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The history of Hezbollah

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

As the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza continues, there has been growing concern about it spiraling out into a much broader regional conflict. That's especially true after the White House announced today that an Iranian-backed militia group killed three U.S. service members in Jordan with a drone attack. Another area where things could escalate is Israel's northern border with Lebanon, where there's been an ongoing trade of rocket fire between the Israeli military and Hezbollah, a powerful Shiite Islamic militant group based in Lebanon. To learn more about this group, its history and their role in the conflict, we called Randa Slim. She's a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. And when we spoke earlier this week, she began by telling me how the group formed in reaction to Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon in 1982, in the midst of Lebanon's civil war.

RANDA SLIM: And then they started playing a role in fighting Israel in the southern zone, which was occupied by Israel after the war ended. But then Israel decided to keep a security belt along the border with Lebanon. After the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah said, we still have disputed border issues with Israel, and then used that as a basis for continued military resistance against Israel. However, since their formation in the '80s, you know, and that announcement in a public letter of their, you know, organization in 1985, Hezbollah started entering Lebanese politics. And so it's not only a military group, you know? It's also become part of the - I mean, it had members elected to the Parliaments (inaudible).

DETROW: And let's talk about that for a moment because, you know, often America and other Western countries focus on those military operations. It's designated as a terrorist organization by many Western countries. But it's often, you know, referred to as a state within a state. It is a key player in Lebanese politics. How does it balance its military and political goals? And what do we need to know about that role that it plays within Lebanon?

SLIM: Hezbollah is now also a member of the Cabinet. In 2005, was the first time when they decided to have ministers in the Lebanese cabinet, and they have had ministers since then. But for Hezbollah, their priority has always been to preserve its military role as a substate actor within the state of Lebanon. And politics has always been used as a means to maintain its independent military status.

DETROW: And how has the longtime leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, and other Hezbollah leaders responded to the war over the past few months? Like - because there was a lot of talk early on, will this immediately become a wider regional conflict? And that is still a key concern today. But so far, at least, it seemed more relatively limited to these missile strikes and back and forth. We have not yet seen that wider second front of the war fully open up.

SLIM: Yes. Their response has been a tit for tat, incremental, proportional response to the Israeli attacks on Lebanon. In few speeches he has given since the start of the Gaza War, he said the primary objective of their involvement of the escalation is to support the people in Gaza but also is to, in a way, force Israel to agree to a cease-fire in Gaza. But he has also said that they do not seek to expand the war. But if they were forced by Israel into an all-out war, then there will be no limits to the kind of measures they will be taking. Hezbollah has close to 150,000 precision guided missiles, and Nasrallah said that there will be no limits to the kind of targets we would be seeking if Hezbollah has been forced by Israel into an all-out war.

DETROW: Yeah. The fact that Iran backs Hezbollah, that's an important factor, especially as we look about the possibility of a widening regional conflict - Iran, such a key player in that context. What else do we need to know about the relationship between Iran and Hezbollah at this moment?

SLIM: Hezbollah was founded with the help of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. I mean, they were the ones who trained the first cadre of Hezbollah fighters. They were the ones who provided it with weapons and financial support for a long time and still provide some. Although in the recent years, Hezbollah has been seeking to diversify its funding streams and become independent.

But over the years, the trust level between Hezbollah and Iran has become so high that when it comes to, you know, Lebanese domestic politics, Iran really lets Hezbollah play the leading role and does not get involved in their decision-making. But when it comes to issues of peace and war with Israel, when it comes to issue like any kind of opening with the United States, if it were ever to happen, then they have to make those decision in consultation with Iran and especially in consultation with the Iranian supreme leader.

DETROW: You know, Hezbollah is not, in itself, a Palestinian organization, right? So why exactly is Hezbollah so linked to the Palestinian cause?

SLIM: Hezbollah is definitely a Lebanese organization. And all its fighters, all its leadership are Lebanese. But from the beginning, the mission of Hezbollah has been resistance against Israel and against what they defined the U.S.-led order in the region.

DETROW: And, you know, we're talking about the relatively limited nature of the military exchanges at this moment. You said you expect that to continue. I guess I have another follow-up question there. Given the way that Israel seems really vulnerable in this moment and the Israeli government in particular, really under a lot of pressure, really increasingly unpopular, why do you think Hezbollah is thinking about keeping this limited, wanting to keep this limited? Why doesn't its leaders use this moment to go on the offensive in your mind?

SLIM: Because of the Lebanese domestic context - Lebanon is suffering for some time now from a dire economic crisis.

DETROW: Yeah.

SLIM: And they believe that an all-out war with Israel will be catastrophic for Lebanon on top of these economic conditions they are living under. And so that's why. I mean, it's a Lebanese actor. Hezbollah is a Lebanese actor. It's still an actor that has to be constrained by the domestic political context in which it operates. And it is a domestic political context right now that is opposed to an all-out war with Israel.

DETROW: That's Randa Slim, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. Thanks so much for joining us.

SLIM: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Tinbete Ermyas
Scott Detrow
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.