Hizballah: From Radicalism to Pragmatism?

Augustus Richard Norton

(Mirrored from Middle East Policy Council. The original article is at http://www.mepc.org/norton58.htm)

Dr. Norton is professor of anthropology and international relations at Boston University. He is the author of Amal and the Shia: Struggle for the Soul of Lebanon (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987, Arabic edition: Beirut: Dar al-Maklud, 1987), and the editor of Civil Society in the Middle East, two volumes (Leiden, New York and Köln: E.J. Brill, 1995, 1996) He is beginning a sequel to Amal and the Shia in which he will consider the political reconstruction of Lebanon, and especially the role of the Shii community.

No manifestation of the Islamist phenomenon evokes more antipathy from U.S. policy makers than Lebanon's Hizballah (Party of God). This is not hard to understand; for more than a decade Iran-backed Hizballah has positioned itself as an opponent of U.S. policy in the Middle East, and especially in Lebanon. Hizballah has been connected with a number of notorious incidents, including the 1983 attack on the Marine barracks in which more than 240 marines died, the kidnapping of U.S. citizens such as Terry Anderson and CIA station chief William Buckley, as well as at least one bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut. The policy humiliations of the Iran-contra affair stemmed directly from the attempts of senior U.S. officials to gain the release of U.S. hostages held in Lebanon by Shii groups that were linked to Hizballah, if not a part of it. The hostage seizures were fully consistent with Hizballah's declared goal of expunging both the American diplomatic presence and Americans from Lebanon, and the hostages' fate was often manipulated in order to serve the interests of Hizballah's sponsor, Iran.

For more than a decade Iran has proved to be a deadly and effective foe of Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon, and it has persistently called for the liberation of Jerusalem and the destruction of Israel. In recent years, Hizballah has been a vocal critic of the peace process, and it has refused to countenance any direct negotiations with Israel. As though all of this were not enough for U.S. policy makers, Hizballah's close links to Iran, from which it has received generous financial and matériel support since 1982, suggest that it is less a phenomenon of Lebanese politics than a geopolitical foothold for Tehran. Hizballah also maintains a close working relationship with Syria, with which it has willingly cooperated, at least in recent years. Hizballah's relentless attacks on the Israeli occupation zone in southern Lebanon have served Syria's purposes by violently underlining the insistence of Damascus that Israel withdraw completely from both the Golan Heights and southern Lebanon. Hizballah's rhetoric has consistently matched its actions. Taking inspiration from the virulent anti-American statements of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the United States has been condemned and threatened for its pro-Israeli and anti-Islam policies. There is no denying that Hizballah has earned its reputation for radicalism. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that officials in Washington tend to view Hizballah as a dangerous radical opponent.

Nonetheless, while it may be tempting to dismiss Hizballah as an extremist or terrorist group, this sort of labeling conceals the fact that Hizballah has managed to build an extremely impressive social base in Lebanon. Hizballah is arguably the most effective and efficient political party in the country. Throughout the areas where it enjoys a significant presence, especially the dahiyah (suburbs) of Beirut, the northern Beqaa valley, and Baalbek in particular, and in parts of southern Lebanon, including Nabatiyya, the important center of Shii scholarship, Hizballah provides an array of services. Its medical facilities are far better than those available in government hospitals, which the poor would otherwise have to rely upon. Its new hospital in the dahiyah (near Harat Hurayk) is extremely impressive, and a new hospital in Nabatiyya is in operation, although construction still continues. Doctors working in the hospitals report that both Muslims and Christians may and do use the medical facilities, although they are found in areas where many Shii Muslims live. In addition to medical care, a network of schools, companies, community centers and public-assistance facilities (e.g., food distribution centers for the needy) fall under Hizballah's wing. Hizballah maintains its own engineering and construction company, and it has been quick to lend material support and expertise to those whose homes have been damaged or destroyed, whether by Israeli attacks or as a result of internecine clashes within Lebanon. The families of martyred Hizballahis receive regular pensions and other assistance from the party. As these examples illustrate, the party reveals two complementary aspects. It has committed itself to the militant pursuit of its goals, especially expelling Israel from South Lebanon, while working extremely hard to build and sustain a political constituency. Thus, as an armed resistance force Hizballah has demonstrated its commitment to liberating the occupied "security zone" in the South. In recent years, especially since the signing of the Taif accord in 1989, Hizballah has been transforming itself, preparing for life after resistance while simultaneously exploiting its commitment to liberate the South in order to gain political support.

Were Israel to withdraw from the South, the interesting question is, how this would affect Hizballah's political base in Lebanon? Some analysts have suggested that Hizballah's popular support would shrink, as its raison d'ętre for militant radicalism disappears, while others argue that Hizballah's popular support is durable, and transcends its armed role. Before turning to these important questions, however, it is germane to examine the social and political context in which Hizballah has emerged.


The Shia have deep historical roots in Jabal Amil, in southern Lebanon, and in the Beqaa valley, but they have also been mired in poverty for centuries.1 Few were recruited by the Ottomans for service in the army because they were suspected of being loyal to Persia, and they were disdained by the Ottomans for their practice of the heterodox path of Shiism. Over the course of Ottoman rule, the Shia were treated with suspicion and contempt. The Shii notables (ayan) included a coterie of political bosses or zuama whose wealth was grounded in the Ottoman system of tax farming (iqtaa) by which tenant farmers paid an annual rent to the multazim (or tax farmer), who in turn paid taxes to the Ottoman governor. Although Lebanese Shii ulama helped to implant Shiism in Safavid Persia in the sixteenth century, in modern times the clerics enjoyed little political power and were usually clients of the zuama. With the founding of the independent Lebanese state in 1943, the Shia were the third-largest community in Lebanon, after the Maronite Christians and the Sunni Muslims, and they were accorded the third political office, the speaker of the Parliament. In practice, the Shia exerted proportionately little influence in Lebanese politics. The speaker played a weak third fiddle to the president and the prime minister, and in the government Shia were grossly underepresented in senior appointments. Moreover, the community had little economic clout; illiteracy was widespread; and, until the 1940s, most Shia were agricultural workers. In the 1950s and 1960s, the forces of modernization - education, mobility and the increasing access to communications - promoted the preconditions for the politicization and political mobilization of the Shia. As agriculture was modernized and the Shii population grew, many rural-dwelling Shia moved to Beirut and large numbers went abroad to work in Africa and the Gulf. The Palestinian refugees who fled from Palestine to Lebanon in 1948 provided a pool of cheap labor that further pushed the Shia to seek their fortunes outside of the South and the Beqaa. By the 1960s, though the Shia remained relatively impoverished, a significant middle class was emerging. Simultaneously, the growth of anti-status-quo political forces in Lebanon, including the Palestinian guerrillas and the various wings of the communist movement, attracted many young Shia to their ranks. The decade of the 1960s was a time of radical fervor and militant secularism, and many Shia were moved to join those who promiscd reform and revolution.

It was in this environment that a charismatic Iranian cleric, al-Sayyid Musa al-Sadr,2 who traced his ancestry to southern Lebanon (to Maarakah, a village a few kilometers from Tyre), launched a populist reform movement, harakat al-mahautim (the Movement of the Deprived). By 1974, the Movement had attracted tens of thousands of Shia. In the tumult of pre-civil war Lebanon, al-Sadr also created afwaj al-muqawamah al-lubnaniyyah (the Lebanese Resistance Detachments), which is known by the acronym "Amal." Al-Sadr roused many Shia to political action, and he succeeded in challenging the conservative Shii establishment and especially the zuama for power. Nonetheless, al-Sadr and his movement were eclipsed by the civil war that began in 1975. Amal was never a particularly significant militia in those days. While remnants of the group survived, it seemed to be destined for obscurity.

Three events occurred in 1978 to help resurrect Amal. In August, while on a trip to Libya, Musa al-Sadr disappeared. Al-Sadr, by this time popularly known as Imam Musa, became the new missing Imam. Recalling the Shii doctrine of the Imam in occultation (imam al-ghaeib), his strange disappearance gave new life to Amal and helped it to coalesce as a political force. By 1978, though many Shia had earlier joined the anti-status-quo forces, they grew tired of militia warfare. In southern Lebanon, there was growing anger amongst Shii civilians at the armed Palestinian forces who treated the population roughly and exposed the people to Israeli attacks through their military actions. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1978, the situation was ripe for a self-defense force that would protect the civilian population and take them out of the deadly Israeli-Palestinian cross-fire. Thus, the raison d'ętre of Amal was fundamentally security. In Iran, during 1978, the shah's regime was crumbling. The victory of the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 provided an important exemplar for action, which Amal was able to capitalize on. In addition, several key figures in the revolution, especially the late Mustafa Chainran and the late Sadeq Ghotzabadeh were closely linked to Amal and to Imam Musa, and in the days following the fall of the Pahlavi regime Amal seemed poised to benefit from new levels of support from Tehran. As it turned out, Amal's secular reformers were not to the taste of the Islamic Republic, and Iran lent its backing to Amal Shii adversaries.

By the end of the 1970s, Amal was unquestionably the most dynamic political force in Lebanon. Increasingly emboldened and encouraged by Syrian support, it took on the PLO toe-to-toe, so that by the eve of the Israeli invasion in 1982, bloody PLO-Amal clashes were common. Israel's invasion dislodged the PLO from Lebanon and seemed likely to catapult Amal and its Shii constituents into broadened political power; however, the Israelis proved strangely ignorant of the Shia. Moreover, the traditional power wielders in Lebanon, the Maronites and Sunnis, were little interested in sharing power with the Shia.

Israel's 1982 military campaign led to the evacuation of the PLO fighting force, and, many Lebanese hoped, an end to the country's continuing civil war. What might have been an opportunity to end the internal war, and to meet the Shii demands for better access to government services and a bigger share of power, was lost. The United States, deeply involved in Lebanon following Israel's massive invasion, was slow to understand internal developments and to push for essential reforms, and the new government of President Amine Gemayel was more intent on consolidating Maronite power than reforming the political system. Amal, initially patient and quiet, was provoked to action by a pattern of arbitrary arrests, shellings and intimidation by the government. In 1984, just as the U.S., French, British and Italian multinational force was withdrawing from Beirut largely as a consequence of the truck bombings of the U.S. and French contingents the previous fall, the western portion of the city fell to Amal's control. Meanwhile, in the South, Amal resistance fighters played a major hand in opposing Israel's occupation of Lebanon, forcing a major Israeli redeployment in 1985.

The apex of Amal's power was in 1985, and even then the movement was profoundly challenged by the more radical Hizballah, which condemned Amal's reformist stance and accused the movement of collaborating with Israel and the United States. Hizballah emerged in 1982 and by 1984 coalesced as a well-ordered organization, including a leadership or consultative council on which the Iranians, as well as the Lebanese held seats. Over time, as the civil war continued through the 1980s, the strength of the Iran-backed Hizballah grew, so that it supplanted Amal in the environs of Beirut (while Amal's broad base in southern Lebanon was sustained). Accusations of inefficiency, corruption and poor leadership dogged Amal; its earlier dynamism disappeared. Despite the erosion of its support, Amal retains a political base especially among the villagers of southern Lebanon. Meanwhile, the civil war in Lebanon ended in 1990. Amal's leader Nabih Berri, was appointed to parliament in 1991 and was subsequently elected parliamentary speaker. In the 1992 elections, Berri and his slate of candidates in southern Lebanon triumphed, a feat that he repeated in 1996. Amal, the force that stood outside the perimeter of power in Lebanon, was now inside, and with the reforms of the Taif accord that ended the war, Shii political influence grew.

For a variety of complex reasons, including the economic morass of reconstruction, sectarian sentiments in post-civil-war Lebanon are far more salient than they were during most of the 1975-1990 civil war. Amal has promoted confessionalism by creating an extensive patronage network, but Hizballah has benefited easily as much from providing a political home for the Shia. Popular support for Amal has shrunken. Many of the professional middle class in the Shii community, once a key base of support, have deserted Amal, especially over the past six years. In Musa al-Sadr's time, the movement symbolized an alternative to the zuama, the denizens of patronage who dominated Shii access to the political system. As Amal gained a major role in the political system, it adopted the patronage practices of the zuama that it had sought to supplant, with the result that it alienated many erstwhile supporters. Many of these people now support Hizballah, which they often contrast favorably to Amal. It needs to be emphasized that this shift of support does not necessarily reflect a resurgence of religiosity. In point of fact, many of the Shii supporters of Hizballah, especially among the middle class, are rather casual in their practice of religion.



Some involved observers have argued that Hizballah is simply a terrorist or extremist group; that it has little real support in the general population of Lebanon or even among the 35 percent or so of the Lebanese who are Shii Muslims; that it is a creature of external support; and that it has a vested interest in Israel's continued occupation of southern Lebanon, since it would forfeit its distinctive cachet of militancy with no "security zone" to attack - and without that cachet it would become a marginal player in Lebanese politics.3 Variations on these views are frequently heard and read, especially by those whose conclusions are based on conjecture rather than field work. In my view, the reality is very different, especially in respect to the level of popular support that Hizballah enjoys. It is certainly true that Hizballah has exploited its resistance role in order to build political support. Thus, in the August-September 1996 parliamentary elections, one widely distributed Hizballah campaign poster, which was displayed in many districts of Beirut, as well as the dahiyah (the heavily Shii southern suburbs) recalled the sacrifices of the Hizballahis who combat Israel's occupation of South Lebanon: "They resist with their blood. Resist with your vote."

There is no question that Hizballah's operations in the south are coordinated with Syria (Hizballah officials freely admit as much), but there is also no question that the resistance is extremely popular among the Shia. In fact, the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon is viewed with suspicion and enmity by many Lebanese who worry that Israel covets Lebanese land as well as Lebanese water. Hizballah spokesmen frequently assert that if Israel's presence in the south was not resisted, Israel would have little incentive to even consider withdrawing its forces from the South.4 This assertion is widely shared in Lebanon and the converse proposition that a cessation of resistance activities would induce Israel to withdraw is often dismissed as laughably improbable. It is not likely to soon be put to an empirical test, since the resistance enjoys wide support, especially among the Shia who have been the prime victims of Israel's occupation. Since the late 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese have been repeatedly displaced from their homes in the South, more often than not as a result of Israeli military action. In April 1996 alone, some 200,000 fled their homes during the battles between Hizballah and the IDF, often in response to Israeli warnings of as few as two hours.

In the ideology of Hizballah, Israel is anathema. In contrast, while the United States is considered an adversary and is disliked for its support of Israel, Hizballah's secretary general has claimed that the United States is not a target for attack. Other leading officials, including the head of the Political Bureau have privately explored the possibility of a dialogue with the United States. The "Grapes of Wrath" campaign in early 1996 tended to corroborate the characterization of Israel as evil in the eyes of many Lebanese, and especially the Shia.5 Israel's massacre by shelling of more than 100 civilians in the U.N. base in Qana has especially inspired hatred for the Jewish state. Close to the U.N. base, a memorial cemetery has been created in which all of the victims are buried. The cemetery has become a site of pilgrimage for many Lebanese. Among middle class professionals in the dahiyah, trips to Qana, usually with their children in tow, are becoming ritualized. The site is festooned with banners (most in Arabic) accusing Israel of terrorism and genocide and invoking sayings by some of the central figures in Shiism (such as Imam Hussain). Many of the banners emphasize the loss of innocent blood and demand vengeance. One sign reads, "Qana is the Karbala (the site of Hussain's martyrdom in the year 680) of the twentieth century; it is a land made holy by the Lord Jesus and contaminated by the Zionist Satan (enemy of God)." The Shia are well aware that authoritative reports by the United Nations and by Middle East Watch question Israeli claims that the shelling of the U.N. base was unintentional. The result of the "Grapes of Wrath" operation, and especially the Qana massacre, is that, even if the IDF were to pull up stakes in southern Lebanon, the underlying hatred would continue to fester.

Whether in writing or in private interviews, leading members of Hizballah as well as Hojjat Islam Muhammad Hussain Fadlallah, the "spiritual guide" or al-murshid al-ruhi of Hizballah, express their distrust of Israel and emphasize that peace with Israel may never be countenanced. Muhammad Raad, an articulate Hizballahi member from Nabatiya, pointing to the recent election of Benjamin Netanyahu and Netanyahu's attitudes towards the Oslo accords, also argues that on a practical basis Israel cannot be trusted. However defensible its rationale may be in Israel's own eyes, there is little doubt that Israel's presence in the South has fed Lebanese radicalism. In that sense, the occupation has been consistently counterproductive for Israel.

Notwithstanding the ideological posture of Hizballah, the organization has shown practical flexibility. In fact, in a July 1996 interview, Fadlallah emphasized the need for dialogue, especially dialogue with one's enemies. Characteristically, he corroborated his argument with an ayat. Asked if that includes dialogue with Israel, he emphatically replies, "Yes, especially with one's enemies." Strictly speaking, Fadlallah does not speak for Hizballah, but he has a wide following in the Shii community, and his views are extremely influential. Equally important, Hizballah has shown a willingness to negotiate indirectly with Israel, as it did in the summer of 1996, when, with German mediation, it agreed to exchange the corpses of Israeli and SLA soldiers for the bodies of Hizballahis.

The Israeli army has become increasingly frustrated by its inability to preempt Hizballah operations, which have become efficiently deadly in recent years. In marked contrast to the late 1980s when Hizballah attacks often involved large Hizballah losses, the ratio of Hizballah casualties to IDF casualties is no longer heavily skewed in favor of the IDF. Since 1995, the ratio of Hizballah to IDF/SLA casualties has been less than 2:1, whereas in the past it was more than 5:1. The IDF is also stymied by the "rules of the game," which limit its ability to engage in operations that collectively punish Lebanese civilians.6

In short, Hizballah has proven more adept at moving within the box that has come to be defined by the unwritten agreement of 1993 and the written agreement of 1996. Of course, this could change. War is a game of move and countermove, and Israel might regain the upper hand that it enjoyed earlier in the 1980s, but this does not seem very likely in the foreseeable future. It is noteworthy that in the course of negotiations Israel has never challenged the right of Hizballah to attack its soldiers in Lebanon. Thus, they have tacitly conceded that the IDF is an occupation force in Lebanon.

The question that is crucial is, what would Hizballah's reaction be to an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon? This question is made all the more relevant by the fact that the option of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the south has now been vetted by the Israeli government, probably at the prompting of the IDF. The Hizballah answer to this question has been consistently ambiguous. Muhammad Raad, the Hizballahi parliamentary deputy from Nabatiyya, who was elected in 1992 and reelected in 1996, argues that a withdrawal would be followed by a period of "recuperation." In other words, there would be a period of rebuilding in the south. Raad adds that were Israel to withdraw unilaterally, as proposed by Israel in July 1996, this would create an imbalance for Lebanon and Syria, but they would recover. Most important, he believes that Hizballah would be the beneficiary of an Israeli withdrawal. He bases this conclusion on two facts: the popular base that Hizballah has built, and the leading role that the party has played in the resistance. When pressed on the question of whether Hizballah would attack Israel per se, Raad argues that the goal of the opposition is to liberate Lebanese soil. As for what will happen in the future, these are practical questions that will be decided in time.

In response to the observation that the Hizballah position is ambiguous and provides ammunition to those in Israel who argue against withdrawal, Raad responds that the Hizballah position is ambiguity, clear ambiguity (waadih). For Raad, political decisions are a reflection of costs and benefits and relative power, which implies that so long as Israel retains the capacity to respond disproportionately to attacks, there is little incentive to continue the attacks southward. Raad also emphasizes that Hizballah is not the only player in the game, and that the Lebanese government or Lebanese outside of Hizballah may raise the question of the 27 Lebanese villages captured in the 1948 and 1949 fighting and incorporated into Israel. These villages fell within the boundaries of Le Grand Liban (Greater Lebanon), as defined by France during the mandate period. Seven of these villages were populated predominantly by Shii Muslims.

Of course, other Lebanese forces have attacked Israel's "security zone" as well, including Amal and a variety of secular militants belonging to Baathist, Communist and Nasirist organizations, but Hizballah has conducted the lion's share of attacks, and none of the other Lebanese groups espouse goals other than liberating the South. The 325,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are another matter, especially since many of them trace their roots to Haifa and the villages of the Galilee, areas which are now very much part of the state of Israel. Although the camps were disarmed in 1991, significant arms caches remain, and camps like Ain al-Hilwah, near Saida, have a number of armed factions that reportedly maintain cooperative relations with Hizballah. These groups could certainly choose to mount independent attacks against Israel, but they lack the broad social base of Hizballah, and they would risk a further exacerbation of their already quite difficult relations with the Lebanese.

Like Raad, Fadlallah argues that ambiguity is the calculated position of Hizballah and that this ambiguity increases the anxiety and the fear of Israel. What would happen in the case of an Israeli withdrawal? He replies that they would welcome this withdrawal, while adding that Hizballah would not sign any agreement with Israel or otherwise legitimate Israel. Notwithstanding this reticence, Hizballah has been willing to negotiate with Israel through intermediaries. Not only has Hizballah done so in order to redefine the rules of warfare in southern Lebanon, most recently in April 1996, but, with German mediation, it entered into extensive negotiations for the purpose of exchanging the bodies of fallen fighters. The latter negotiations culminated in the summer of 1996, and they may present a model for future indirect negotiations. Fadlallah admits, possibly with some delight, that the withdrawal would cause some confusion in the governments of Lebanon and Syria, and in the Arab world. There would be a necessary period of adjustment. Fadlallah adds the formula that is now familiar, namely that Muslims cannot ignore the Israeli occupation of Palestine, which it is the responsibility of all Muslims to liberate. He adds that this is not a responsibility that the Lebanese Muslims must shoulder on their own and that the attacks against the Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon are for the purpose of ending the occupation of Lebanese soil. He tacks on the politically correct position that "we would also insist on the liberation of the Golan Heights.

Despite the intentional ambiguity, one walks away from such discussions with a clear sense that Hizballah has no appetite to launch a military campaign across the Israeli border, should Israel withdraw from the South. This is also the firm impression that one gains from the supporters of Hizballah, who neither hide their hatred of Israel nor their view that attacks across the border would only inflict further suffering on the people of the South. Hizballah, of course, must be mindful that the mood of general support that it now enjoys is hardly guaranteed, and that it would sacrifice much of its support base if it provoked violent Israeli retaliation against southern Lebanon. For that matter, it is apt to reiterate that Hizballah calculates that it will be the beneficiary of an Israeli withdrawal, given its celebrated role in the resistance. Certainly, the modality of an Israeli withdrawal would include provisions for disarming Hizballah in the South, as well as the creation of a security regime for the area. It is precisely this eventuality for which Hizballah has been visibly preparing since its party congress in July 1995. At that time, the Arab-Israeli peace process enjoyed considerable momentum, and although Hizballah denounced the Oslo accord, as did Iran, the party was making a Realpolitik accommodation to the fact that the train was moving whether Hizballah liked it or not.


Given the vitality of Islamist oppositional movements in Middle East, there is a crucial question to be answered: how does the inclusion of these movements in the political game, including elections, affect their behavior and their goals? In most instances, even in fully free and scrupulously conducted parliamentary elections, the Islamist movements are unlikely to win more than a quarter to a third of the seats. In this sense, the Algerian experience was a unique one, since the structure of the winner-take-all elections tended to exaggerate the victory of FIS. Otherwise, the Islamist movements have not been able to attract the support of a majority of the population. Hizballah is certainly in this category, given the structural constraints of the Lebanese system in which all of the Muslim seats account for only 50 percent of the parliament. Hizballah won a total of eight seats in the 1992 elections (when participation rates were extremely low due to a boycott), and seven seats in 1996, while its non-Shii sympathizers won four seats in each case. Hizballah has shown itself to be a serious political party. At the same time, there is no question that Hizballah must take account of the heterogeneous electorate in Lebanon. Even at the most generous estimates, only 40 percent of all Lebanese are Shiis. Of these, a significant percentage do not support Hizballah. While there are some crossover votes, as in the Beqaa, few non-Shia are likely to vote for Hizballah.

Some scholars, including myself, have argued that the opportunity to participate tends to encourage pragmatism and compromise. This is not a hard proposition to comprehend. Given the logic of majority decision making, any party or grouping holding well less than 51 percent of the vote must make bargains in order to get its work done. This certainly applies to Hizballah in Lebanon, which has controlled less than 10 percent of the seats in parliament. Lebanese parliamentarians, including senior Maronites, a former Sunni prime minister, and highly respected Armenian deputies have noted in private interviews (in 1995 and 1996) that the Hizballah deputies have behaved responsibly and cooperatively. They have often built political alliances in the parliament on pragmatic grounds, while they are also among the most outspoken members of the dwindling political opposition. In the latter sense, their positions have sometimes directly challenged those favored by Syria. In the view of a number of parliamentarians and many other Lebanese insiders with whom I have spoken, this experiment in political inclusion is working, and Hizballah is being gradually absorbed by the political system.

Of course, the opposite view is that the participation of these groups in politics is purely instrumental. They seek to subvert the process, and their participation is only a subterfuge. In my view, this perspective is mistaken, rooted in an idealistic vision of participant politics that underestimates the degree to which politics is an end in itself, and ignores the "pragmatizing" effect of ordinary politics. A decade or more ago Hizballah came to terms with the realities of Lebanon and jettisoned its commitment to establishing a system of Islamic rule in the country.

In other settings, such as Pakistan (Jamaat i Islami), Turkey (Refah) and Jordan (the Islamic Action Front), other Islamist parties have competed successfully in electoral politics and, in the process, have come to terms with their inability to restructure politics in their image, short of revolution.



Increasingly, Hizballahi officials have emphasized their desire for a dialogue with the United States. For instance, in July 1996 Fadlallah stressed his desire for dialogue (hiwaar). Other officials express their desire to improve the image of Hizballah in America. This is a public-relations job that would challenge the best that Madison Avenue has to offer. Moreover, Hizballah's calculated ambiguity leaves too much to the imagination of those who have been on the receiving end of Hizballah violence. When pressed on his views, Fadlallah emphasizes that he could not show all of his cards, implying some give in his position and the position of Hizballah.

A dialogue of violence has been underway in South Lebanon for some time, defining the permissible limits of violent action for both the IDF and the resistance. Far less developed is a dialogue to end the violence. Obviously, Hizballah's Syrian allies will have a lot to say about that dialogue, but if the violence is to come to an end, Hizballah will have to peel away the layers of ambiguity surrounding its position. To this end, it would be productive for U.S. officials to recognize, publicly, that however opprobrious some of its actions continue to be, Hizballah is a fixture of Lebanese politics, not simply an armed and violent faction. As U.S. policy now stands, the ostracism of Hizballah pushes it squarely into the arms of Syria. Under some circumstances this might be a useful result, but it also hands Damascus a stack of chips, gratis. In fact, Hizballah's interests and Syria's are often at cross purposes in Lebanon, and there may be some merit in probing the contradictions. While it would be politically risky for the United States to open a high-profile dialogue with Hizballah, it is going to be very difficult to reach a settlement in southern Lebanon without sustained discussions in which Hizballah plays a role. For its part, Israel has had some limited success in direct negotiations, as evidenced by the German-mediated negotiations in 1996.

Like it or not, Hizballah is a serious player in Lebanon. Following an Israeli withdrawal from the South and the anticipated disarming of Hizballah, the organization will almost inevitably fade in importance, but it will certainly not disappear. The party's organizational roots now penetrate the Shia community and they are not easily uprooted. Even after the guns and Katyushas are collected, Hizballah's reputation will benefit from its leading role in the resistance, which, like it or not, is widely admired in Lebanon, especially among the Shia. Hizballah has been able to build an efficient and responsive organization that meets many of the needs of its constituents, while avoiding the tag of corruption that taints its political rivals. Assuming that Syria's grip on Lebanon persists, Hizballah will continue to be a valuable asset in the game of check-and-balance that Syria favors in order to insure that viable challenges to its power do not coalesce. Syria's friendly relations with Iran also argue for keeping Hizballah in the game, and, in any case, attempting to squash Hizballah would have heavy costs for Syria. All of the facts seem to underline that while Hizballah's future as an armed element may be somewhat uncertain, its survival as a viable political player is not.


1See Augustus Richard Norton, Amal and the Shia: Struggle for the Soul of Lebanon (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987) for a more detailed analysis.

2Biographies of the leading personalities discussed here may be found in the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, four vols. (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

3Most of these views are expressed in a remarkable article by Yitzhak Baili [Clinton Bailey], "Hizballah as Parable," Ha'aretz, October 19, 1995, p. Bl.

4Hassan Nasrallah, "An Interview with Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah," Middle East Insight, vol.12, nos. 4-5 (May-August 1996), pp.38-43, 84-86.

5See Rosemary Hollis, ed., Lebanon on Hold (London: Chatham House, 1996) for analyses by leading American, European, Arab and Israeli experts.

60f course, both sides have targeted civilians intentionally, but given the disparity in hardware and destructive power, many more Lebanese civilians have been killed and wounded than Israeli civilians. Since 1992, twelve Israeli civilians have died as a result of Hizballah attacks, while over 500 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians have died. See the important report by Joost Hilterman, primary author, Civilian Pawns (Washington, DC: Middle East Watch, 1996).