Hezbollah is a radical Lebanese Shiite movement, headquartered in Beirut, and backed by the governments of Iran and Syria. It is a political party — it has eleven seats in the Lebanese parliament — and it is a social-service group that runs hospitals and orphanages and the like throughout Lebanon. From the perspective of the American government, though, Hezbollah’s political activities and charity work are irrelevant; it is the terrorism that interests the American government. American officials consider Hezbollah to be one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the world, one that has killed, over the past twenty years, more than three hundred Americans.

Hezbollah, whose name means “Party of God,” is a Lebanese group of Shiite militants that opposes the West and Israel, and seeks to create a Muslim fundamentalist state modeled on Iran. Consisting of several thousand members, this organization has carried out numerous attacks against Israeli, American, and other Western targets. Among these were the kidnappings of Westerners; the 1983 suicide truck bombings in Beirut that killed more than 200 U.S. Marines in their barracks; the 1985 hijacking of TWA flight 847; the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Argentina, which killed 29 people; and the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Argentina, which killed 95. The U.S. State Department reports that Hezbollah receives “substantial amounts of financial, training, weapons, explosives, political, diplomatic, and organizational aid from Iran and Syria.” Since 1990, Syria has been in charge of the group’s activities.

Hezbollah describes itself as “an Islamic struggle movement.” Condemning “the Zionist occupation of Palestine,” it candidly states that it “sees no legitimacy for the existence of ‘Israel,’ ” which it generally calls “the Zionist enemy.” Hezbollah praises “the Islamic Revolution in Iran that was led by the late Imam Khomeini.” This revolution, says Hezbollah, “consolidated new concepts in the field of Islamic thought . . . [and] also generalized Islamic expressions against the west such as arrogance, the great Satan, hypocrites, and the oppressed.”

In March 2005 Hezbollah issued a nationwide call for a demonstration to counter a growing protest movement that demanded the withdrawal of all Syrian forces from Lebanon. Syrian troops have been stationed in Lebanon since 1976, when they were sent as peacekeepers during the Lebanese civil war which persisted from 1975 to 1990. After the war’s end, they remained in Lebanon, and Syria has dominated Lebanese politics ever since. In response to Hezbollah’s call, on March 8 some 500,000 pro-Syrian protesters gathered in central Beirut to oppose a Syrian withdrawal; a prominent feature of the rally was the chanting of anti-American slogans (the U.S. also called for the Syrian occupation to end). Widely admired across the Arab world, Hezbollah has the capacity to mobilize massive street protests such as this.

Excerpted in part, with gratitude, from Discover the Network and UJC-JCPA Middle East Briefing.

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