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Hezbollah: Terrorist organisation or liberation movement?

By Owen Bennett-Jones
BBC News, Beirut

image copyrightAFP
image captionIsrael and Hezbollah appear sure they can deliver a crushing blow to the other

Five years after the 34-day war of 2006 between Israel and Hezbollah, many Lebanese fear that there could be another, bigger conflict to come.

Created in the early 1980s Hezbollah - the party of God - has become Israel's most powerful enemy. It forced the Israeli army out of Lebanon in 2000 ending decades of occupation.

And in 2006 it withstood over a month of Israeli attacks - which was all its leader Hasan Nasrallah needed to declare victory.

Hezbollah has more weapons than many European armies.

The US designates it as a terrorist organisation.

"When you behave like a terrorist organisation, you murder civilians and you defy UN resolutions which were on several occasions to disarm, I think it's just pretty clear what you are," says Richard Baehr, the political director of the conservative online magazine American Thinker.

Others, such as Alistair Crooke, disagree. A former British intelligence agent, he now runs a think tank in Beirut through which he has frequent contact with Hezbollah. "They are a resistance movement," he says. "They are a liberation movement."

But can Hezbollah argue it is resisting Israeli occupation when the Israelis have withdrawn from Lebanese land? One answer is that they have not withdrawn - at least not entirely.

Some of the land occupied by Israel is in fact disputed. Some, including the United Nations, believe the Shebaa Farms area is Syrian and not Lebanese territory.

But there is another area, the northern half of Ghajar village. "This is Lebanese territory which is under Israeli occupation," says Randa Slim from the centre-left New America Foundation.

Supporters of Israel, such as Richard Baehr, counter that the occupation of half a village hardly justifies Hezbollah having such a large military force: "Is that the basis for having 40,000 rockets and missiles, for murdering Israeli forces on the border, for firing rockets into Israel?"

Localised support

Hezbollah, however, argues there is another reason it needs to maintain its force: to deter future Israeli attack.

In the Hezbollah-controlled areas of Southern Beirut, there is overwhelming support for the organisation.

image copyrightGetty Images

The area, where even the traffic police are Hezbollah officials, was rapidly reconstructed with Iranian funding after the war of 2006.

One man taking a break from his shopping to speak the BBC said: "When we were young we used to see how Israel used to enter our lands, our homes, how our families were always terrified - since 1982.

"But now you have someone who defends you, you have someone who makes you feel safe."

A fellow shopper agreed: "They were the ones who lifted our heads up in the sky, they were the ones who protected us and made us proud."

Because of Lebanon's fiendishly complicated electoral system and intra-party deals, it is difficult to work out how much support Hezbollah has.

But it is pretty safe to say that the core Hezbollah vote - Shia Muslims who would always vote Hezbollah - probably comes to something like 15 to 20% of the electorate.

Hezbollah is committed to the destruction of Israel but it has also made statements indicating it would accept a two-state solution if the Palestinians agreed to it.

The apparent contradiction may never be tested for two reasons.

'Delusional rhetoric'

The apparent contradiction may never be tested for two reasons. First, there seems very little prospect of a two-state solution being agreed at least in the foreseeable future. Secondly, even if there was a peace deal it is likely that some Palestinians would reject it and Hezbollah could simply align themselves with that strand of Palestinian thinking.

Hezbollah admits that it was responsible for starting the 2006 war. It captured two Israeli soldiers hoping to swap them for some Lebanese prisoners held in Israel.

Hasan Nasrallah has said that he was surprised when Israel responded to the provocation by launching a major offensive.

It is an illustration of how a war on Southern Lebanon can flare up without warning. And many believe it could happen again in the coming years.

"Predicting this next war is a difficult business," says Nicolas Noe who has compiled the collected speeches and interviews of the Hezbollah leader.

"Nasrallah actually promised a few years ago that we will 'see the end of Israel within the next few years'. With those promises, it makes it even more dangerous."

Many believe that Hezbollah's victories in 2000 and 2006 have given it an exaggerated sense of its own power. But others argue Israel too is over-confident.

"Israel has been swearing every time it fought with Lebanon that it was going to destroy Hezbollah and wipe it out," says Thanassis Cambanis, the author of a book on Hezbollah's attitude to Israel.

"No matter what happens on the battlefield and what happens in the next war, Hezbollah is still going to be the leading force representing Lebanese Shia Muslims.

"So there is a mirroring of this kind of escalating delusional rhetoric where each side claims that it can completely wipe out the other. And of course that's not possible."

With both sides so sure they deliver a crushing blow to their opponent, the conditions seem to be in place for a prolonged, brutal and very probably, futile conflict.

Analysis is on BBC Radio 4 on Monday 10 October at 20:30 BST and Sunday 16 October at 21:30 BST. Listen via the Radio 4 website or download the programme podcast.

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