To many Americans, especially those in government in Washington, the group Hizballah is synonymous with terrorism. That’s why Secretary of State Colin Powell, who arrived late Friday in Damascus, hopes to pressure Hizballah’s host state, Lebanon, and its supporter, Syria, to distance itself from the group and help propel its “road map” for peace in the Mideast. But Hizballah has no plans to cooperate with the United States, vowing to press on with its attacks on Israel.
In Beirut, Hizballah holds the exalted status of a popular political party and even holds 12 seats in the raucous Lebanese parliament.
Hizballah is both a social services organization that provides much-needed assistance to the poor and the only militia group that didn’t disarm after Lebanon’s destructive civil war in the 1970s and ’80s.
It’s no coincidence that the powerful militant group keeps its offices well outside of the city’s glitzy, Riviera-style rebuilt downtown.
Instead, to show its commitment to its ideals, the group’s headquarters are close to the Burg Al-Baragneh refugee camp, where nearly half of Lebanon’s 400,000 Palestinian refugees live within a tiny, cramped area. Hizballah wants to be seen as an organization of the “people” — even representing those, like the refugees, who aren’t accorded the rights of full Lebanese citizenship for fear they might disrupt the volatile ethnic and religious balance, which could easily push this clannish country into war again.
And it is because of those Palestinian refugees, Hizballah’s second-in-command told MSNBC.com, that the group rejects the U.S. road map to peace.
“I rule out that the road map is an acceptable solution for the Palestinian people,” said Hussein Al-Khalil, Hizballah’s political officer. He added he’s not optimistic about Powell’s visit to the region. “The U.S. State Department — America’s foreign policy — works on behalf of Israel. It’s not a State Department for the American people.”
STILL A THREAT TO ISRAEL
There’s no doubt Hizballah poses a threat to Israel. The militia is the dominant power in southern Lebanon, along the Israeli border.
Hizballah, the “Party of God,” was created in the early 1980s, ostensibly to throw Israel out of Lebanon, which Israel invaded in 1982 in an effort to destroy Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Liberation Organization.
Hizballah finally achieved that goal in June 2000 when Israel withdrew from the south, but it has since readjusted its sights.
Now both Hizballah and its ally, Syria, believe the group should keep the pressure on Israel until there is a comprehensive peace deal.
The immediate target is a small tract of land known as the Shebaa Farms, on the border between Lebanon and Israeli-occupied Syria, in the Golan Heights.
Hizballah continues to launch attacks from across the border, saying that the Shebaa Farms are on Lebanese territory and should have been included in the Israeli withdrawal. Israel and the United States say the patch of land is in the Golan Heights, and will be returned to Syria once there’s a peace deal with Damascus.
The amount of land involved is small, only a few square miles. But the dispute gives Hizballah a reason to continue fighting. And that increases the pressure on Washington to do something about the organization.
CONCERN ABOUT IRAQ
Hizballah worries the United States, not only because of its threat to a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but because the militant group might try to interfere in Iraq as well.
Senior U.S. officials say Iran has provided over a billion dollars in funding to Hizballah, while Syria facilitates the transfer of money and arms to the group. Both may have a vested interest in keeping the U.S. military on edge in Iraq. Still, Hizballah says it has no designs on Iraq, despite its call to the United States to end its occupation immediately.
“The Americans are dreaming of Hizballah everywhere,” Al-Khalil said.
Nabil Salmaan, a Syrian analyst, says his country may be uncomfortable with suddenly having a superpower for a neighbor, but it’s unlikely to interfere inside Iraq.
“If the Syrians are really watching Iraq and thinking of ways for the American occupation to fail, all they have to do is sit and wait, and everything will crumble,” he said, referring to the challenge the United States faces in trying to stabilize Iraq.
IS Hizballah A TERRORIST GROUP?
Is the Bush administration right — is Hizballah a terrorist organization that threatens the United States?
On April 18, 1983, a suicide attack against the U.S. Embassy in West Beirut killed 63 people. In October, the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut were bombed, leaving 298 dead. Nearly a year later, the U.S. Embassy’s annex in East Beirut was also bombed. The United States says Hizballah orchestrated all those attacks.
Al-Khalil would not respond directly to those allegations. Instead, he employed President Bush’s definition of terrorism to make his case.
“When did Hizballah perpetrate aggression against civilians to gain a political goal?” he said. “We have nothing to do with the American people. We have no problem with them. There’s a big difference in the mentality between Hizballah and al-Qaida. Hizballah has a cause and a country, and we are defending our country and our nation.”
That said, as far as the Bush administration is concerned, Hizballah, for all its popularity in the Arab world, is a clear challenge to Israel and to peace.
And Powell is likely to demand that Syria stop supporting Hizballah and that Lebanon take control over its southern border.
The presence of U.S. troops in Baghdad give Powell more clout. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq provided an economic lifeline to both countries, through significant trade. With the Americans now in control, Syria and Lebanon are desperate to get their stalled economies going again, which may make them more amenable to U.S. demands.
All of this could conceivably weaken Hizballah’s position. During the war in Iraq, it refrained from any cross-border attacks into Israel, possibly trying not to draw any attention to itself. But there’s a real sense here that Washington has now turned its gaze to southern Lebanon.
So how worried is the group that the United States will declare war on it, like it did on Bin Laden’s al-Qaida?
“We are cautious, and ready,” Al-Khalil said with a smile. “But we’re not concerned.”
(NBC News correspondent Hanson Hosein is on assignment in Lebanon and Syria.)