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Last Updated: Friday, 5 March, 2004, 23:30 GMT
New era for Hezbollah
By Hugh Sykes
BBC, Lebanon

Building in Beirut (picture taken by Hugh Sykes)
Bullet-scarred buildings in Beirut stand as a reminder of the civil war
The Party of God - are they terrorists, or defenders? It is the eternal question.

The US still brand Hezbollah as terrorists.

Hezbollah, whose name translates as "the party of God", see themselves as defenders of southern Lebanon.

The group was formed - with financial backing from Iran - in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Some 22 years on, Hezbollah is a mainstream Lebanese political party, with nine members of parliament.

Most are Shia, but one is a Sunni Muslim, and one is a Maronite Christian.

Gone are the days when talking to Hezbollah required cloak-and-dagger contacts in southern Beirut
Hezbollah run medical clinics, and they have their own TV station, al-Manar.

Its output is a surreal mix of propaganda, news, football, and there is even a children's programme called "Goldfinch".

Al-Manar also have an English-language website.

New openness

And gone are the days when talking to Hezbollah required cloak-and-dagger contacts in southern Beirut.

Now, you just call them, arrange an interview, and take a taxi.

I went to see Nawaf al-Moussawi, Hezbollah's head of international relations, at their office near a mosque and just down the road from a funfair with a small ferris wheel.

Nawaf al-Moussawi (picture taken by Hugh Sykes)
Hezbollah's head of international relations is a philosophy graduate from Beirut university

There was no visible security - I just took the lift to the second floor, and was welcomed into a room decorated with the Lebanese flag, the flag of the Hezbollah Party, and photographs of the former Iranian leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, and of his successor, Ayatollah Khamenei.

The Iranian connection is particularly troublesome to the US.

They accuse Iran of continuing to sponsor a "terrorist" group, and they blame Hezbollah for the suicide bomb attacks on the US embassy and the US marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 in which 326 people died.

Hezbollah say they had nothing to do with those attacks.

At the time responsibility for them was claimed by what was then a new group, Islamic Jihad.

But terrorism experts believe a senior Hezbollah member, Imad Mugniyeh, was involved.


Hezbollah are also believed to have been behind many of the kidnappings of foreigners, including Terry Waite and John McCarthy.

And they were specifically accused of executing two captives, US army colonel William Higgins, and the head of CIA operations in Lebanon, William Buckley.

Hezbollah flag (picture taken by Hugh Sykes)
Hezbollah sympathised with suicide attacks against Americans in Beirut

Hezbollah have said they understand why the attacks on the Americans took place - as a response to the US entering Lebanon and appearing to take sides in the civil war.

Soon after that assertion, a car bomb was detonated near the home of the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, Sayyed Fadlallah.

He survived, but 83 people were killed.

This attempted assassination was widely rumoured to have been carried out by the CIA.

Hezbollah say their resistance eventually forced Israel to withdraw from Lebanon.

Prisoner swaps

And the Party of God has now become so "official" that Israel does deals with it.

At the end of January 2004, hundreds of Hezbollah and Palestinian fighters were freed in return for just one Israeli businessman and the bodies of three soldiers.

Commentators in Lebanon described it as a golden deal, but this apparently unbalanced exchange had happened before.

In 1985, three captured soldiers were returned to Israel in return for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, 160 of whom had been convicted and jailed for murder.

Hezbollah is backed by Syria, too.

American pressure on Syria may explain why Hezbollah now has to be very careful to ensure that its military activities are exclusively defensive - so that they can no longer be branded as terrorists.

Evidence for this is that "unauthorised" Palestinian activity against Israel from Lebanese territory is often stopped by Hezbollah.

The BBC's Hugh Sykes
"A fair settlement for Palestinians is the key to defusing much Arab anger in the view of Hezbollah"

Country profile: Lebanon
11 Sep 03  |  Country profiles
Timeline: Lebanon
06 Aug 03  |  Country profiles
Analysis: Changing times for Hezbollah
30 Jan 04  |  Middle East
Mid-East prisoners welcomed home
29 Jan 04  |  Middle East
Syria stands by Hezbollah
01 Jul 02  |  Middle East
Who are Hezbollah?
04 Apr 02  |  Middle East

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