Hizbullah in Lebanon

Martin Kramer, “Hizbullah in Lebanon,” The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), vol. 2, pp. 130-33.

HIZBULLAH IN LEBANON. A political and social movement that arose among Lebanon’s Shi’is in response to the Islamic revolution in Iran, Hizbullah means ‘the Party of God,’ after the Qur’an (5.56): ‘”Lo! the Party of God, they are the victorious.” During the 1980s, Hizbullah drew on Iranian support to become a major political force in Lebanon and the Middle East. It gained international renown, first for its attacks against the American, French, and Israeli forces deployed in parts of Lebanon, and later for its holding of Western hostages. Hizbullah also emerged as the major rival of the established Amal movement for the loyalty of Lebanon’s Shi’is. Hizbullah’s declared objective has been the transformation of Lebanon (and the region) into an Islamic state, a goal it has pursued by diversified means, ranging from acts of violence to participation in parliamentary elections.


The foundations of Hizbullah were laid years before the Iranian revolution, in the ties that bound the Shi’i ulama (religious scholars) of Iran and Lebanon. Many of these ulama were schooled together in the Shi’i theological academies in Iraq, especially in the shrine city of Najaf. During the late 1950s and 1960s, these academies became active in formulating an Islamic response to nationalism and secularism. Prominent ulama lectured and wrote on Islamic government, Islamic economics, and the ideal Islamic state. In Najaf, the Iraqi ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and the exiled Iranian ayatollah Ruhollah al-Musavi Khomeini both subjected the existing political order to an Islamic critique. Lebanese ulama and theological students overheard and joined in these debates.

Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, the future mentor of Hizbullah, was an exemplary product of Najaf’s mix of scholasticism and radicalism. Fadlallah was born and schooled in Najaf, where his father, a scholar from south Lebanon, had come to study. Fadlallah imbibed the ideas then current in Najaf and went to Lebanon in 1966, where he made his Beirut husayniyah (a Shi’i congregation house) into a center of Islamic activism. Sayyid Musa al-Sadr dominated the Shi’i scene at the time, and Fadlallah had a modest following. But in the 1970s, Fadlallah received an important reinforcement: Iraqi authorities expelled about a hundred Lebanese theology students as part of a crackdown on Shi’i activism in the shrine cities. The expelled students became disciples of Fadlallah on their return to Lebanon, and later formed the core of Hizbullah.

In Iran the early foundations of Hizbullah were laid by members of Iran’s Islamic opposition who found refuge in war-torn Lebanon during the 1970s. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) took this opposition under its wing and provided the Iranian dissidents with training and forged documents. Graduates of the Palestinian camps included Muhammad Montazeri, the son of a leading opposition cleric and future founder of the Liberation Movements Department of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards; and Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, future Iranian ambassador to Syria, who was to play a critical role in the creation of Hizbullah. Both men arrived in Lebanon from Najaf, where they had studied under Khomeini, and both joined Khomeini in Paris in 1978.

After the Iranian revolution of 1979, the Shi’i traffic between Lebanon and Iran intensified. Fadlallah and his disciples became frequent visitors to Iran, while former Iranian dissidents who had spent time in Lebanon returned as emissaries of the Islamic revolution. Muhammad Montazeri made the first attempt, in 1979, to send six hundred Iranian volunteers to Lebanon, where they proposed to launch a jihad against Israel. However, the Lebanese government successfully appealed to Syria to block the entry of the volunteers, and most got no further than Damascus. Muhammad Montazeri, who accused ‘liberals’ in Iran’s government of failing to support his mission, died in a Teheran bombing in 1981.

The obstacles to an effective partnership between Lebanon’s Shi’is and Iran lifted only in 1982, following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the deployment of American and French peacekeeping forces in Beirut. Syria, although defeated in battle, was determined to drive all other foreign forces out of Lebanon by encouraging popular resistance, especially among the Shi’is. Many Shi’is were receptive, believing that Israel and the West planned to restore Maronite privilege by force. When Iran offered to assist in mobilizing the Shi’is, Syria approved, permitting Iran to send about a thousand Revolutionary Guards to the Bekaa (Biqa) Valley in eastern Lebanon. There they seized a Lebanese army barracks and turned it into their operational base.

Emboldened by the arrival of the Iranians, Fadlallah and a number of young ulama declared jihad against the Western and Israeli presence in Lebanon while pledging their allegiance to Khomeini. Similarly, a faction of the Amal militia led by a former schoolteacher, Husayn al-Musawi, went over to the Revolutionary Guards, accusing the Amal movement of failing to resist Israel’s invasion. Iran’s ambassador to Damascus, Ali Akbar Mohtashemi (appointed in 1981), established a council to govern the new movement. The council included the Iranian ambassador, Lebanese ulama, and security strongmen respnsible for secret operations and the movement’s militia. Later, the council created the post of secretary-general, held successively by Shaykh Subhi al-Tufayli, Sayyid Abbas al-Musawi, and Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah. Fadlallah declined all formal office, but his rhetorical genius and seniority assured his moral prestige in the movement.

The movement drew its support from two components of Shi’i society. It especially appealed to some of the larger Shi’i clans of the Bekaa Valley, for whom the war in Lebanon had brought prosperity fueled by the expansion of smuggling and hashish and opium cultivation. The leadership of the Amal movement, based upon the Shi’i professional and commercial classes, made insufficient room for this emerging counter-elite of the Bekaa Valley. With the encouragement of the Iranian emissaries based in the valley, the clans flocked to Hizbullah. Ba’labakk, capital of the Bekaa Province, practically became an autonomous zone for Hizbullah. Its buildings were plastered with posters of Khomeini, and draped with Iranian flags.

The message of Hizbullah also appealed to the Shi’i refugees who had been forced by war into the dismal slums of southern Beirut. They included the Shi’is driven from their homes in the Phalangist assault on Palestinians in eastern Beirut (Nab’a and Burj Hammud) in 1976 and many more who fled the south following the two Israeli invasions of 1978 and 1982. Fadlallah personified their grievance. His ancestral villages in the south (Bint Jubayl and Aynata) had come under Israeli assault, then occupation; he lost his first pulpit in Nab’a during the Phalangist siege of 1976. These Shi’i refugees felt a strong sense of identification with the Palestinians and a deep resentment against Israel, the Phalangists, and the West. Many young Shi’i refugees even joined Palestinian organizations during the 1970s, from which they acquired fighting experience. When Israel forced these organizations from Beirut in 1982, Shi’i fighters who were left behind joined Hizbullah, which promised to continue their struggle.

Jihad Against the West and Israel

Hizbullah systematically formulated its doctrine in its ‘open letter’ of 1985. “We are proceeding toward a battle with vice at its very roots,” declared the letter, ‘and the first root of vice is America.’ The letter set four objectives for the movement: the termination of all American and French influence in Lebanon; Israel’s complete departure from Lebanon “as a prelude to its final obliteration”; submission of the Lebanese Phalangists to ‘just rule’ and trial for their ‘crimes’; and granting the people the right to choose their own system of government, “keeping in mind that we do not hide our commitment to the rule of Islam.”

From the outset, Hizbullah conducted its struggle on three discreet levels–open, semiclandestine, and clandestine. Fadlallah and the ulama openly preached the message of resistance to Islam’s enemies and fealty to Khomeini in mosques and husayniyah, which became the focal points for public rallies. The Revolutionary Guards trained the semiclandestine Islamic Resistance, a militia-like formation which attacked Israeli forces in south Lebanon. The Organization of the Islamic Jihad, the clandestine branch of the movement, operated against Western targets. It was reputedly led by Imad Mughniyya, a shadowy Shi’i figure from south Lebanon and a veteran of Palestinian service, who became the subject of much lore during the 1980s.

The violence of Islamic Jihad catapulted Hizbullah to prominence. Assassinations of individual foreigners escalated into massive bombings, some of them done by ‘self-martyrs,’ which destroyed the U.S. embassy and its annex in two separate attacks in 1983 and 1984; the Beirut barracks of American and French peacekeeping troops in two attacks on the same morning in 1983; and command facilities of Israeli forces in the south in 1982 and 1983. Hundreds of foreigners died in these bombings, the most successful of which killed 241 U.S. marines in their barracks. As a result, the United States and France withdrew their forces from Lebanon; Israel, whose forces also came under attack by the Islamic Resistance, retreated to a narrow ‘security zone’ in the south. In solidarity with Iran, Islamic Jihad also bombed the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait in 1983, in an effort to compel Kuwait to abandon its support of Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War. Hizbullah activists were also responsible for a spate of fatal bombings in Paris in 1986, meant to force France to abandon its policy of supplying Iraq with arms.

Hizbullah also conducted operations to free members who had been imprisoned by governments in the Middle East and Europe. These included the hijacking of an American airliner in 1985, to secure the freedom of Lebanese Shi’is held by Israel, and two hijackings of Kuwaiti airliners in 1984 and 1988, to win freedom for Lebanese Shi’is held by Kuwait for the bombings there. The hijackers killed passengers in each instance to demonstrate their resolve. In addition, Islamic Jihad and other groups affiliated with Hizbullah abducted dozens of foreigners in Lebanon, mostly American, French, British, and German citizens, for the same purpose. Some of these foreigners were traded for American arms needed by Iran in the Iran-Iraq War, but the motive for the wave of abductions remained the release of Hizbullah’s imprisoned fighters elsewhere. Only when the hostage holding became a political burden for Iran did it prevail upon Hizbullah to free the hostages. The last French hostages were freed in 1988; the last American and British hostages in 1991; and the last Germans in 1992.

Although the movement’s ulama disavowed all direct knowledge of operations, and occasionally expressed reservations, they harvested the credit (and blame) for Hizbullah’s jihad. Their mosques filled to overflowing, and their statements and interviews resonated in the media. However, they themselves became the targets of assassination and abduction. Fadlallah narrowly missed death in a massive car bombing in 1985, which killed eighty persons; Israel abducted a local Hizbullah cleric, Shaykh Abd al-Karim Ubayd, in 1989; and Israeli helicopter gunships killed Hizbullah’s secretary-general, Sayyid Abbas al-Musawi, and his family, in an attack on his motorcade in 1992.

Hizbullah also found that its growing appeal among Lebanon’s Shi’is made enemies within the existing Amal movement. As Hizbullah gained momentum, it sought unimpeded access to the south, so it could promote the struggle against Israel. Amal regarded this as an encroachment on its last strongholds. Beginning in 1988, occasional skirmishes with Amal escalated into civil war. More than one thousand Shi’i combatants and civilians died in this fighting, which was characterized by atrocities and assassinations. Hizbullah usually enjoyed the upper hand in fighting, but Syrian intervention denied it the fruits of victory. The strife ended in late 1990 in an accord mediated by Syria and Iran.

Although Hizbullah battled its adversaries, it also cooperated with Iranian aid agencies to fund a wide range of social and economic projects. These included a hospital and pharmacies in Beirut; small textile factories and sheltered workshops to employ families of members and ‘martyrs’; book allowances and scholarships for students; and street paving in Beirut and the digging of wells and reservoirs in rural areas. Hizbullah sponsored a scout movement, summer camps and a soccer league. The movement published a weekly newspaper and operated an independent radio station. These activities broadened the base of the movement, and enhanced its ability to field fighters.

Resistance and Democracy

By the end of its first decade, Hizbullah had fought and bought its way into the hearts of perhaps as many as half of Lebanon’s Shi’is, but the objective of an Islamic Lebanon remained remote. On the basis of the 1989 Ta’if Accord, Syria enforced an end to the civil war, based on a fairer confessional balance. Syria also disarmed the militias, and launched a determined drive to build up the authority of a Syrian-backed government in Beirut. And in 1991, the governments of Syria and Lebanon sat down with Israel in direct talks to discuss territory, security and a possible peace.

Hizbullah’s place in the new Syrian order remained uncertain. In Beirut and parts of the south, Hizbullah surrendered its weapons and turned over positions to the reconstituted Lebanese army. In 1992, Hizbullah and the Revolutionary Guards evacuated the Lebanese army barracks near Ba’labakk, which had served as operational headquarters for ten years. Nevertheless, Hizbullah’s Islamic Resistance enjoyed an exemption from the general disarming of militias to permit it to continue a guerilla war of attrition against Israel’s ‘security zone’ in the south. The Islamic Resistance increased its operations, even in the midst of peace talks, and Syria pledged to disarm it only after a complete Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon.

Hizbullah also opposed implementation of the Syrian-guaranteed Ta’if Accord, which it denounced as an American plan. Hizbullah denouced the first stage of implementation, establishing Muslim-Christian parity in government, for perpetuating confessionalism. Hizbullah advocated a straightforward referendum on an Islamic state; in such a state, the Christians would be entitled to protection, not parity. However, Iran prevailed upon Hizbullah to participate in the 1992 parliamentary elections, the first held in twenty years, despite the fact that the elections still apportioned seats by confession. In the Bekaa Valley, Hizbullah swept the Shi’i vote, and the movement made a credible showing in the south, collecting a total of eight parliamentary seats–the largest single block in the fragmented parliament.

In parliament, Hizbullah organized as an opposition to the Syrian-backed government. It denounced the government’s negotiations with Israel and denied all interest in cabinet positions. In most respects, Hizbullah still remained an extraparliamentary movement–a point emphasized by the deliberate obscurity of the movement’s parliamentary candidates. Hizbullah signalled that its actual leaders would remain in the mosques and in the fighting ranks of the Islamic Resistance. But the ‘Party of God’ had moved one reluctant step toward becoming a true hizb (political party) of its followers. It remained to be seen whether Hizbullah’s votes would succeed where its violence had failed, in creating an Islamic Lebanon.


Carre, Olivier. L’utopie islamique dans l’Orient arabe. Paris, 1991. Chapters 9 and 10 deal with the thought of Fadlallah.

Delafon, Gilles. Beyrouth: Les soldats de l’Islam. Paris, 1989. The best journalistic account to date, based in part upon Hizbullah’s own publications.

Kramer, Martin. Hezbollah’s Vision of the West. Washington, D.C., 1989. Analysis of Hizbullah’s discourse on its adversaries, relying on the movement’s own texts.

Kramer, Martin. “The Moral Logic of Hizballah.” In Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind, edited by Walter Reich, pp. 131-57. Cambridge, 1990. Considers the debate that occurred in Hizbullah over ‘self-martyrdom’ operations and the abduction of foreigners.

Kramer, Martin. “Redeeming Jerusalem: The Pan-Islamic Premise of Hizballah.” In The Iranian Revolution and the Muslim World, edited by David Menashri, pp. 105-30. Boulder, 1990. Attitudes in Hizbullah toward Iran and other Islamic movements.

Kramer, Martin. “Hizbullah: The Calculus of Jihad.” In Fundamentalisms and the State: Remaking Polities, Militance, and Economies, edited by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, pp. 539-56. Chicago, 1992. General overview of the movement, with extensive bibliographical notes.

Kramer, Martin. “Sacrifice and Fratricide in Shiite Lebanon.” In Violence and the Sacred in the Modern World, edited by Mark Juergensmeyer, pp. 30-47. London, 1992. On the rivalry between Hizbullah and Amal.

Mallat, Chibli. Shi’i Thought from the South of Lebanon. Oxford, 1988. The early debate among Shi’i ulama (including Fadlallah) which informed Hizbullah’s doctrine.

Piscatori, J. P. “The Shia of Lebanon and Hizbullah: The Party of God.” In Politics of the Future: The Role of Social Movements, edited by Christie Jennett and Randal G. Stewart, pp. 292-317. Melbourne, 1989. An introduction to the movement with an emphasis on its social base.

Rieck, Andreas. Die Schiiten und der Kampf um den Libanon: Politische Chronik, 1958-1988. Hamburg, 1989. Exhaustive chronicle of Shi’i politics in Lebanon, including the emergence and development of Hizbullah.

Shapira, Shimon. “The Origins of Hizballah.” Jerusalem Quarterly 46 (Spring 1988): 115-30. Traces the origins of the movement through early initiatives and organizations.

U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran, and U.S. Senate, Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition. Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran-Contra Affair, With Supplemental, Minority, and Additional Views. Washington, D.C., November 1987. Includes many American intelligence reports and assessments of Hizbullah and Islamic Jihad.