“The hand that fights, the hand that builds” is the Hezbollah slogan that sums up the essence of Lebanon’s “party of God”: one hand to protect the party’s mainly Shi’ite following – with arms, if necessary; the other to improve its living conditions.
The two hands come together around the party’s blue and yellow collection tins that stand on every corner of south Beirut and throughout south Lebanon.
The world generally focuses on only one aspect of Hezbollah: the hand holding up a Kalashnikov rifle, as featured on the party flag. Countries such as the United States, Israel and UK classify Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation.
Earlier this week, Washington froze the US-based assets of the al-Manar satellite TV station and the al-Nour radio station, along with those of parent company Lebanese Media Group, said to be closely linked to Hezbollah.
The US blames the group for a 1983 truck bombing that killed 241 US marines in Beirut. It also accuses Hezbollah of being behind a series of kidnappings of US nationals in Lebanon in the late 1980s.
UN resolution 1559, adopted on 2 September 2004, calls for “the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias”. So far, however, Hezbollah – along with armed Palestinian groups present in Lebanon – have refused to comply.
From guns to politics
Founded in 1982 in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Hezbollah argues that its armed wing is not a militia, but a legitimate resistance. According to its 1985 manifesto, the group’s aim was first to expel Israeli troops from Lebanon and then to establish an Islamic state, not unlike Iran’s ruling theocracy.
“In the 1980s, Hezbollah didn’t accept the Lebanese political system,” said Dr Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, author of “Hezbollah: Politics and religion”. “It truly believed it could create an Islamic state in multi-confessional Lebanon. Today, however, though it still believes in the establishment of an Islamic state, Hezbollah operates fully as a political party within the Lebanese system. It is even part of the government.”
In elections last May, Hezbollah won 23 out of 128 parliamentary seats and became a member of the current coalition government.
Winning hearts and minds
Hezbollah not only has armed and political wings – it also boasts an extensive social development programme. The group currently operates at least four hospitals, 12 clinics, 12 schools and two agricultural centres that provide farmers with technical assistance and training. It also has an environmental department and an extensive social assistance programme. Medical care is also cheaper than in most of the country’s private hospitals and free for Hezbollah members.
Most of these institutions are located in the country’s more marginalised areas, such as Beirut’s southern suburbs, in South Lebanon and in the Bekaa Valley. “We have special sections all over the country that provide financial and food assistance to the poor,” said Hezbollah spokesman Hussein Nabulsi. “We also run an emergency fund for instant care in case of immediate hospitalisation.”
One beneficiary of Hezbollah financial aid is 35-year-old Alia. She and her three children live in a one-room apartment 15 km east of Beirut. Originally Druze, Alia converted to Shi’ite Islam after marrying an Egyptian Shi’ite, which led to her being ostracised by her family.
Life did not get any easier after her husband was sent to jail three years ago, for reasons Alia prefers not to disclose. While she now works part-time as a cleaning lady, Alia hardly has enough money to put food on the table. “Fortunately, Hezbollah supports us with US $100 month,” she said. “It’s still not enough, but it keeps us alive.”
According to the UNDP Living Conditions Index, 35.2 percent of the Lebanese population live below the satisfaction threshold. These are divided between households with a very low degree of satisfaction (7.1 percent) and those having a low degree of satisfaction (25 percent). Households having an intermediate satisfaction represent 41.6 percent of households, which leaves 26.4 percent of households with a high degree of satisfaction.
Geographically, the districts of Akkar, Baalbek, Nabatiyeh and South Lebanon register the lowest annual average incomes. Hezbollah is strongly represented in all these areas except for northern Akkar. “Last week, I visited a widow with three daughters in Nabatiyeh,” said Nabulsi. “We gave them a refrigerator, a washing machine and a stove. Still, the poverty in which they live is shocking.”
Centuries of social work
The group’s social work is strongly rooted in the Shi’ite faith. Nabulsi cited the example of the fourth Imam, Ali Zein al-Abedine (680 AD – 712 AD), who used to anonymously leave food and money at the doors of the poor.
“For years, no one knew who the mysterious benefactor was,” explained Nabulsi. “But after Zein al-Abedine’s death, the bags stopped coming and only then did people realise it was him.” According to Nabulsi, the Imam’s example is one reason Hezbollah prefers not to reveal the extent and value of its socio-economic activities.
Another reason for secrecy, though, is that the party says it does not want to give its enemies the chance to establish its social and financial strength. Most experts believe that Hezbollah’s social and health programmes are worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
Hezbollah mainly gets its money from donations. Lebanese Shi’ites often make contributions directly after prayers, leaving change in the two-handed Hezbollah collection tins. According to frequent accounts in the western press, the group also receives considerable support from Iran and Syria.
“It’s no secret that Hezbollah receives financial help from Iran, but not from Syria,” said Nabulsi. “Syria’s too poor. People always point to the fact that we get money from Iran, but don’t mention the fact that the United States gives US $3 billion a year to Israel.”
According to Nabulsi, donating money on a yearly basis, known as ‘zakat’ is the duty of any good Muslim. The Islamic holy book, the Quran, states that all those who have the means should donate 2.5 percent of their wealth to the needy.
Despite increasing pressure from the United Nations and countries such as the United States, the UK and France, Hezbollah refuses to give up its weapons.
This is mainly because it defines itself as “a resistance movement” rather than a “militia”, to which UN resolution 1559 refers. According to Hezbollah, the group will maintain its arms as long as Israel continues to occupy the Shebaa Farms area in the extreme south of the country. The United Nations, however, maintains that the Shebaa farms are Syrian.
Most importantly, perhaps, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has repeatedly stated that the group is willing to disarm when presented with “a viable alternative to resistance”. “But as long as Israel remains a threat to Lebanon, we have the right to bear arms,” he maintains.
While most of Lebanon’s parties continue to pressure Hezbollah to give up its arms, Hezbollah – with the support of rival Shi’ite party Amal – categorically refuses to do so. Consequently, the cabinet, of which both are part, has been paralysed for months.