On January 31, 2022, Israeli airstrikes hit multiple locations near Damascus. According to the UK-based human rights advocacy group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the strikes targeted weapons caches and other positions held by Hezbollah. During the preceding week, Russia had been joining with the Syrians to conduct air force jet military patrols around Syria’s borders, with operations extending into the Golan Heights, which was captured by Israel in the Six-Day War in 1967.
While there were no immediate confirmations of casualties, official Syrian media reported that there was “material damage” from the attacks. Israel, as part of its policy of responding promptly to threats, typically runs airstrikes on arms shipments coming from Iran to Hezbollah and other non-state proxy actors in both Syria and Lebanon.
Destabilizing Lebanon and the region
Hezbollah, based in Lebanon and a recipient of extensive Iranian assistance over the years, has sent fighters to Southern Syria in support of the government troops of President Bashar al-Assad and against rebel forces in that country’s decade-old civil war.
In Lebanon, a war-ravaged country as well, Hezbollah exercises power as both a militant terror organization and a political party with a governmental and social program. As this type of hybrid presence, Hezbollah has gained a greater share of political capital than any other group currently operating in the country. Its legitimacy in this sense also puts it in the position to act with impunity at multiple levels of Lebanese life.
Born in battle and hatred
Historians trace Hezbollah’s origins to the early 1980s. It was founded after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 when the Israelis hoped to make inroads against the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s bases in the south of the country. So, the first members of Hezbollah focused on driving the Israelis out.
The central government in Beirut had already shown its neglect of the region, and the Israeli invasion brought tragedy in its wake as infrastructure unraveled further, with numerous Lebanese and Israeli lives lost. Israel’s unilateral withdrawal of the last of its soldiers was not completed until 2000.
The long-term Israeli military presence in Southern Lebanon, of course, added fuel to the fire of Palestinian and Lebanese grievance and hatred. The area became a prime recruiting station for Hezbollah and other militant groups. But Hezbollah, whose name in Arabic means “the party of God,” and which called itself a “resistance” movement, was anything but.
A disciple of Iran
Hezbollah draws its support in Lebanon primarily from Shia Muslims, and its ties with the government of Iran are long-standing. Shia-majority Iran’s 1979 revolution that led to the repressive rule of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini served as a major inspiration for Hezbollah. The Lebanese group based its ideology on Khomeini’s teachings and those of other militant Shia clerics. In 1981 the Iranian Revolutionary Guard even established a presence in a castle in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley as a place to train Hezbollah fighters.
In its early days, as it fought to expel Israel from Lebanon, Hezbollah also hoped to form an Islamist, Shia-led government—like that of Iran—in Southern Lebanon. Consistently and stringently anti-Western, anti-American, and anti-Israel from its foundations, Hezbollah is the most likely suspect in numerous cases of bombings, kidnappings, and other offenses directed at American citizens in the region.
Throughout the 1990s, Hezbollah obtained extensive support not only from Iran but from Syria as well, enabling it to continue its full-bore terrorist warfare against the Israelis. This was the era that saw the militant organization’s candidates winning their first seats in Lebanon’s parliament. But even as it attempted to legitimize its image, Hezbollah continued to conduct occasional forays over the border into Israeli territory.
The instigator of senseless slaughter
In summer 2006, a Hezbollah cross-border raid enabled it to take two Israeli soldiers hostage after killing two others, and the month-long Second Lebanon War (as it is known in Israel) was born. Tragically, more than 40 Israeli civilians were killed, mostly from Hezbollah rocket fire, and some 120 members of the Israel Defense Forces were killed in action. Equally tragic were the needless deaths of about 1,200 Lebanese civilians—an estimated one-third of them children—also caught in the crossfire.
Richard Armitage, a former Deputy Secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration, once dubbed Hezbollah the likely “A-team of terrorists,” more effective even than al-Qaeda. Adherents or allies of the group were responsible for, among other atrocities, two bombings on the United States embassy in Beirut in 1983 and 1984 that killed and injured dozens. In 1983 Hezbollah members assaulted military installations housing US and international troops, killing 241 American soldiers, sailors, and marines out of a total of 299 fatalities.
An international threat
In more recent years, Hezbollah has taken its virulent hatred of Israelis and Westerners far beyond its borders. In 1994 it bombed a Jewish community headquarters in Buenos Aires, killing 85.
In 2012 a Hezbollah bomb on a passenger bus killed five Israeli tourists and one Bulgarian national. Hezbollah operations have also included terror attempts as far afield as Peru and Thailand. In 2018 Czech intelligence discovered and disabled a Hezbollah hacking operation designed to lure unsuspecting Internet users into downloading mobile malware. The horrific events credibly attributed to Hezbollah around the world go on and on.
Acknowledging the obvious
Some will argue that not “all” of Hezbollah should be labeled a terrorist organization, pointing to its presence in Lebanon’s parliament and its social service work among people desperate for aid. After all, this argument often goes, the national government of Lebanon has long shown itself neglectful of human service needs among its people, needs that continue to be largely supplied by non-governmental groups along sectarian lines. But Hezbollah, like many state actors over the centuries, consistently uses largess to build bonds of support among the citizenry.
In 2019 the American Jewish Committee, along with the Institute for Counter-Terrorism, produced a detailed policy analysis making a firm case for why Hezbollah, in its entirety, should be designated a terrorist organization. Some countries have shown timidity about so designating the group’s political wing. In 2021 Australia notably stepped up, joining a small group that includes the US, Germany, Israel, Canada, the United Kingdom, a handful of European and South American countries, and the nations in the Gulf Co-Operation Council, to do just that.