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Background to the fighting in Lebanon

18 July 2006
The resurgence of fighting in the Middle East between Israel and the Lebanese Shi’a Hizbullah organisation is one result of the changed global strategic situation following the rise of global Islamic radicalism and violence and especially the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US Twin Towers. The resulting US-led attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the US-led global “war on terror” have led to massive realignments within the Muslim world, including the Middle East. US-friendly regimes like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia responded by countering local and international Islamic radicalism, seeking to protect themselves and their very survival from the radical forces being unleashed.

On the other hand, Iran under its new radical revolutionary Shi’a president Ahmadinejad decided to ride the crest of the growing Muslim hostility to the West and especially to the United States, its main enemy since the 1979 Revolution. Iran aspires to leadership both in the Muslim world and in its regional setting, and it has long supported a large variety of Islamist radical and terrorist groups, both Shi’a and Sunni, while intent on producing its own nuclear weapons. One way Iran can gain influence among the Muslims in the world is by appearing to be the most implacable foe of Israel, intent on its total destruction (it must be wiped off the face of the earth, according to Iranian President Ahmadinejad), dealing it painful blows while other Muslim states stand helpless by. However, moderate Sunni Arab states (most of whom have Shi’a minorities within their borders) are fearful of the newly emerging Shi’a power in the region under Iran’s tutelage and view it with deep apprehension. They fear traditional Sunni political domination of the area and its oil wealth is now under real threat.

The origins of Hizbullah

The Lebanese Shi’a Hizbullah was created by Iran in the 1980s to project its power in the Arab Sunni world at a time when most Sunni Arab states sided with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in his long war against Iran (1980-1988). Hizbullah was also supported by Iran’s sole Arab ally, Syria, as a useful proxy in its war against Israel. With help from Iran and Syria, Hizbullah developed to become the strongest Shi’a organisation in Lebanon, given a privileged status of maintaining its own armed militia and controlling its own territory when all other Lebanese militias were disarmed. Following Israel’s total withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, Hizbullah continued to amass sophisticated weapons from Iran and Syria (experts estimate over 12,000 rockets and missiles) while its cadres were trained by Iranian Revolutionary Guards. It also developed an ideology of seeking the total destruction of the state of Israel as justification for its continued existence as a Liberation Movement. It thus allied itself to Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who also do not accept Israel’s right of existence in any borders. These Islamic Palestinian groups reject the Oslo Accords (the peace treaty between Israel and the PLO) of 1993 and all subsequent agreements between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), demanding the annihilation of the Jewish state.

The recent assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005 and the subsequent withdrawal of the Syrian troops that had effectively controlled Lebanon for almost 30 years (March-April 2005), created a power vacuum in Lebanon and a massive realignment of political forces across communal borders. Hizbullah feared it would lose its privileged position in the emerging new order.

There can be little doubt that Iran, feeling the growing pressures of American encirclement, encouraged the recent Hizbullah attacks against Israel knowingly inviting Israeli reaction in order to divert world attention from its nuclear programme.

Note: “Hizbullah” (more correctly Hizb Allah) is Arabic for “the party of God”. In traditional Islam is understood as the true Muslims who fight against the party of Satan. Ayatollah Khomeini popularised the term as he forged the Iranian Islamic Revolution, and it has been adopted by several Shi’a organisations not necessarily linked to the Lebanese Hizbullah. In Iran, for instance, Ansar-e-Hezbollah is a militant Islamist vigilante group used by the government to violently quell demonstrations and riots.


Copyright © July 2006 Barnabas Fund