Part I: Hezbollah’s Origins and Ideology

This article is first of a three part series on Hezbollah. For more information, see Part II: Hezbollah’s Politics, Social Services, and Military Capabilities and Part III: Modern Hezbollah. The series is part of the wider “Understanding” series, aimed at providing the history behind, and context to, the world’s ongoing conflicts and issues in order to increase your understanding of modern world issues.

Lebanese Hezbollah is a global, multifaceted organization engaged in a wide range of activities, including overt social and political activities in Lebanon, military operations in Lebanon, Syria, and the Middle East, and covert militant, criminal, and terrorist activities on six continents. Hezbollah, a designated terror organization by a number of nations, both in the West and in the Arab world, and frequently referred to as an Iranian proxy group, holds a much more complex role within Lebanon than the labels imply.

Beyond its militant activities, Hezbollah maintains significant influence in Lebanese society and governance, with its political wing holding seats in the Lebanese parliament. In addition to all this, the group boasts an impressive arsenal that sets it far above other militant organizations. They further have an acclaimed more than 100,000 “trained fighters,” making them a large and highly capable military force. This dual nature of Hezbollah as both a viable political entity and a powerful militant group separates it from many of the other militant forces in the region.

Since the October 7th attack by Hamas on Israel, Hezbollah has frequently clashed with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), escalating fears of a broader conflict. Understanding Hezbollah’s history, ideology, and military capabilities is crucial to comprehending the current tensions and the potential for a wider war.

Born Through War

Hezbollah’s origins trace back to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The invasion followed an assassination attempt on Israel’s ambassador to the UK, Shlomo Argov, by the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO) on June 3rd, 1982. The ANO, a breakaway faction from Fatah and the wider Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), was hostile to the PLO’s leadership under Yasser Arafat. Despite the ANO’s enmity with the PLO, the PLO’s condemnation of the assassination attempt, and the fact that PLO members were on a “hit list” for ANO assassination cells operating in London, Israel held the PLO accountable, sparking a military response targeting PLO positions in southern Lebanon.

On June 4th, the Israeli cabinet approved an invasion of Lebanon, with Prime Minister Menachem Begin using the assassination attempt as justification. The invasion officially began two days later, on June 6th, 1982. Israel’s primary objectives were to dismantle the PLO in Lebanon, remove Syrian forces from the country, and install the pro-Israel Lebanese Christian leader, Bachir Gemayel. They succeeded mainly in dismantling the PLO’s presence in Lebanon, changing the landscape of the Israel-Lebanon war and the Lebanese civil war.

Bachir Gemayel, former Lebanese President and former militia leader of the Lebanese Forces, the militant wing of the Kataeb/Phalanges Party (Photo from OLJ Archives).

While Israel achieved several military and political successes, the operation caused significant civilian casualties and infrastructure damage in Lebanon. Throughout the course of the war, the PLO withdrew from many of its previous strongholds, effectively ending its presence in Lebanon as they evacuated out of the country. The essential defeat of the PLO in Lebanon changed the shape of not only the Israel-Lebanon war, but also the Lebanese civil war as a whole, which had been ongoing for several years prior to the invasion.

Although Israel inflicted a number of military defeats upon Syrian forces in the country, Syria’s grip on Lebanon only increased following Israel’s withdrawal to areas of southern Lebanon in 1985, which marked the end of the war. Not long into the war, Lebanon’s parliament elected Bachir Gemayel as President, but his presidency was cut short by his assassination three weeks later by a member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. His assassination led to the breakdown of an alliance between Israel and various Lebanese Christian militias that Israel had been supporting during the Lebanese Civil War.

During the initial phases of the war, Hezbollah was founded by Islamic clerics to fight against the Israeli invasion. It began as an amalgamation of different Shiite groups involved in the war, but quickly grew into the dominant militant force in Lebanon, supported by Iran, ascribed to Iranian ideology, and influenced by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who headed the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 just three years prior. Iran provided financial support and sent at least 1,000 Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) soldiers to train Hezbollah militants. Hezbollah became one of the first Islamic resistance groups in the Middle East to use suicide bombings in their insurgency against Israel.

A protest in support of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (pictured in the front poster) takes place in Tehran, Iran, in January of 1979 (Photo from Agence France-Presse/Getty Images).

Following the PLO’s departure and Bachir Gemayel’s assassination, Israeli forces withdrew from Beirut and concentrated in southern Lebanon, where their occupation continued. Hezbollah focused on fighting the Israeli occupation and Western forces in the country. Repeated attacks by Hezbollah and aligned militias led to the withdrawal of the Multinational Force in Lebanon (MNF) in 1984 after significant casualties from bombings, including the 1983 US Embassy bombing and the Beirut barracks bombing. The embassy bombing, which killed 63 people, was carried out by Hezbollah, while the barracks bombing, which killed 241 US personnel and 58 French personnel, was carried out by the Islamic Jihad Organization, a Shiite militia with close relations to Hezbollah. Some sources claim that Hezbollah operatives were involved in carrying out the attack, or that the Islamic Jihad Organization was merely a nom de guerre for Hezbollah, which did not ‘officially’ exist until their 1985 open letter.

The attacks rapidly reduced support from US Congress for the MNF in Lebanon, prompting President Ronald Reagan to withdraw Western forces and end the mission in March 1984. The US Embassy in Beirut, which had moved locations, was again bombed later in the year by Hezbollah, leading to the deaths of 23 more people. Mounting attacks against the IDF and aligned militias, combined with the untenable situation of their occupation, prompted Israel to withdraw to a security zone in southern Lebanon in 1985. In that year, Hezbollah officially declared its existence and released their Open Letter, outlining their goals and ideology. Their goals included expelling American and French forces from Lebanon, bringing Phalangists to justice, and allowing Lebanese people to determine their government, ideally an Islamic regime.

*Note that the Phalanges are a Christian right-wing party in Lebanon that was highly involved in the civil war. Bachir Gemayel, the pro-Israel president who was elected and then assassinated not long into the beginning of Israel’s invasion, was a member of this party.

In 1985, Hezbollah officially declared its existence, releasing their Open Letter that laid out their goals and ideology. Their established goals were as follows:

  1. to expel the Americans, the French and their allies definitely from Lebanon, putting an end to any colonialist entity on our land;
  2. to submit the Phalanges to a just power and bring them all to justice for the crimes they have perpetrated against Muslims and Christians;
  3. to permit all the sons of our people to determine their future and to choose in all the liberty the form of government they desire. We call upon all of them to pick the option of Islamic government which, alone, is capable of guaranteeing justice and liberty for all. Only an Islamic regime can stop any further tentative attempts of imperialistic infiltration into our country.

It was within this open letter that the group declared its opposition to Israel. Notably, their opposition was not just to the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, but to the existence of the state itself.

“Our primary assumption in our fight against Israel states that the Zionist entity is aggressive from its inception, and built on lands wrested from their owners, at the expense of the rights of the Muslim people. Therefore our struggle will end only when this entity is obliterated” -An excerpt from Hezbollah’s 1985 open letter

Hezbollah militants pictured on December 5th, 1989, in Sohmor, Lebanon (Photo from AP).

As time went on, the civil war in Lebanon began to slow. While initially, Hezbollah had aligned itself against the Lebanese political system and state, they realized this opposition would no longer be an option and, in some aspects, began to align itself with the Lebanese state, setting the stage for the political power it would yield in years to come. This alignment and cooperation increased into the 1990s.

In 1989, the Taif Accords were signed in Saudi Arabia, intended to bring about the end of the Lebanese civil war. The war ended officially the following year, in 1990. As a provision of the Taif accords, militias in Lebanon were to disband. While the majority of militias in the country did so, Hezbollah did not, and continued its insurgency against Israel’s occupation. Their continued existence as an armed group was permitted by the occupying Syrian authorities, who were effectively an ally of Hezbollah, and soon supported by the Lebanese military.

Hezbollah transformed into more than just a militant group in 1992 when they ran as a political party in Lebanon’s parliamentary elections, the first since 1972. Hezbollah, or the ‘Party of God’ in Arabic, managed to win eight seats—along with four more seats taken up by independents considered a part of Hezbollah’s bloc—in the 128-seat parliament. At the time of the election, Hezbollah was led by Lebanese cleric Hassan Nasrallah after his predecessor Abbas al-Musawi, the co-founder and previous Secretary General of Hezbollah, was assassinated by the IDF. Nasrallah was pivotal in determining the future of Hezbollah and remains their leader to this day.

A photo of Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah (right) with his son, Sayyed Hadi Nasrallah (left). Hadi was assassinated by the IDF on December 12th, 1997.

Hezbollah continued to participate in elections. Largely following the Taif Accords, the Lebanese state supported Hezbollah’s continued insurgency, aligned in the desire to end the Israeli occupation of Lebanon.

And continue it did. Hezbollah continued their attacks, largely suicide bombings. As Israeli casualties began to mount, Israeli public support for Israel’s occupation in Lebanon began to wane. In the face of these two factors, Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, to what is known as the Blue Line. Their withdrawal was confirmed by the UN.

The Israeli withdrawal, notably the first time that Israel had withdrawn from occupied Arab territory without the signature of a peace deal to do so, was hailed as a victory not just in Lebanon, but also amongst Hezbollah, who was credited with forcing the Israeli exit.

A New Phase

With Hezbollah engrained in Lebanese politics and maintaining a large military force, their existence was secured. Following Israel’s withdrawal, Hezbollah’s purpose became more ambiguous, especially regarding its relationship with the Lebanese state. Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s Secretary General since 1992, declared that Hezbollah did not wish to substitute the government but to coexist and complement it. Hezbollah continued its political participation, securing ten seats in the 2000 elections and integrating further into Lebanese politics while maintaining a strong military force.

“On the victory day, I announce that Hezbollah does not wish to substitute the government’s governance over this region. We’re not a security authority, and we’re not going to be so. The government is in charge of this region, which is now part of the territory of the Lebanese state. The government decides who to send [there]: security forces or other security systems. And, it decides if it is going to reinforce security gendarmeries. We absolutely do not substitute the government’s regional security responsibility.” -Hassan Nasrallah, in a declaration of victory speech.

Hezbollah militants pictured sitting atop a tank captured from the South Lebanon Army, a former pro-Israel Christian militia that operated during the civil war until Israel’s withdrawal. The South Lebanon Army is viewed negatively within Lebanon by both Muslims and Christians due to their cooperation with Israel. The photo was taken on the 24th of May, 2000, the same day that Israel had completed their withdrawal from Lebanon (Photo from AP/Mohamed Zatari/File).

From 2000 to 2006, Hezbollah focused on increasing its military capabilities, modernizing and expanding its weaponry, and reforming its tactics. It was during this period that Israel and Hezbollah also had a small border conflict over an area known as Shebaa Farms. The area is claimed by Lebanon and Hezbollah as Lebanese territory occupied by Israel since 1967. In contrast, Israel and the UN claim that the area is a part of Golan Heights, which was occupied by Israel from Syria. Notably, Syria itself concurs with the Lebanese claim, having declared the region as Lebanese.

Amidst this conflict was Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution. The Cedar Revolution was a popular movement in Lebanon that began after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. The demonstrations were against Syria’s continued occupation of the country, as well as the pro-Syrian government. The government resigned, Syrian forces withdrew (after having occupied Lebanon since 1976), and the nation held parliamentary elections in which Hezbollah won 14 seats, becoming part of the new unity government. Notably, following this election, Hezbollah officially entered into the government for the first time, as two Hezbollah members were named the Minister of Labor and the Minister of Energy and Water.

The Shebaa Farms conflict also saw a number of different cross-border raids by Hezbollah, which several times resulted in the kidnapping and often death of IDF soldiers.

The 34-Day War

On July 12, 2006, Hezbollah launched another one of such raids. The attack began with diversionary rocket fire on IDF positions as well as inside the Israeli town of Shlomi, among other villages.

While the rocket fire was ongoing, Hezbollah militants infiltrated past the border fence and ambushed an IDF patrol of two Humvees. The attack was highly effective, with Hezbollah killing three Israeli soldiers, injuring two, and capturing two others. The two captured soldiers were brought back to Lebanon.

After establishing that they had lost contact with the Humvees, Israel sent a rescue team. A Merkava Mark III, an APC, and a helicopter were sent into Lebanon after the captured soldiers. The rescue went wrong rather quickly, after the Merkava hit a land mine, killing its entire crew of four people. One other IDF soldier was killed, with two more injured, as Israel attempted to recover the bodies of those killed.

The raid proved particularly deadly for Israel, and was further worsened by their failure to rescue the two soldiers taken captive by Hezbollah. Hezbollah attempted to leverage the two Israeli soldiers for the release of four Lebanese nationals being held by Israel.

Israel refused the prisoner exchange, began an air and naval blockade of Lebanon, and launched a ground invasion of southern Lebanon.

Israeli soldiers pose with a captured Hezbollah flag during the 34 Day War on July 25th, 2006 (Photo from RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS).

The ensuing war lasted only 34 days but resulted in the deaths of up to 1,191 Lebanese—including Hezbollah fighters, the fatalities for which range from 250, according to Hezbollah, up to 600, according to Israel—as well as 121 IDF personnel and 44 Israeli civilians. The war caused major infrastructure damage to southern Lebanon, the displacement of approximately one million Lebanese civilians, and the displacement of 300,000 to 500,000 Israeli civilians.

The war saw mixed results for both sides. It ended on August 14, 2006, after the UN Security Council (UNSC) brokered a ceasefire on August 11th. While both Hezbollah and Israel technically failed in their objectives of the war, Hezbollah claimed the war as a “Divine Victory.”

Israeli troops pictured evacuating wounded during the 34 Day War (Photo from Haim Azoulay/Flash 90/File).

In several ways, it was a victory for Hezbollah. They showcased their capabilities against their sworn enemy, and performed reasonably well considering the inherent militaristic advantages Israel held, in particular Israel’s air superiority. However, a number of Hezbollah’s military installations, which they had spent years building, were destroyed by the IDF. According to IDF claims, over half of Hezbollah’s medium-range Fajr rocket systems were wiped out in just 34 minutes of air strikes on July 13th in ‘Operation Density’. Although their medium-range capabilities were significantly harmed by the war, the overwhelming majority of their short-range rocket systems, primarily the Katyusha launchers, remained intact. While Hezbollah’s infantry proved to be effective during the war, they admitted that their capabilities for air defenses were extremely lacking, and vowed to increase these capabilities. Israel’s air dominance proved pivotal in their conduct during the war.

UNSC Resolution 1701, which was signed by both Lebanon and Israel and ended the 2006 war, reiterated calls for militias within Lebanon to disarm and disband. UNSC Resolution 1701 further established that the only military forces allowed between the Blue Line—the line to which Israel withdrew in 2000—and the Litani River were the Lebanese Armed Forces and United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).

A UN map showing UNIFIL deployments in southern Lebanon with the Litani River to the north, and the ‘Blue Line’, the Israeli border, to the south.

Several months after the end of the war, efforts were being made by the Lebanese government to restrict Hezbollah’s military, prompting them to withdraw from the unity government. Nasrallah called for national protests against the government, and Lebanon, for two years, became gripped in a political crisis as simultaneous pro- and anti-government protests occurred nationwide. The political crisis ended in 2008, and Hezbollah once again joined the unity government.

Following the 2006 war, Hezbollah once again resumed its focus on building up its militaristic capabilities, increasing its rocket stockpiles, military installations for both defensive and offensive purposes, and general equipment.

The Syrian Civil War

In 2011, this refit and rearmament was tested by the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. Bashar al-Assad’s regime was not only allied to Hezbollah, but with Iran as well. The mutual alignment of Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah gave Iran a land corridor to maintain their suppliance of Hezbollah. Thus, it was in the interests of both Hezbollah and Iran to keep Assad’s regime afloat.

Iran’s and Hezbollah’s intervention in the war was pivotal in keeping Assad in power, especially in the early years when the future of the administration looked extremely unclear, particularly with the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) in the country.

Hezbollah deployed thousands of fighters who reportedly fought against both rebels and ISIS. They first deployed to Syria in 2012 and remained there in active participation until 2019. Notably, Hezbollah fielded armor within Syria, including T-55 and T-72 tanks. These tanks are missing from their arsenal in Lebanon because they would not be able to field them against Israel due to Israel’s extensive air superiority.

While fighting in Syria, Hezbollah lost between 1,000-2,000 fighters. While the fighting may have been costly in lives for the group, they gained valuable military experience and, according to many analysts, evolved into a “professional army” during their combat operations and continued to upgrade their weapon systems, and build stockpiles.

A photo of a funeral for a Hezbollah fighter killed during combat in Syria (Photo from Mohamed Azakir/Reuters).

Beginning in 2016, Iran reportedly began supplying Hezbollah with conversion kits to upgrade their short-range rocket systems to precision-guided missile systems. The upgrade kits take only 2-3 hours to install and improve the Zelzal-2’s imprecise rockets to a precision, GPS navigated system, with a range of 300km (185 miles). Hezbollah has converted approximately 20-200 of its rocket systems using these kits. The upgraded systems give them extensive striking capacity within Israel.

In 2019, Hezbollah reduced its presence in Syria, particularly in the face of the declining popularity of its intervention. Lebanon has a high Sunni Muslim population, and many of the rebels Hezbollah was fighting against were Sunni. In addition to this, Assad’s regime had stabilized comparatively. By 2019, it held control over about 70 percent of the country, and Hezbollah’s direct intervention was no longer necessary to keep them afloat.

Amidst Hezbollah’s withdrawal from Syria, an economic crisis was beginning in Lebanon. Cost of living and unemployment went up as the Lebanese pound, along with public faith in politicians and state institutions, fell. Protests against the economic crisis broke out nationwide, prompting Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation. Protests against the government began anew in early 2020, and once again grew to include people opposed to Hezbollah’s military forces. Clashes between authorities, anti-government and anti-Hezbollah protestors, as well as pro-Hezbollah protestors were commonplace.

Protests expanded in August of 2020 after the infamous Beirut blast, when improperly stored ammonia nitrate exploded in the port of Beirut, killing at least 200 people and leveling part of east Beirut. The blast not only triggered more anti-government protests, but also anti-Hezbollah protests as Hezbollah was held partially responsible. Hezbollah denied responsibility for the blast. Following the blast, Lebanon’s prime minister, Hassan Diab, resigned after only a few months in power.

A photo of the aftermath of the Beirut Blast (Photo from Hussein Malla/AP).

Protests slowed as the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country, though many of Lebanon’s economic issues persist to this day.

Notably, along with the economic crisis and the anti-government protests, the breakdown of many public services offered by the government was also a factor in Hezbollah expanding its support to the Lebanese people. In turn, Hezbollah expanded the social services it had been offering, presenting itself as a reliable alternative to the government and attempting to showcase its capability in governance and meeting the needs of the public while the government was faltering. The social services offered by Hezbollah are extensive and are addressed in Part II of this series.

Lebanon went over a year without a functional government, before Prime Minister Mikati formed a government in September of 2021. This government composed of 24 ministers, 16 of which were from the Hezbollah led March 8 alliance. Two of the ministers were members of Hezbollah.

In 2022, Lebanon held its most recent parliamentary elections. Hezbollah managed to maintain 13 seats, along with two aligned independents. Hezbollah’s “March 8” alliance won 62 seats, just short of the 65 needed to form a majority.

Several months after the elections, Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s term ended. The president in Lebanon is elected by the parliament. However, parliament has continuously failed to elect a new president, thus dropping the nation into yet another political crisis. Presently, a caretaker government has been established, with limited powers, to head the country. Lebanon still does not have a president, despite 12 rounds of voting in parliament in an attempt to elect one.

The Ideology of Hezbollah: Evolving and Pragmatic

Hezbollah fairly clearly outlined its ideological basis in its 1985 Open Letter. However, 1985 was just about 40 years ago, and times, along with the general situation in Lebanon and the Levant, have changed. As times have changed, so has Hezbollah, particularly under Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s head since 1992.

The basis of Hezbollah’s ideology is influenced by religious cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Musawi Khomeini, the first Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran that deposed the Shah, ending thousands of years of monarchist rule in Iran.

“We are often asked: Who are we, the Hizballah, and what is our identity? We are the sons of the umma (Muslim community) – the party of God (Hizb Allah) the vanguard of which was made victorious by God in Iran. There the vanguard succeeded to lay down the bases of a Muslim state which plays a central role in the world. We obey the orders of one leader, wise and just, that of our tutor and faqih (jurist) who fulfills all the necessary conditions: Ruhollah Musawi Khomeini. God save him!” -The beginning of Hezbollah’s 1985 Open Letter

Hezbollah’s manifesto, the 1985 Open Letter establishes Hezbollah as a Shiite, Islamic group. It establishes Hezbollah as a group which is opposed to the US, France, and western powers, and demands their withdrawal from both Lebanon and the general region. Furthermore, it declares Hezbollah’s intention to fight against these powers in order to ensure this withdrawal. While they insist they remain faithful to their ideological points outlined in the open letter, many of their beliefs, methods, and behaviors have changed over time in order to adapt to its present situation.

Opposition to the Phalangists

The open letter declares Hezbollah’s opposition to the Phalangists, also known as the Kataeb Party, a right-wing Christian political party in Lebanon that played a key role in the Lebanese Civil War. During the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the Phalangist’s military wing, the ‘Lebanese Forces,’ were reported to have massacred Palestinian civilians and Lebanese Shia Muslims with the support of the IDF in what became known as the Sabra and Shatila Massacre, named for the Sabra neighborhood of Beirut and the Shatila refugee camp where it occurred.

Between 700-3,500 civilians were killed in the massacre by approximately 300-400 militiamen of the Lebanese Forces. The massacre was supported by the IDF, who stationed themselves at the exits of the Shatila camp in order to prevent civilians from leaving, and fired flares above both Sabra and the Shatila camp in order to illuminate them during the night time, at the request of the Lebanese Forces.

Hezbollah accuses the Phalangists of being an Israeli tool and further accuses them of perpetrating abuses against both Muslims and Christians in Lebanon. As such, it lists them directly as a “major enemy” in the Middle East, alongside France, the US, and Israel.

A photo of Maronite Christians amidst the Lebanese Civil War (Photo from Philippe Ledru).

An Islamic Regime for the People

Hezbollah, like many other radical Islamist groups, wishes to establish an “Islamic Regime” in Lebanon. What separates Hezbollah from the norm is the group espouses that the regime must be chosen by the people and that they do not seek to establish an Islamic state by force nor force Islam itself upon anyone.

“We are an umma which adheres to the message of Islam. We want all the oppressed to be able to study the divine message in order to bring justice, peace and tranquility to the world. This is why we don’t want to impose Islam upon anybody, as much as we that others impose upon us their convictions and their political systems. We don’t want Islam to reign in Lebanon by force as is the case with the Maronites today.

This is the minimum that we can accept in order to be able to accede by legal means to realize our ambitions, to save Lebanon from its dependence upon East and West, to put an end to foreign occupation and to adopt a regime freely wanted by the people of Lebanon.” -An excerpt from Hezbollah’s 1985 Open Letter

Addressing Christianity

While there are many things that make Lebanon unique, one of these things is its high Christian population. Lebanon used to be majority Christian until demographic shifts caused by a large influx of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars with Israel caused the country to become majority Muslim.

Palestinian refugees pictured in a refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon, on September 24th, 2021 (Photo from NICOLAS MAETERLINCK/BELGA MAG/AFP/Getty Images).

Religious divides were one of the primary causes of the Lebanese Civil War. With the prevalence of Christianity in the nation, and the context of the civil war, Hezbollah directly addresses the Christians of the nation. While Hezbollah does call for them to convert to Islam, it once again reiterates the belief that any conversion should be peaceful, and further adds that if they do not convert, they do not “wish you evil,” so long as the Christians of the nation are able to live alongside the Muslims of the nation. Furthermore, Hezbollah states that the present regime is unjust both to Christians and to Muslims, and calls for their opposition to it.

Opposition to the Lebanese Political System

One of the most important parts of Hezbollah’s Open Letter is its declaration of absolute opposition to the Lebanese political system. Not only does Hezbollah declare opposition to the system itself, but also to opposition parties operating within the system, which is notable given Hezbollah’s future participation in Lebanon’s general elections as a political party. Hezbollah stated that “any opposition which confronts the present regime but within the limits fixed by it, is an illusory opposition.”

“This is our perception of the present state of affairs. This is the Lebanon we envision. In the light of our conceptions, our opposition to the present system is the function of two factors; (1) the present regime is the product of an arrogance so unjust that no reform or modification can remedy it. It should be changed radically, and (2) World Imperialism which is hostile to Islam.

We consider that all opposition in Lebanon voiced in the name of reform can only profit, ultimately, the present system. All such opposition which operates within the framework of the conservation and safeguarding of the present constitution without demanding changes at the level of the very foundation of the regime is, hence, an opposition of pure formality which cannot satisfy the interests of the oppressed masses. Likewise, any opposition which confronts the present regime but within the limits fixed by it, is an illusory opposition which renders a great service to the Gemayel system.”

Wilayat al-Faqih

Core to Hezbollah’s initial ideology, in particular their direct political beliefs, is their ascription to the Twelver Shiite belief of Wilayat al-Faqih. In short, it’s the belief that the affairs of the Muslim world should be administered, in whole or in part, by ‘righteous’ Shia jurists or a single jurist, referred to as the “Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist.” Khomeini was a preacher and scholar of this ideology, influencing Hezbollah’s adoption of the belief.

Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, pictured in February of 1979 (Photo from AP).

Opposition to Israel, the US, the USSR, and Occupying Forces

Within the context of the Cold War, which was ongoing at the time, Hezbollah notably declared its opposition to both capitalism and communism—specifically the US and the former Soviet Union—claiming that “both are incapable of laying the foundations for a just society.” Hezbollah also declared opposition to UNIFIL, the UN’s force in Lebanon.

In addition, Hezbollah is in absolute opposition to Israel, during both its establishment and in modernity:

“We see in Israel the vanguard of the United States in our Islamic world. It is the hated enemy that must be fought until the hated ones get what they deserve. This enemy is the greatest danger to our future generations and to the destiny of our lands, particularly as it glorifies the ideas of settlement and expansion, initiated in Palestine, and yearning outward to the extension of the Great Israel, from the Euphrates to the Nile.

Our primary assumption in our fight against Israel states that the Zionist entity is aggressive from its inception, and built on lands wrested from their owners, at the expense of the rights of the Muslim people. Therefore our struggle will end only when this entity is obliterated. We recognize no treaty with it, no cease-fire, and no peace agreements, whether separate or consolidated.” -An excerpt from Hezbollah’s 1985 Open Letter

Ideology Under Nasrallah

The largest shift in Hezbollah’s ideology came in 1992, when Hassan Nasrallah took over as the Secretary General of Hezbollah. There was a small divide in Hezbollah after Nasrallah took over on whether the group should participate in politics, or continue its absolute opposition to both Israel and the Lebanese political system. Nasrallah prevailed, and the group moved to participate in elections. In an interview following participation in the elections, Nasrallah aligned political participation with the group’s core ideology, saying that to remain steadfast, the group needed public support and could not be blind to domestic issues. Linking the resistance to the necessity of political support and rendering assistance in domestic issues is the primary justification for Hezbollah to participate in an electoral system that Hezbollah had declared complete opposition to only seven years earlier. Nasrallah was insistent that Hezbollah’s participation in politics did not diminish their presentation as a resistance group, nor did it betray values established in the 1985 Open Letter.

Following the 1992 election, Nasrallah declared opposition to the sectarianism in Lebanese politics. Two of the most prominent positions in the country, the President and Prime Minister, are required to be held by a Maronite Christian and a Sunni Muslim, respectively. The Speaker of Lebanon’s parliament, who is afforded more power than usual for the position, is required to be a Shia Muslim, and the Deputy Speaker is a Greek Orthodox Christian. While this ensures representation for the nation’s religious minorities, it also prevents them from achieving certain positions.

“As for the [current Lebanese] regime, we believe that its main problem is its sectarian nature; this compels us all to find ways of eliminating this flaw, by which I mean political sectarianism itself and the resulting apportioning of positions in the state administration, in development, and in various [social] services. This had led to major dysfunction, to tragedies, and even to the wars that this country has witnessed. The system is also beset by a mentality of distinction and superiority, which had led in the past to civil war, and might again be the spark that reignites it at any moment.” -Hassan Nasrallah, September 11th, 1992

Further than just opposition, Nasrallah also declared Hezbollah’s hope to eliminate political sectarianism.

“We want to eliminate political sectarianism and lay down the foundations for a system of governance that reflects the people’s aspirations for justice and equality in the [social] services and development sectors. … Why insist on appointing only a Maronite at the head of the Central Bank? What is the logic behind it? The most competent person for the job, and for establishing civil and economic peace in the country, could be a Greek Orthodox, a Druze, an Alawite, or someone from any other minority. … This is why the elimination of political sectarianism, which we are focusing on, is one of our priorities, and we are very serious about it” -Hassan Nasrallah, September 11th, 1992

After Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, mostly due to the insurgency Hezbollah waged to oust Israel, Nasrallah clarified that the victory was a Lebanese victory and not about the defeat of one sect over another.

“To all Lebanese, I say: You need to realize that this victory belongs to all Lebanese, for it is not merely the victory of a party, movement, or current. It’s not about the victory of a sect and the defeat of another. Faulty and ignorant is he who believes or says so. This is Lebanon’s victory; this Resistance has been a force for the nation, and so it will remain. Whenever this resistance was victorious, it would be humble. Whenever it was honored by offering martyrs, it would be humble, too.” -Hassan Nasrallah, May 26th, 2000

Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah giving a speech after the Israeli withdrawal in May, 2000.

This rebranding as a Lebanese nationalist group allowed Hezbollah to not only further engrain itself into Lebanese politics by building alliances with parties of other denominations, but also to attract members from other sects, such as Sunni Muslims, Christians, and Druze.

2009 Ideology Shifts

The most significant update to Hezbollah’s ideology came in 2009, when Hezbollah released a new manifesto. First, the manifesto dropped all mention of the formation of an Islamic republic and instead only spoke of a “consensual democracy.” Second, the manifesto only makes one mention of Wilyat al-Faqih, when it refers to Khomeini as the Wali al-Faqih, or the jurist that was previously mentioned. It does not state the group’s continued ascription to this ideology. Third, the manifesto no longer included absolute opposition to Lebanese politics. Finally, the manifesto makes no call for Christians to convert to Islam.

Key to its ideology, and further established in the manifesto, is Hezbollah’s opposition to what it views as Lebanon’s sectarian politics. This core ideology fueled the group’s reinvention from a Shiite Islamic group into a Lebanese nationalist group.

“The major problem in the Lebanese political system, which thwarts its reform, development and regular updating, is political sectarianism. The fact that the Lebanese political system was founded on a sectarian basis represents in itself a strong restriction to the achievement of true democracy where an elected majority can rule and an elected minority can oppose, opening the door for a proper exchange of power between the loyalty and the opposition or the various political coalitions. Thus, abrogating sectarianism is a basic condition for the execution of the majority-minority rule.” -An excerpt from Hezbollah’s 2009 Manifesto

What remained the same was the opposition to the US and Israel. Hezbollah accused the US of considering themselves to be the “owners of the world” and attempting to establish an “American-Western hegemony,” of which Israel is a tool in the establishment. Concerning Israel, the manifesto stated that opposition to Israel is still central to Hezbollah’s purpose of being, calling it an “eternal threat.” Hezbollah refers to the resistance against Israel as a “national necessity,” a sentiment that has been echoed by many Lebanese politicians who claim Hezbollah is necessary to provide Lebanon security against Israeli aggression. The manifesto also reiterated the absolute resistance to any attempts at negotiation or compromise with Israel, including ceasefires.

Particularly notable within the manifesto is several mentions of pan-Arabism and cooperation in the Islamic world. Hezbollah states that the conflicts in the Arab world only seek to serve “the Zionist enemy” and the US, and that a more unified approach should be taken in order to confront these issues.

“Even more, there is a definite need for concerted efforts to overcome the conflicts that run through the Arab ranks. The contradiction of strategies and the difference of alliances, despite their seriousness and intensity, do not justify the policies of targeting or engaging in external projects, based on the deepening discord and inciting sectarianism, leading to the exhaustion of the nation and therefore serving the Zionist enemy in the implementation of the purposes of America” -An excerpt from Hezbollah’s 2009 Manifesto

Furthermore, the manifesto also refers to the conflicts between Sunnis and Shias, Turks, Kurds, and Arabs, as well as Iranians and Arabs, as fabricated.

This article is first of a three-part series on Hezbollah. For more information, see Part II: Hezbollah Politics, Social Services, and Military Capabilities and Part III: Modern Hezbollah. The series is part of the wider “Understanding” series, aimed at providing the history behind, and context to, the world’s ongoing conflicts and issues in order to increase your understanding of modern world issues.

Sébastien Gray
Sébastien Gray
Sébastien is a published journalist and historicist with over six years of experience in freelance journalism and research. His primary expertise is in African conflict and politics, with additional specialization in Israeli/Palestinian and Armenia/Azerbaijan conflicts. Sébastien serves as the deputy desk chief for Africa.


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