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Experts Weigh the Threat of Lebanon's Hezbollah - 2003-01-10


Analysts say in the run-up to war against Iraq, the United States may be overlooking a more immediate and tenacious enemy: the Lebanese Muslim group Hezbollah. Some argue that money is being funneled to Hezbollah from cell operations around the world, including small-town America.

The Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah, which led a guerrilla war for nearly two decades against Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, has two public faces. In the West, the group is much maligned, having been blamed for planning and executing a lengthy series of terrorist attacks, including the suicide truck bombings that killed more than 200 U-S Marines at their barracks in Beirut in 1983.

The United States has long regarded the organization as a terrorist group, but it did receive some western support during its 18-year campaign against Israeli occupation on the grounds that it was offering resistance rather than terrorism. In the Arab world, Hezbollah enjoys widespread popularity mostly because of an unprecedented feat: It was able to force Israel to pull back from territory it had occupied in southern Lebanon, something no other Arab government or group has ever accomplished. What's more, Hezbollah has eight seats in Lebanon's 128-member parliament and has a charity arm which runs clinics, hospitals and schools. Hezbollah also operates a large TV and radio conglomerate.

Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center who has written extensively on Hezbollah for The New Yorker magazine, says there is no arguing that Hezbollah is one of the most successful terrorist organizations in modern history.

“They are responsible for the deaths of more Americans than any other group except al-Qaida,” he says.

But Hussein Ibish, Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, says Hezbollah's activities have focused mainly on ousting Israel from southern Lebanon.

“If you realize and accept the fact that Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon was illegitimate and was in fact an international crime and that efforts to combat it have been focused on the Israel military and were not terrorism, but were in fact legitimate resistance pursuant to a security council resolution,” he said. “Then I think the activities of Hezbollah for the past 10 to 15 years look a lot less interesting from the point of view of the war on terror.”

Hezbollah was founded more than twenty years ago. Most of the radical clerics who formed the nucleus of Hezbollah's leadership were educated in the Shiite seminaries of southern Iraq, where Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini spent many years in exile. As a result of these ties, they embraced Khomeini's concept of religious rule, enshrined in Iran's 1979 constitution.

But it was Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon that put Hezbollah on the political map, making it a major force in Lebanon's society and politics, and a formidable threat in the region.

Hezbollah, which means "Party of God" in Arabic, operated mostly underground until 1985 when it published a manifesto condemning the West for supporting Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon. Israel had invaded Lebanon on the advice of then defense minister Ariel Sharon, whose plan was to conquer Fatahland -- a strip of southern Lebanon controlled by P-L-O leader Yasser Arafat.

However, Mr. Sharon had a larger agenda. He wanted to establish a base in Beirut to keep the P-L-O out of Lebanon permanently. Once Hezbollah learned of the plan, they took up arms and began their campaign of resistance. The occupation ended with an Israeli withdrawal in May 2000. Today, Hezbollah, with the backing of neighboring countries Syria and Iran, is believed to have an annual budget of over one-hundred million dollars.

The United States alleges that part of Hezbollah's money derives from criminal activities on American soil, such as a cigarette-smuggling ring broken up in Charlotte, North Carolina, earlier this year. Kenneth Bell, the prosecuting attorney in the case, says if these cells existed in Charlotte, they may be found in other places in the United States.

"This is going to become, if not common, at least not rare. I think there will be disruptions of cells and probably have been that the public will never know about because it won't be called that. I think we have disrupted some bad people that you may never hear about, and we don't get credit for. And we are going to keep doing it," Mr. Bell says.

Just how much money Hezbollah gets from criminal activities around the globe has never been traced. But the Woodrow Wilson Center's Jeffrey Goldberg says it is a substantial amount of the contributions.

"Most of that money is said to come from Iran and the Iranian government directly. They do however, raise a good deal of money in Lebanese immigrant communities in various parts of the world including West Africa, South America, and even the United States," Mr. Goldberg says. "So it is bringing in millions of dollars a year from various operations, criminal or otherwise, from parts of the Lebanese diaspora."

One faction of Hezbollah of genuine concern to the West is its secret military operation, an arm of the organization even shrouded from some Hezbollah members.

Analysts claim Syria and Iran fund this part of Hezbollah, though no substantial evidence proving this connection has ever been uncovered. Mr. Goldberg says there are fears Hezbollah might have missiles.

"Does it possess, as the Israelis say, six to eight thousand short to medium-range missiles in south Lebanon which are pointed at Israel? Hezbollah denies that," Mr. Goldberg says. "American intelligence tends to agree with the Israelis that Hezbollah has this, and these are the missiles supplied to Hezbollah by Iran primarily through Syria."

But just how much of a threat is Hezbollah to the United States?

Senator Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat who was chairman of the Senate Committee on Intelligence, says Hezbollah should be dealt with before Baghdad because it is the world's most dangerous terrorist group.

Raymond Tanter, a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says while Hezbollah may be a terrorist group, the threat to American security is not that certain.

"I think that Senator Graham is on to something. But he overstated the case in order to make the point. Hezbollah was more of a threat than al-Qaida before September eleventh in the sense that Hezbollah was responsible for more Americans being killed in April and October 1983 at the American embassy and the Marine barracks bombed in Beirut. But I don't think that Hezbollah is a giant," Mr. Tanter says.

Others argue that Israel remains Hezbollah's central target and its threat to the United States is overblown.

I certainly am not going to defend everything that Hezbollah ever did. But if you look at Hezbollah's activities over the past, say, ten years what you see is an overwhelming majority of it dedicated to battling Israeli soldiers inside Lebanon and securing, in fact, the retreat from south Lebanon of Israel's army two years ago, which was a good thing for everyone," says Hussein Ibish.

Meanwhile, analysts are speculating what action Hezbollah will take in the region if there is a U-S led war on Iraq. In a interview, Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, said his organization would carefully weigh any response to Israeli "provocations" in the event of a war. Given its history, Hezbollah may well have a role in that conflict, if it occurs.

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