The kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah in Lebanon provoked a military response that has devastated the Lebanese civilian population and infrastructure. VOA's Peter Fedynsky looks at Hezbollah -- an organization that claims to serve Muslims in Lebanon and neighboring countries with a combination of God and guns.
Hezbollah, or the Party of God, emerged in 1982 to fight Israel's invasion and occupation of Lebanon. The organization's military arm, known as the Islamic Resistance, helped drive Israeli forces out of the country in 2000. Its 1983 suicide attack on U.S. Marines in Beirut prompted the withdrawal of American forces. Hezbollah also has served the Shia Muslim community in southern Lebanon that was displaced during the 1982 invasion.
Judith Kipper is a Middle East expert at the non-governmental Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C. She says the organization has a history of providing social help to its citizens.
"Hezbollah over the years was able to provide the social welfare and education possibilities, medical care, food help, and so on that the government of Lebanon has never been able to provide for all its peoples."
Kipper adds that 14 Hezbollah members elected to the Lebanese parliament have done a good job as lawmakers.
But outside Lebanon, Hezbollah is not known for its social and political work. It has a militaristic image to much of the world.
Hezbollah has been accused of kidnapping two Israeli soldiers, which Israel says is the reason for its current assault in Lebanon.
Former Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff General Moshe Yaalon points to a broader Hezbollah agenda. "Hezbollah ideology is not just about Lebanon or about Israel. Hezbollah ideology is Iranian revolutionary, Shia extremist ideology, which means to impose Islam everywhere possible."
Hezbollah Secretary-General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah charges that Israel is the aggressor. He says Muslims have a duty to fight Israeli occupation of their lands.
"Our brothers and friends and beloved ones and the people should trust us and our enemy should know that the resistance hand can reach anywhere and that the response of the resistance is beyond any measures."
Hezbollah has acquired an estimated 13,000 rockets, which are now killing Israeli civilians. Israeli intelligence says Iran is the source of that arsenal.
Former U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross condemns the bombardment of Israeli civilians. He says Hezbollah also is hurting Lebanon. "The Lebanese economy was beginning to recover. This was a huge tourist season for them and Hezbollah, obviously, took this step without any regard whatsoever for the impact it would have on the rest of Lebanon."
Lebanon's infrastructure and civilian population have been hit hard by the Israeli military -- even though it is believed most Lebanese do not support Hezbollah.
Clayton Swisher, of the Middle East Institute in Washington, says the Lebanese perceive the Israeli assault as a form of collective punishment. "They are not going to identify Hezbollah as the agent of punishment. They're going to identify Israel and the American-made weapons that are being dropped on them. This is going to have the reverse effect that Israel was hoping for."
Swisher notes that Israel cannot allow Hezbollah to kidnap its soldiers, but he says the Israelis are in a predicament. No response would lead to more violations of Israeli sovereignty.
But an excessive reaction could increase sympathy for Hezbollah, which does not recognize Israel's right to exist.