Features

Hezbollah havoc

Middle East | Israelis and Lebanese want the militant group disarmed, but how now?

Issue: "Mayberry no more," July 29, 2006

From his hilltop home on Mount Lebanon, Abbas Halabi reviews the destruction in nearby Beirut. Smoke billows from burning buildings and the once bustling streets now echo with sounds reminiscent of the country's civil war that began in 1975 and finally ended in 1990. The banker, judge, and president of Lebanon's Arab Group for Muslim-Christian Dialogue mourns the destruction of his country's decade-long renaissance and the piles of debt incurred for a dream that seems to be disintegrating before his eyes-roads and bridges destroyed, buildings toppled, and ports demolished.

Across the border in the northern Israeli town of Tiberias, Hava Bausch takes her dog for a walk through her own empty town, typically buzzing with tourists from around the world. Her bed and breakfast is now vacant, and neighboring hotels have received one cancellation after another-and for good reason.

On July 15 a barrage of Hezbollah rockets sailed into Tiberias. One landed in a sports field just a few blocks from where Bausch lives near the Sea of Galilee, another in an area commonly used for weddings, and a third just 100 yards from a gas station. A fourth narrowly missed a hotel packed with Israelis, hitting an empty apartment building instead.

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Tourists and many residents packed their bags, and those remaining have retreated to bomb shelters. "The whole city is frozen. It's like a ghost town," Bausch said.

But this conflict involves much more than grievances between Israel and Lebanon, technically at war with each other since 1948. The greater divide resides among moderates and extremists in the region and has resulted in much suffering-Lebanese included-at the hands of Hezbollah. Although Hezbollah has been anything but dormant since Israel's withdrawal of southern Lebanon in 2000, this latest incursion-the cross-border raid that resulted in the death of eight Israeli soldiers and the kidnapping of two others-awakened a sleeping giant and launched the region into a precarious state some fear could escalate into an all-out regional war.

Four nations-the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Israel-have categorized Hezbollah as a terrorist group, while the European Union rides the fence on a designation. Like its militant counterpart in Gaza, Hezbollah is savvy when it comes to public relations. The group has built hospitals and schools in Lebanon, has its own magazine, television station, and radio station, and most persuasively, takes all the credit for Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000. As a result, it is the only faction in the country permitted to be armed for the alleged purpose of protecting Lebanon from Israeli incursions.

But those deadly weapons have been a point of contention for others in Lebanon and across the international community who want to see Hezbollah disarmed. The United States holds Hezbollah responsible for a series of deadly terrorist attacks in the 1980s, including the Beirut truck bombings in October 1983 that killed 241 U.S. Marines, the April 1983 and September 1984 U.S. embassy bombings in Beirut that killed a combined total of 85 people, and the 1985 hijacking of Rome-to-Athens TWA Flight 847.

Despite the criminal record, Hezbollah maneuvered its way into Lebanon's political system, milking outrage at Israel's last incursion and bombardments of Lebanon, and holds 23 seats in the 128-member Lebanese Parliament. The government has not revoked its status as the army of the south, despite repeated warnings from the UN Security Council.

Halabi would like to see Hezbollah disarmed in accordance with UN Resolution 1559. But he acknowledges the difficulty of ousting a faction that has become integrated into Lebanese politics, gaining approval from not only fellow Shiites, but other factions as well: "It is not the same as 1982 when we told the Palestinians to go from Lebanon. Hezbollah is part of the Shiite community. They are part of Lebanon and the Lebanese community," Halabi said.

Hezbollah fighters also brandish a bigger stick. With backing from Iran and Syria and a stockpile of weapons that has grown considerably since 2000, they are an entity to be reckoned with. During Israel's occupation of the south, soldiers of the South Lebanese Army sided with Israel in its assault against Hezbollah and a Southern Lebanese Army colonel was assassinated during the conflict. Many Lebanese foresaw their reign of terror when Israel evacuated the area, and thousands fled southern Lebanon for the northern towns of Israel. Unable to return safely to their homes in Lebanon, they now take refuge in Israel where Hezbollah rocket fire is threatening their lives once again (see "Casualty of peace," March 24, 2001).

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