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What Drives Hezbollah?

Peter Philipp (dc)July 15, 2006

Who has what interests in the escalation of violence in the Middle East following a phase of relative quiet? An analysis by Deutsche Welle's Mideast expert Peter Philipp.

Shiite Muslim supporters of the Hezbollah groupImage: AP

Hezbollah was founded in 1982 by Iran and Syria in order to fight the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. Members and followers recruited the new organization from the Amal movement -- the traditional but economically bankrupt political party representing the Shia community, Lebanon's largest religious bloc.

The Iranian dream

It's significant that Hezbollah was founded during a meeting at the Iranian embassy in Beirut. Iran has always tried to gain influence in Lebanon, and had even dreamed of being able to proclaim a second Islamic Republic there with the help of the Lebanese Shiites. That didn't happen, but 1982 did nonetheless offer an opportunity, with help of the Shiite militia, to hit back at the hated enemy, Israel. Iran and Syria -- bound since the days of the Iran-Iraq war -- began to systematically build up Hezbollah.

The "Party of God" received weapons, training and money from Iran, and Syria participated. For both countries, Hezbollah became a welcome instrument to do things they weren't ordinarily prepared to do for reasons of diplomacy or domestic security. Attacks by Syrian troops on the Israeli military, or the appearance of Iranian troops in Lebanon would have been perceived as acts of war -- and not just by Israel -- and would have drawn tough military consequences. But if Hezbollah were to carry out such attacks, then it would fall into the category of a legitimate and uncontrollable act of resistance by an armed militia.

Goal: Israel's destruction

Iranischer Präsident Mahmud Ahmadinedschad, Porträt
Also in the background: Iranian President Mahmoud AhmadinejadImage: dpa

In that respect, nothing changed when Hezbollah began to portray itself as a political party. Today, it's represented in the Lebanese parliament and in the governing coalition. Even Israel's retreat from Lebanon six years ago did nothing to change the situation: Hezbollah sees itself -- thanks mainly to Tehran -- as an ally of Islamist groups under the Palestinians. It has already trained Hamas militants, with whom it shares a single goal: The liberation of Jerusalem, or in other words, the destruction of Israel.

This goal is identical to that of Hezbollah's patrons, Syria and Iran. In the Syrian capital, the exiled leader of Hamas, Khaled Mashal, has taken up residence. From there, he still actively works to prevent the elected Hamas government from changing course toward more conciliatory politics. And even though Syria had to retreat from Lebanon a year ago, it still remains present there via a strong ally: Hezbollah.

A chance to interfere

Iran is only too thankful for this opportunity: Hamas, but more so Hezbollah, has given Tehran the ability to directly get involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, without getting its own fingers burned. And it is surely no coincidence that the Syrian-Iranian engagement got bigger right at the moment when -- before the kidnapping of the soldier Gilad Shalit -- signs were pointing to a rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas.

The kidnapping of soldiers in the Gaza Strip and on the Lebanese border is a tried and tested means of preventing any peace in the region. Damascus and Tehran don't want Israel -- something that can be heard from President Ahmadinejad on an almost daily basis.

Nothing would upset them more than a gradual calm and normalization. Violent exchanges, on the other hand, keep the conflict simmering. They claim new victims, fortify the fronts, and strengthen the resolve on both sides.

Syria and Iran have used Hezbollah to set a trap for Israel -- and without great foresight, Israel has fallen into it. Those who demand violent solutions cannot truly have an interest in peace.