Praemon

How the US Should View Hezbollah

How the US Should View Hezbollah

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While the U.S. State Department did not designate the Shi’a Muslim group Hezbollah as a foreign terrorist organization until 1997, the group had been active since the early 1980s. Based in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s first attack came in 1983 in response to the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. Because Iran wanted to start a proxy war with Israel, they provided Hezbollah with ample funding and weapons. With Iran’s help, Hezbollah successfully removed the Israeli Defense Forces from Lebanon. The group published their manifesto in 1985, which stated, among other items, that American hegemony was the “source of all their catastrophes,” and their main priority is the annihilation of Israel and the expulsion of colonists, like the United States, from the Middle East.[1] This group functions in the Middle East and North Africa region and receives extensive support from Iran including missiles, military training, and more than $700 million per year.[2] Hezbollah is also an influential political party in Lebanon; in the 2018 parliamentary elections, the party won the plurality of votes, and in 2008, the party gained veto power in the cabinet.[3] This politically agile group presents many issues for the United States’ War on Terror. While Hezbollah is rightfully on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations, the United States needs to open a dialogue with Hezbollah and recognize their role as a powerful political party in Lebanon. This will help the U.S. protect its foreign policy interests in countering terrorism and maintaining political and economic stability in Lebanon.

Islamist political parties, such as Hezbollah, normalize over time as they begin to sacrifice Islamist policies in order to appeal to the electorate and more successfully function within their political environment.[4] This phenomenon affects Hezbollah vis a vis the terrorist arm of the organization; there has been an overall decline in the number of terrorist attacks perpetrated by Hezbollah since its inception. According to the Global Terrorism Database, there have been a total of 229 successful attacks in the Middle East and North Africa region carried out by Hezbollah. Of these attacks, 46% had at least one fatality per attack and 49% had zero fatalities. While there were 26 total Hezbollah attacks in 1985, this total number decreased to 18 attacks in 1994, after which there was a steep drop in 2001 to only two attacks. There have been several years since 2007 with zero recorded Hezbollah attacks, and the latest data shows there were two attacks recorded in 2017.[5] Additionally, the number of fatalities over time has also decreased.[6] This consistent decrease in terrorist attacks is caused by the group’s increased time in the political sphere. Thus, the U.S. acknowledging Hezbollah’s political standing in Lebanon’s government would encourage this trend in decreased attacks. While their political and jihadi wings are related, by spending more time on its political aspirations, Hezbollah has less time to invest in their organization’s jihadi wing. Hezbollah spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually to provide social service programs that rival those of the Lebanese government.[7] In every parliamentary election since 1992, Hezbollah has published their political platform for each election cycle, and while their first few platforms focus more on Islamist positions, by 2000 they began focusing on economic and environmental issues unrelated to religious policy.[8] This political normalization works in the favor of the U.S. as it allows us to better work towards reducing Hezbollah’s terrorist activity. Recognizing them as a viable political party would help facilitate this.

While recognizing Hezbollah’s political status would help decrease the number of terrorist attacks, this is considered by some to be a form of negotiation with terrorists. Because it has been the United States’ official policy to not negotiate with terrorists, there have been alternative solutions offered to avoid recognizing Hezbollah. Imposing sanctions has been one of the main strategies the U.S. has used in its foreign policy with Lebanon, and the U.S. has recently considered increasing sanctions on certain entities. Because Hezbollah has now gained control of the Ministry of Health, which has the “fourth-largest budget in the government,” the U.S. has considered reducing funding to the Health Ministry and the Lebanese Army in addition to imposing sanctions on Lebanese hospitals and preventing the export of American medications to Lebanon.[9] However, these are not viable solutions to reducing Hezbollah’s terrorist activity or furthering U.S. foreign policy. By reducing funding to the Ministry of Health or the Lebanese Army, the U.S. risks creating a financial vacuum that Russia is eager to fill. U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has revolved around reducing Russian power and influence in the region since the Cold War proxy war in Afghanistan; therefore, reducing funding does not serve the United States’ greater foreign policy in the Middle East. Additionally, Hezbollah’s military wing is as strong, if not stronger, than the Lebanese Army; thus, by reducing funding for the government’s military, the U.S. could provide Hezbollah the opportunity to stage a military coup. Also, imposing U.S. sanctions on Lebanese hospitals and preventing the export of American medications would only hurt the Lebanese citizens, rather than sufficiently damaging Hezbollah’s social welfare system. These programs are targeted towards Hezbollah supporters, and because the group’s stance on the United States is to reject U.S. involvement in Lebanese domestic affairs, these supporters would more strongly hold that anti-American stance as a result of sanctions on social service sectors.[10] These alternatives to recognizing the political nature of Hezbollah would not serve U.S. foreign policy objectives in the Middle East nor reduce Hezbollah’s terrorist activity.

An important factor in Hezbollah’s political and terrorist activity is Lebanon’s political and economic stability, or lack thereof. Unfortunately, Lebanon is “on the verge of an epic economic collapse; it’s very fragile economically and politically.”[11] While the U.S. strives to assist Lebanon in regaining its footing, it has gotten harder for the U.S. to separate Hezbollah from the Lebanese government due to Hezbollah’s ever increasing involvement within it. Hezbollah has successfully forged pacts with Sunni Muslim and Christian politicians, including the President and the Speaker of the Parliament. This, in addition to the fact that Hezbollah won the plurality of votes in the 2018 parliamentary election, has put the West-backed Prime Minister in a precarious position. Due to Hezbollah’s significant influence and political network, the Prime Minister gave cabinet seats to Hezbollah’s Sunni allies, which gave the group veto power in the cabinet. Because Hezbollah is so heavily integrated into the government, the United States is unable to create policy that only affects the terrorist group. Any policy the United States uses in order to stop the terrorist arm of this political party will now inevitably have an influential impact on the average Lebanese citizen. Because of Hezbollah’s powerful influence within the Lebanese government, the United States needs to recognize it in order to further counterterrorism efforts and foreign policy objectives, without alienating Lebanon’s general populace.            

Hezbollah began as an extremely violent terrorist group, and while it is still an Islamist group, they have evolved, through the political normalization process, into a critical political entity within the Lebanese government. This group also commands a powerful military wing which makes it a unique element in the Lebanese political environment. Hezbollah has successfully integrated itself with the established government, which has made it a powerful force that has significant influence on the daily lives of the Lebanese. Hezbollah should remain on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations; their decrease in violent terrorist attacks over the last three decades does not change their ideology of using force to annihilate Israel and expel America from the Middle East. The United States needs to consider recognizing Hezbollah as a legitimate political party, and not simply a terrorist group, rather than imposing sanctions on critical infrastructure such as hospitals and the Ministry of Health. By doing so, the United States could open a dialogue with Hezbollah, which would allow the U.S. to better decrease the party’s terrorist activity and increase the success of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.


[1] Alagha, Joseph. 2011. Hizbullah’s Documents: From the 1985 Open Letter to the 2009 Manifesto.

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/01/world/middleeast/hezbollah-lebanon.html

https://www.thenational.ae/world/the-americas/iran-pays-hezbollah-700-million-a-year-us-official-says-1.737347

[3] http://www.nbcnews.com/id/25637594/ns/world_news-mideast_n_africa/t/lebanon-unity-deal-gives-hezbollah-veto-power/

[4] Mecham, Quinn and Julie Chernov Hwang. 2014. Islamist Parties and Political Normalization in the Muslim World.

[5] https://www.start.umd.edu/gtd/search/Results.aspx?page=1&casualties_type=b&casualties_max=&start_yearonly=1970&end_yearonly=2018&criterion1=yes&criterion2=yes&criterion3=yes&dtp2=some&success=no&perpetrator=407&count=100&expanded=no&charttype=line&chart=overtime&ob=GTDID&od=desc#results-table

[6] https://www.start.umd.edu/gtd/search/Results.aspx?chart=fatalities&casualties_type=b&casualties_max=&start_yearonly=1970&end_yearonly=2018&criterion1=yes&criterion2=yes&criterion3=yes&dtp2=some&success=no&perpetrator=407&count=100

[7] http://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/report/26242/lebanon-many-hands-and-faces-hezbollah

[8] https://kurzman.unc.edu/files/2011/06/Hizbullah_2000_English.pdf

[9] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/01/world/middleeast/hezbollah-lebanon.html

[10] https://kurzman.unc.edu/files/2011/06/Hizbullah_2000_English.pdf

[11] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/01/world/middleeast/hezbollah-lebanon.html

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