Appendix: Who are Hizballah?

Aufheben give an overview of Lebanese organisation Hezbollah, or Hizballah.

Submitted by Joseph Kay on February 5, 2007

The recent Israeli assault on Lebanon has thrust the Lebanese group Hizballah back into the spotlight - denounced by the right as a 'terrorist organisation' and defended by many on the left as a 'legitimate national liberation group'1 . While both of these definitions contain partial truths, both eschew the complex nature of Hizballah in favour of arguing a 'good guys or bad guys' dichotomy. In order to try and understand the situation in Lebanon today, a more complete picture is required.

Hizb Allah, or 'the party of God', announced its existence in 1985 with "An Open Letter to the Downtrodden in Lebanon and the World"2 , although the militia groups which comprised it had been active against the Israeli occupation since it began in 1982. The vaguely leftist/internationalist sentiment of the Open Letter is not incidental, as a brief look at the context of their origins shows. The Lebanese state is 'multi-confessional', which means that political power is distributed among religious groups on a quota basis, the quota being worked out according to the religious composition at the time of the 1932 census (the only one available). From the end of the French mandate in 1943, an informal pact divided power roughly equally between Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslims. Shia Muslims were a minority, and so had little share of political power. This became a more pressing issue as the Shia population grew relative to the other sects, and politicians tended to divert resources to 'their own', the result was disproportionate poverty amongst Lebanese Shia by the 1960s3 , which was also the beginning of mass urbanisation/proletarianisation of the mostly Shia rural poor. However, the initial reaction to this rising poverty was, if not really on class lines, not on sectarian ones either4 . For example, the (pro-USSR) Lebanese Communist Party (LCP) was legalised in 1970 and enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, and although it failed to win any parliamentary seats and never became a mass organisation, its rank-and-file were mostly drawn from the various sects of the urban poor. Although the LCP's membership was mostly Christian, it also attracted many impoverished Shia. The LCP organised a cross-sect militia - the 'Popular Guard' - which nonetheless participated in the Lebanese civil war on the side of the Lebanese Nationalist/Palestinian/Muslim factions against the Israeli-backed Christian sects. But by the early 80s the organisation - and the broadly non-sectarian grassroots sentiment it represented - was in decline. As the Communist star waned, the star of militant political Islam was rising.

Militant Islam's appeal amongst poor Lebanese grew for several reasons, which can all be traced to the period between 1978 and 1982. Firstly, the Israeli invasion of 1978 reinvigorated the Shia 'movement of the deprived', Amal, which had been founded in 1975 by the respected cleric Sayyid Musa al-Sadr (distantly related to the al-Sadr of Iraqi insurgency fame). Al-Sadr’s unexplained disappearance earlier that year in Libya had already returned him to the spotlight and boosted his popularity (he was never found). When the Israelis invaded in pursuit of PLO fighters, Amal fought the PLO, and was thereby seen to be defending the southern Shia population from the conflict by attacking its immediate cause, namely the PLO's use of Lebanese territory to launch attacks on Israel. Amal's (moderate) Islamic ideology also offered an ideological basis for resistance that was independent of both the reigning superpowers, which tessellated well with the nationalist sentiments inspired by the invasion. The 1979 'Islamic Revolution' in Iran also had a catalysing effect on the ascent of militant Islam, as was made explicit in the founding statement of Hizballah six years later5 - the impact is perhaps somewhat analogous to that of the 'success' of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution on the wider workers' movement, which boosted the statist parties at the expense of the libertarians, arguably right up to the collapse of the USSR and certainly until Stalin took power. Then came the second Israeli invasion of 1982, a watershed event which cemented the dual perceptions that the left had failed to protect the Shia poor from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that the moderate Amal group was no longer representative of the Shia poor after its drift into patronage politics. A loose network of former Amal militants and others formed to resist the occupation under an Islamic banner, a network that was to coalesce and announce itself in 1985 as 'the Party of God', Hizb Allah.

Right from the time of its origins in these Shia resistance groups, Hizballah was keen to stress its desire to "satisfy the interests of the oppressed masses", stating "we reject both the USSR and the US, both Capitalism and Communism", and that "we don't want Islam to reign in Lebanon by force" - as well as significant quantities of anti-imperialist/national liberationist language6 . These sentiments have by-and-large been borne out by Hizballah’s subsequent development into an umbrella organisation which incorporates an armed wing ('the Islamic Resistance'), a legal political party which forms part of the largest voting bloc in the Lebanese parliament today (i.e. September 2006), and an extensive network of social services including hospitals, schools and a civil reconstruction program. Although we obviously reject the idea that Hizballah is anticapitalist - it is quite clearly a faction of Lebanese national capital7 - its opposition to the both US and domestic neoliberal policies alongside its social programmes have nonetheless won it some anticapitalist kudos with the Lebanese working class. During the most recent explosion of class struggle in Lebanon - the 2004 general strike against the neoliberal regime of Rafik Hariri8 (whose 2005 assassination lead to the 'Cedar Revolution') - Hizballah played a mediating role, maintaining their credibility as representatives of the mostly Shia urban poor while diffusing the raw class anger on the streets which threatened to escalate as the Lebanese army fired live rounds at demonstrating workers, killing five and injuring many more. The fact Hizballah has largely maintained its support amongst the poor on account of its seeming commitment to its founding values was manifested by the huge counter-demonstrations they organised in opposition to the 'Cedar Revolution', which were at least as big as those of the middle/upper class 'revolutionaries' and drew on the working class in general and poor Shias in particular - which is even more impressive given the fact the assassinated Hariri was a hated figure amongst the working class for his neoliberal policies (even though he protected wanted Hizballah figures). In addition, Hizballah's nationalism, and its recent practical expressions as the armed defence of Lebanese territorial sovereignty has been attracting increasing numbers of middle class and upwardly mobile Lebanese too9 . Hizballah has always received military backing from Iran as well as financial backing from Iran and Syria, which together with donations from wealthy Lebanese and the proceeds of the annual khum (a rudimentary taxation system of 20% of surplus income paid by all Shia) finances their operations. Despite this, their policy has always been distinctly nationalist and fairly independent of their state sponsors. Thus, Hizballah today is much more than a simple armed group or an Iranian/Syrian proxy force. It is perhaps possible to think of it as a sort of state-within-a-state, complete with military and welfare wings, a tax system, the task of maintaining law and order (in the south at least), and the role of mediating between the requirements of capital and the demands of the working class, a role which requires it maintains a certain working class base.

  • 1For example the slogan 'we are all Hizballah' featured prominently and fairly uncontroversially at the national Stop the War Lebanon demo, while George Galloway celebrated Hizballah giving Israel "a bloody good hiding" in an interview on Sky News. Evidently terms like 'the right' and 'the left' are problematic, but adequate approximations in this context.
  • 2The Open Letter: see
  • 3Of course Shia politicians, like the others, were generally of ruling class background (mostly feudal landowners), and so tended to represent their sectarian class interest over that of their serfs. It obviously it goes without saying that politicians are ruling class once they become politicians, by definition!
  • 4See Lara Deeb;
  • 5 "We are the sons of the umma (Muslim community) - the party of God (Hizb Allah) the vanguard of which was made victorious by God in Iran. There the vanguard succeeded 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. God save him!"; the Open Letter.
  • 6Open Letter.
  • 7By which we mean as a political party, a part of the government and a pseudo-state in its own right, Hizballah is a part of the Lebanese ruling class apparatus, albeit an apparatus that requires a significant working class base to function.
  • 8See the Beirut Indymedia film 'Leaded/Unleaded' available for free download here:
  • 9The middle classes have always been a part of Hizballah's cross-class nationalist project, but their size has grown of late.