Frontline World

LEBANON - Party of God, May 2003

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "Party of God"

A History of Hezbollah

Negotiating With Hezbollah

Lebanon Country Profile

Hezbollah, the Region and U.S. Policy




The Story
Archaeological landmark, Students protesting Syrian occupation, Man bows his head in prayer

Watch VideoTwo thousand years ago, Julius Caesar ordered the construction of the largest temple in the Roman empire -- a monument to the god Jupiter -- in what is now Lebanon's Bekaa Valley near the border with Syria. The temple ruins are spectacular, but as he wanders through the site, FRONTLINE/World reporter David Lewis finds himself almost alone. Tourists avoid these ancient ruins because nearby the militant Islamic group, Hezbollah, once trained its fighters.

The Bekaa valley is outlaw territory, long known as a haven for terrorists, counterfeiting and drug smuggling. Syrian soldiers -- who intervened in Lebanon's civil war years ago and never left -- still dominate the region. Accompanied by a local Lebanese reporter, Hikmat Sharif, who works for Agence France-Presse, Lewis enters the town of Baalbek, a Hezbollah stronghold. Posters of Hezbollah "martyrs," or suicide bombers, line the streets of the city. A souvenir store sells videos of Hezbollah guerrillas attacking Israeli soldiers, alongside shelves of Hezbollah hats and postcards. They even market a Hezbollah scent called "perfume of the martyrs."

Founded in 1982 in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Hezbollah -- "Party of God" in Arabic -- based its ideology on the 1979 Iranian revolution and the teachings of Ayatollah Khomeini. Lewis spots the old castle where Iranian Revolutionary Guards came in 1981 and later trained Hezbollah recruits. He also sees where Hezbollah held Western hostages they kidnapped in the 1980s during Lebanon's long civil war. He even spots a notorious airplane hijacker who is living quietly in Baalbek.

Hijackings, bombings, a brutal civil war between Christians and Muslims -- that's what Lebanon was known for in the 1970s and 1980s, especially the capital, Beirut, which was reduced to rubble. But Lewis discovers that Beirut is largely peaceful today and much restored, eager to reclaim its old reputation as "the Paris of the Middle East." He sees American fast food restaurants, fancy cafes, belly dancers, even a luxury car show hosted by Miss Lebanon and prosperous businessmen seeking to attract foreign investment.

But as a tourist from Bahrain tells him, "Lebanon has no middle class. It's like India, where you can find very rich people who can afford to spend as much as you can think of, and poor who can't even afford to eat."

Not far from the prosperous Westernized center of Beirut, Lewis enters the Palestinian refugee camps, where rightwing Christian militias allied with Israel once massacred hundreds of Palestinians. Here, among the poor and disenfranchised -- and in the Lebanese Shiite neighborhoods -- Hezbollah took root. Lewis manages to get into a local Hezbollah rally in honor of the Iranian revolution. Under the watchful eye of a large Ayatollah Khomeini poster, the crowd sings, "Death, death, death to Israel!" And Hezbollah's charismatic secretary-general, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, inveighs against the United States, urging his Shiite followers to resist the Americans in Iraq.

America and Hezbollah have a bloody history. When the United States intervened in Lebanon's civil war, Hezbollah bombed the U.S. embassy twice and attacked a military barracks, killing 241 Marines. Some in Washington want to avenge these suicide bombings.

"Hezbollah may be the A-team of terrorists and maybe Al Qaeda is actually the B-team," argues Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. "They're on the list and their time will come. There is no question about it. They have a blood debt to us and we're not going to forget it. It's all in good time."

Ironically, in Lebanon, Hezbollah has been remaking itself as a mainstream political organization. They operate a satellite television channel (Al Manar), a radio station and a Web site. They have 11 members in the Lebanese parliament. Lewis also visits a modern Hezbollah-run hospital -- "one of the best in Beirut" -- as well as one of the group's many schools.

"America is a great country with a lot of good people," a Hezbollah MP, Amar Mussawi, tells Lewis. Representing the "moderate" public face of Hezbollah, Mussawi denounces the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington. He argues that Hezbollah is not a terrorist organization, but a Lebanese resistance movement.

Hezbollah is so entrenched in Lebanon's political system that few Lebanese dare to criticize it openly. But attorney and human rights activist Muhammad Mugrabi tells Lewis that Hezbollah's presence "is a recipe for trouble for Lebanon ...They are not subject to the rule of law." Hezbollah is "untouchable" because Syria -- with 20,000 troops in Lebanon -- still backs Hezbollah and holds sway over Lebanon's President Emile Lahoud.

Attending Lebanon's annual independence day celebrations, Lewis discovers "a strange exercise in political theater." The public is not invited -- only political and military leaders and the press. "The parade had a make-believe quality," says Lewis. "For its closing number the band played a familiar song, the theme from Monty Python."

Heading south to Lebanon's border with Israel, Lewis enters an area where the Lebanese army has little authority -- this is Hezbollah country, in which Hezbollah acts as a surrogate army for its patrons, Iran and Syria. A thin blue line of U.N. peacekeepers stands guard along the border, but here Hezbollah claims its greatest triumph -- compelling Israeli soldiers to withdraw from southern Lebanon in 2000.

The border is quiet now. Syria, Iran and Hezbollah held their fire during the U.S. war in Iraq. But Hezbollah refuses to withdraw from the border. At its annual Jerusalem Day march, Hezbollah flexes its muscle, showing off its soldiers and restating its official position: Israel has no right to exist.

Back in Beirut, Lewis interviews the man widely considered to be Hezbollah's spiritual advisor, Grand Ayatollah Sayeed Hassan Fadlallah, who also denounces Israel and the United States. But in an otherwise uncompromising interview, Fadlallah, at one point, seems to leave the door open for an end to the conflict with Israel. "I am sure that if Israel withdrew," Fadlallah tells Lewis, "that not a single Palestinian would commit any suicide attack."

But in public, Hezbollah maintains a hardline. At another rally, Lewis hears Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Nasrallah, condemn the United States for trying to control the region and redraw the political map of the Middle East "with Israel's interests in mind." Then Lewis spots the Hezbollah member of parliament he had interviewed earlier, Amar Mussawi, and recalls that, in private conversation, Mussawi offered some small measure of hope that Hezbollah may be willing to accept a Palestinian peace settlement with Israel. But Mussawi makes clear that if the United States decides to go after Hezbollah, "Be sure that we will defend ourselves with all our might."

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