In the wake of the March 8 demonstrations in which Hezbollah brought as many as half-a-million people into the streets of Beirut to support Syria, Americans have been inundated with news stories and analyses emphasizing Hezbollah's role as an indigenous political movement and its popularity with Lebanon's Shi'ites.
Under pressure from France and the United Nations, the New York Times reported in a front-page story on Thursday, the Bush administration appears to be on the verge of acquiescing to a role for Hezbollah -- one of the world's most deadly terrorist organizations, responsible for torturing and killing hundreds of Americans over the past 22 years -- in Lebanon's future. How can this be, given that President Bush has made the fight against Islamofascist terrorism the defining issue of his presidency? Given the fact that more than 800,000 anti-Syrian and anti-Hezbollah demonstraters mobilized in Beirut yesterday, and given Hezbollah's open contempt for democracy, why is Washington doing this?
In part, this move is an outgrowth of the administration's decision to accommodate the concerns of its European allies by taking a more conciliatory posture toward Iran's nuclear program. The accommodations would include the use of financial incentives such as permiting Iran to join the World Trade Organization in an effort to persuade Iran to change its ways.
Regarding Hezbollah specifically, Washington is responding to a number of domestic Lebanese political realities: Hezbollah holds 13 seats in Lebanon's 128-member parliament, a total it hopes to increase in the May elections. It operates a well-run network of social services in a country where the central government is corrupt and incompetent. Western diplomats, particularly European ones, are hoping that Iran will be persuaded to restrain Hezbollah, and that Hezbollah will become so enmeshed in domestic Lebanese politics that it will lose interest in terrorism.
But throughout its history, no aspect of Hezbollah's work is nearly as important as its terrorist role. Outside of Lebanon, Hezbollah's priority in recent years has been its work in collaboration with Iran and Syria to destroy any possibility of Israeli-Palestinian peace. And Hezbollah's history of killing Americans, collaborating with al Qaeda and setting up terrorist cells in the United States makes it one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations in the world today.
Hezbollah, which receives between $100 million and $200 million a year in assistance from Iran, for the most part does not carry out its own attacks against Israel. Instead, it provides logistical help, such as instruction in bomb making, to Palestinian terrorist organizations. It has actively sought to recruit Israeli Arabs into participating in terrorism, and it helps Iran funnel assistance to Palestinian terrorist groups.
Hezbollah had played a minimal role in these terrorist activities until May 2000, when then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak fulfilled his campaign pledge to withdraw the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) from its security zone in southern Lebanon. On the evening of May 23, 2000, the New York Times reported: "Israeli television showed Hezbollah followers triumphantly raising their yellow flags atop heavily fortified command posts, some located barely a mile from Israeli settlements, which Israel turned over to its [Lebanese] militia allies only days earlier."
Mr. Barak's hope that U.N. peacekeepers would replace Israeli troops in protecting northern Israel from Hezbollah was quickly dashed. Instead of an orderly IDF withdrawal, the pullout from Lebanon descended into chaos, as Israeli troops staggered back across the border, telling reporters that their military equipment and training had proven useless against Hezbollah, and its Lebanese allies overran U.N. checkpoints military posts abandoned by Israel's Lebanese allies. As the Lebanese fled south, some abandoned heavy military equipment from Israel to the advancing Hezbollah forces.
The spring and summer of 2000 were a time of triumph for Hezbollah. The group -- which perfected the art of suicide bombings during the early 1980s, in a campaign that succeeded in driving American and French peacekeepers from Lebanon -- had driven Israel, its mortal enemy, out of Lebanon. But this created a problem for Hezbollah, which had depicted itself as a Lebanese nationalist organization focused on driving a foreign occupation force, Israel, from its country. Since Israel had now withdrawn from every square inch of Lebanese territory it had controlled, Hezbollah needed to find a pretext for continuing the war against Israel. It hit paydirt when the Syrian-dominated Beirut government claimed that an area called Shebaa Farms, part of the Golan Heights that Israel captured from Syria during the 1967 war, actually belonged to Lebanon. And Hezbollah instituted some major changes in tactics: No longer would it confine itself largely to firing Katyusha rockets at small border towns in northern Israel; Hezbollah acquired rockets that can reach Haifa, the industrial center of northern Israel.
Most importantly of all, Hezbollah has taken a leadership role in directing Palestinian terrorism against Israel. U.S. officials have said that, shortly after Palestinian rioting began in September 2000, Iran assigned Imad Mugniyeh, Hezbollah's commander of international operations, to help Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad stage attacks against Israel.
Prior to September 11, Mugniyeh had killed more Americans than any living person. In April 1983, his Hezbollah operatives bombed the American embassy in Beirut, killing 63 persons. Six months later, he ordered the suicide bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 Americans. In 1984, Mugniyeh bombed the annex to the U.S. embassy in Lebanon, killing another 14 Americans. Mugniyeh is also responsible for the 1985 torture-murder of William Buckley, the CIA station chief in Beirut, and the death of Robert Stethem, tortured and killed during a June 1985 hijacking. Mugniyeh and Hezbollah are also believed to have been responsible for the March 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, and the July 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. The U.S. government has posted a $5 million reward for Mugniyeh's capture.
American officials from the Clinton administration have said that shortly after the Palestinians began the second intifada on Sept. 29, 2000, Mugniyeh was ordered by Tehran to work with the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas. Iran arranged for Mugniyeh to purchase a weapons-smuggling ship called the Karine-A, a vessel captured by the Israeli Navy in the Red Sea in January 2002 as it headed for Gaza. Hezbollah operatives working in Gaza with Force-17, which served as Yasser Arafat's personal bodyguard, directed mortar attacks against Israeli civilians. A Hezbollah bombmaker built the device detonated by a Hamas suicide bomber who blew himself up at a Passover seder in a hotel three years ago, killing 29 Israelis.
In testimony delivered Feb. 16 before two House International Relations subcommittees, Matthew Levitt, director of terrorism studies at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told lawmakers about Hezbollah's burgeoning role in encouraging violence against Israel since 2000:
"Iran continued to play on the frustration and anger of Israeli Arabs via its Hezbollah and Palestinian proxies to collect intelligence on Israel and courier weapons and funds to terrorist cells. Hezbollah has also engaged in a proactive effort to recruit Israeli Arabs to provide intelligence on Israel and logistical support for terrorist operations. Israeli authorities have broken several cells of Israeli Arabs associated with Hezbollah and other 'Lebanese groups,' including a four-person cell suspected of passing 'computer programs, maps, various objects and documents which may constitute intelligence' through the village of Ghajjar (which straddles the Blue Line separating Israel and Lebanon to groups in Lebanon) in exchange for drugs and weapons."
Moreover, Mr. Levitt testified, "a Hezbollah operative recruited a terrorist cell of Israeli Arabs from the Galilee village of Abu Snan, which was uncovered by Israeli authorities as the group was planning kidnapping operations that would have targeted Israeli soldiers. According to statements by captured operatives and other information made public by Israeli intelligence, Hezbollah and Lebanese-based operatives from Iran's [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] have recruited a network of rogue Fatah cells to serve as Hezbollah's West Bank cadres."
These are just some of the many reported examples of Hezbollah's efforts to use Palestinians and Israeli Arabs to target Israel and destroy any possibility of peace -- thereby sabotaging a top American foreign policy priority.
But Hezbollah's efforts to destroy the peace process are just one way in which it works against American interests. It has sent jihadists to attack coalition forces in Iraq, and its television station, al Manar, broadcasts propaganda depicting American soldiers as predators who brutalize the Iraqi people.
To support its terrorist activities, Hezbollah has raised millions of dollars through extorting money from businesses in South America, and from cigarette smuggling, tax evasion and credit-card fraud in the United States. FBI officials told the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2002 that "Hezbollah subjects in the United States have the capability to attempt terrorist attacks here should this be a desired objective of the group." The possibility of such attacks could come into play were the United States to take military action against Iran in the future.
Hezbollah's connections with al Qaeda and Iraqi jihadist Abu Musab Zarqawi also bear watching. In September 2003, the Treasury Department listed Zarqawi and several of his associates as Specially Designated Global Terrorist entities. At the time, Treasury mentioned that plans were in place for meetings between Zarqawi and Hezbollah. Although the September 11 commission found no evidence that Hezbollah had advance knowledge of the attacks on America, it also noted the longstanding contacts between Hezbollah and Iranian security officials and al Qaeda agents, and the ease with which at least eight of the hijackers were able to travel through Iran prior to September 11.
It is of course possible that with the right combination of political and financial inducements, Hezbollah could at some point jettison terrorism and evolve into a purely Lebanese political entity. But it would be dangerous for Western policy-makers to ignore the reality that Hezbollah has been consistent in its hostility toward Western democracies and its support of terrorism and violence to achieve its goals.