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Mon Dec 17 08:10:05 MST 2001
December 17, 2001
After Brandishing Both Weapons and Aid,
Hezbollah Tests Resolve of War on Terror
By YAROSLAV TROFIMOV
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
AYN-AL-ARAB, Lebanon -- Surveying his hilltop farm, Ali Alout points to a
field of olive saplings. They came from Hezbollah, he says, which also sent
a bulldozer last year to clear the field. Mr. Alout's first nine goats came
from Hezbollah, too, as did a veterinarian who visits every few weeks.
The 33-year-old father of two says his family abandoned this southern
Lebanon village soon after Israel invaded the country in 1982 to try to
destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization. The Alouts returned to
Ayn-al-Arab after Hezbollah's guerrilla campaign prompted Israel's
withdrawal in May 2000. "Without Hezbollah, I would have never been able to
do any of this," Mr. Alout says.
As the U.S. weighs the next targets in its war on terrorism, perhaps no
group presents as complex a challenge as Hezbollah, a Shiite militant
organization backed by Iran and Syria.
Seen across the Arab world as the hero of Israel's first modern battlefield
defeat, Hezbollah has a formidable fighting machine. It also has largely
replaced the state in providing essential services to hundreds of thousands
of Lebanese, especially Shiites, the country's largest and poorest
Hezbollah has built that backing from the grass roots up with a
comprehensive aid network that affects new supporters like Mr. Alout, as
well as many Hezbollah sympathizers who aren't Shiite or even Muslim.
"Hezbollah gives assistance to the Lebanese people, not to Lebanese
religious sects, and this is the reason why they have so many backers,"
says Georges Najem, a Maronite Christian lawyer from the southern city of
Sidon who represents the Hezbollah bloc, called Faithfulness to Resistance,
in parliament. The bloc controls 12 of the 128 seats in Lebanon's
parliament -- a considerable achievement under an electoral system heavily
skewed against the Shiites.
Aid organizations have offices in mostly Shiite southern Beirut and in
Shiite strongholds of south Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley, as does Hezbollah
itself. People apply at these offices for services they want -- Mr. Alout's
request for a road to be built to his farm is pending -- and case workers
visit families to distribute the aid and confirm that it is needed. They
also keep tabs on the recipients' political feelings and religious observance.
Long regarded as a terrorist organization by the U.S., Hezbollah also
received tacit diplomatic recognition during its 18-year campaign from 1982
to 2000 against Israeli occupation of parts of Lebanon. Western powers
deemed its war on Israeli occupation troops as resistance rather than
terrorism. Yet, the U.S. says, Hezbollah carried on terrorist activities
outside Lebanon and against other targets during the period -- even as some
European nations opened cordial dialogue with the group. Today, Hezbollah
remains an ardent supporter of Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel and
yet continues to apply the resistance label to its occasional attacks on
Israeli border patrols and to the Arab-Israeli conflict in general -- a
position echoed in much of the Arab world.
Hezbollah's political, social and economic power in Lebanon make Beirut an
obliging host. Lebanon became the first nation to publicly refuse
Washington's post-Sept. 11 demand to freeze the assets of some
organizations designated by the U.S. as terrorist -- such as Hezbollah or
Palestinian groups such as Hamas.
"We are clear in our position: We are ready to cooperate on all the other
things," said Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in an interview late
last month. "But everything related to the Arab-Israeli conflict has to be
That position will be tested after Dec. 27, when all countries have to
notify a special United Nations implementation committee about the steps
they have taken to curb terrorist groups. Lebanon has a debt burden of
about $26 billion, and the economy depends on international commerce and
banking. Many foreign firms would bolt if Lebanon was designated a "sponsor
of terrorism." The U.S. already has applied the designation to Syria and
Iran, which provide Hezbollah with cash, weapons and logistical support.
While the U.S. and most of the West agreed that Hezbollah's 18-year war on
Israel constituted rightful resistance against foreign occupiers who had
killed thousands of Lebanese civilians, they contest the militia's
assertion that the Israeli withdrawal is incomplete -- and say Hezbollah
should now disband its military wing. Beyond this campaign, the U.S. in
particular holds the organization responsible for a variety of positions
and actions that meet Washington's definition of terrorist:
All-out support for Islamic Jihad and Hamas, the groups behind suicide
attacks such as the blasts that killed 26 Israelis in Haifa and Jerusalem
this month. A large billboard on Beirut's main shopping thoroughfare, Hamra
Street, proclaims Hezbollah's new focus on wiping out the Jewish state:
"Jerusalem, we are coming!" it says under the picture of that city's Al
Aqsa mosque and a detachment of guerrillas marching to conquer it.
--The killing of hundreds of Americans in the suicide truck bombing of U.S.
Marine barracks and the American Embassy in Beirut in 1983, and the
American Embassy annex in Beirut in 1984, the U.S. says.
--Participation in the kidnapping of several Western hostages throughout
the 1980s and in the hijacking of TWA flight 847 in 1985, during which a
U.S. sailor was killed.
--The bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and of the
Jewish community center there in 1994.
The person believed to be responsible for much of this is the head of
Hezbollah's special-operations unit, Imad Mughniyeh, a highly secretive man
who intelligence officials say has had plastic surgery to disguise his
appearance. Hezbollah's current leadership, headed by Sheikh Hassan
Nasrallah since 1992, insists it wasn't involved in any of these actions
and professes ignorance about Mr. Mughniyeh, for whose capture Washington
has offered a reward of as much as $25 million since Sept. 11.
The U.S. government has learned that Mr. Mughniyeh, working under an
assumed name, is currently a member of Hezbollah's executive committee, its
main leadership body. Asked about Mr. Mughniyeh, Abdullah Kassir, a
Hezbollah parliament member and head of the group's executive committee
from 1992 to 1997, says, "I have no answer."
Much to Washington's consternation, some of America's Western allies are
giving Hezbollah the benefit of the doubt. In a post-Sept. 11 report to the
European Commission, European Union ambassadors to Beirut agreed that there
is no evidence of Hezbollah's current involvement in international
terrorism, said an ambassador from a large European country. Britain,
Washington's closest European ally, lists as terrorist Hezbollah's
"external security branch," but not Hezbollah as a whole.
The U.S., however, long continued to regard all of Hezbollah as a terrorist
organization. Since the Lebanese civil war ended in 1990, leaving Syria in
control of Lebanon's security affairs, Washington has regularly asked for
extradition or prosecution of militants it held responsible for killing
Americans. Lebanon, which announced an amnesty for most civil-war crimes,
During that period, some European nations financed trips by Hezbollah
officials to Europe. Mr. Kassir, whose parliamentary functions include
sitting on a committee that promotes Western tourism to Lebanon, delights
in recounting how he visited Italy, Germany and Brazil as part of an
official Hezbollah delegation during the past four years. In Italy, he was
welcomed by the foreign minister; in Germany, by senior officials at the
interior ministry; in Brazil, he says he gave a speech to the Sao Paulo
Now, as the Palestinian intifadah produces almost a daily death toll,
meeting renewed U.S. requests to act against Hezbollah would mean "going
against our population," says Salim Hoss, who served as Lebanon's prime
minister four times between 1976 and 2000. That, he says, is because "while
not everyone in Lebanon supported Hezbollah in the past, everybody does
Hezbollah officials don't like to discuss its funding or outlays. Diplomats
and analysts believe that the organization and all its affiliates control
the flow of several hundred million dollars annually. Much of the money
comes directly from Iran, the world's only Shiite-ruled country, and from a
20% tax on profits that Shiites are required by their religion to give to
worthy causes. Another source is the thousands of wealthy Lebanese Shiites
living overseas, especially in West Africa, where they control a large part
of the diamond trade. The U.S. alleges that part of Hezbollah's money comes
from criminal activities on American soil, such as a cigarette-smuggling
ring broken up in Charlotte, N.C., earlier this year.
The strength of this second economy within Lebanon leads some to shrug off
the threat of American sanctions. Mr. Kassir, the member of parliament,
believes that fellow Arab nations could wipe out Lebanon's debt in just one
day if the U.S. imposed sanctions on the country. "And how can they freeze
our assets?" he wonders. "Our assets are not in banks but in the hearts of
The engine of the economy is Jihad al Binaa, or Construction Jihad, a
conglomerate established in 1988 that deals with everything from rebuilding
Lebanese homes destroyed during the war to irrigation and roads. As he sits
in his southern Beirut office, on a street bedecked with giant portraits of
the late Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini and the "martyrs" of
Hezbollah's suicide bombings, Jihad al Binaa general manager Ibrahim Ismail
ticks off some priorities on his agenda. These include providing correct
fertilizers to Lebanese farmers, building new Islamic schools, establishing
beehives and developing trout cultivation in the Bekaa Valley. Altogether,
some 3,000 farmers in the Bekaa Valley and 1,000 in southern Lebanon are
served by Jihad al Binaa, says Mr. Ismail, a professional agronomist, as he
looks at papers with the letterhead of the Iranian Ministry of Agriculture
Jihad, Lebanese Section, on his desk.
In the drab southern Beirut suburbs known as the "misery belt," a sprawling
zone populated mostly by Shiites, even the drinking water comes from
Hezbollah. The seven-story concrete apartment blocks here have no tap
water, so Jihad al Binaa buys fresh water from the Lebanese government and
distributes it free through 120 tanks positioned on street corners, and
usually emblazoned with the Iranian flag.
Mr. Ismail says his budget runs about $6 million to $8 million a year,
though he adds that this money produces the same effect as $60 million to
$80 million spent by conventional aid organizations. The main goal of Jihad
al Binaa, he says, is to foster a "resistance society" -- an integral part
of Hezbollah's military effort against Israel.
Another part of Hezbollah cares for the families of its 1,284 "martyrs"
fallen in battle, providing free education for their children and pensions
for their widows. The Hezbollah foundation Beit al Jarrah deals with those
wounded in battle. Its services range from basic rehabilitation to finding
wives for severely disabled guerrillas.
"It's not that difficult," explains Abu Hassan Yassin, a Beit al Jarrah
official. "Here, many women would consider marrying the war-wounded, those
who are really sick, as their personal contribution to the jihad."
In the foundation's southern Beirut facility, disabled veterans spend their
days weaving baskets, taking computer classes and carving souvenirs with
the group's logo that features an AK-47 submachine gun clutched in a raised
fist. Those who need treatment abroad are sent there by Hezbollah; the
group also pays the tuition of veterans who choose to study in Western
universities. On the wall hangs a poster of a rehabilitation center,
including a hotel, education facility and soccer field, that Beit al Jarrah
is building in the south.
"We have much better morale than disabled people with other ideologies --
after all, this is a resistance society, and we are sons of the
resistance," says Haj Imad, the head of Beit al Jarrah's educational
activities, who himself lost a leg in a clash with Israelis in 1986.
The ideology gets reinforced by Al Manar, Hezbollah's television station,
which broadcasts around the world -- including the U.S., via the Telstar 5
satellite of New York-based Loral Space & Communications Ltd. American
viewers can see it with a satellite dish.
At Al Manar's state-of-the-art facility in Beirut, staff prepare talk
shows, news broadcasts that usually focus on the Palestinian intifadah and
even soap operas. The latest soap, "Izzeddin al Qassam," has the same name
as the military wing of Hamas. It features the life story of al Qassam, a
Syrian preacher and hero of Islamic radicals who led a guerrilla campaign
against French occupiers and then sparked a Palestinian uprising against
British troops and Jewish settlers in 1935.
Al Manar's jovial chairman, Nayef Krayem, sees part of his mission as
psychological warfare. He has been proud of Al Manar's frequently
transmitted Hebrew-language clip that showed gory footage of Palestinian
suicide bombings, with the warning: "Zionists, there is no security for you
in Tel Aviv -- for your own safety we advise you to return to Europe and to
the United States, from where you came."
But, after the Sept. 11 suicide attacks on the U.S., this message is no
longer as persuasive, Mr. Krayem complains. "Bin Laden spoiled everything
for us," he says. "Now we have to look for a new clip."
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