commission, which prepared a report [which] was sent to Iran; it was Ayatollah Khamanei himself who took the final decision...” (Fred Halliday,
It is also very close to Syria, and was the chief force supporting the continued Syrian military presence, which ended last year after the assassination of prime minister Hariri.
Hizbollah grew into a mass force partly because of its opposition to Israel, which forced Israel to withdraw in 2000. Also, however, Hizbollah has established schools and welfare systems in poor areas (not only serving Shi’a Muslims, although they are in areas with Shi’a majorities). Its participation in Lebanese politics reflects a wider acceptance that Lebanon has a number of ‘communities’ and the Shi’a are in a minority (although the largest single group). Also it is seen as a ‘clean’ party in a notoriously corrupt political culture. As a result its base of “passive” support is not exclusively Shi’a.
There is an Arab nationalist — as opposed to Islamist — strain to Hizbollah’s thinking (which probably explains the relationship with Syria). Certainly its provocation of Israel in July seems to have been a nationalist gesture — ostensibly in support of the Palestinians in Gaza. Hizbollah’s rhetoric is fiercely anti-Israel, indeed bluntly anti-semitic. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has said “if they [Jews] all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.” In practice, it has been prepared to negotiate with Israel — exchanges of prisoners, such as Hizbollah demands now, have occurred before. Like many such movements it is more pragmatic in practice.
Nevertheless, it is committed to the destruction of Israel, and backed by a regime — Iran — whose president openly calls for the destruction of Israel and denies the reality of the Holocaust.
It is a reactionary movement, which cannot be given any support by socialists.
It seems beyond doubt, however, that its already considerable support has been augmented by the current Israeli assault, including in the non-Shi’a population. A secular, socialist movement in Lebanon would have to take seriously Hizbollah’s base and find ways to undermine it.