During a funeral procession for the victims of a recent car bomb in Beirut’s Shia Muslim slums, a defiant, rhythmic chant rose from the multitude of mourners.
“Khomeini is our chief,” the crowd roared, praising Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, “and Hezbollah is our army.”
Virtually unknown two years ago, the war cry of Hezbollah--a term taken from the Koran that means “Party of God"--has become a fixture of everyday life in Lebanon.
For a time, Hezbollah was ridiculed as too radical to find easy acceptance in Lebanon’s Shia community, which is more cosmopolitan than its counterpart in Iran. Nevertheless, the popularity of the fundamentalist organization has ballooned in recent weeks, seemingly in direct proportion to the number of Israeli raids against Shia villages in southern Lebanon.
“The more they kill us, the more we grow,” said Abu Haidar, the code name of a dapper young man who is Hezbollah’s director of press relations. “Imagine a tree,” he said. “Every time you cut it, it grows another branch. That’s us.”
Perhaps as a result, the group’s symbol, an arm rising from the word Hezbollah with a gun clutched in its fist, has recently been splattered in blood-red paint across entire neighborhoods in Beirut’s poorer districts.
Hezbollah has made it clear that--beyond expelling the Israelis from southern Lebanon--its long-term goal is to scrap Lebanon’s traditional practice of sharing power between Muslims and Christians in favor of an Islamic state whose allegiance is to Iran.
American authorities have accused Hezbollah of being responsible for suicide bomb attacks on two U.S. Embassy buildings and the devastating explosion at the U.S. Marine barracks here in 1983 that killed 241 American servicemen. Hezbollah is also believed to be one of many radical groups that identify themselves as Islamic Jihad (Islamic Holy War) in claiming responsibility for a number of terrorist incidents in the Mideast.
While denying responsibility for attacks on the U.S. facilities, Hezbollah’s guiding lights do not exactly condemn them, either. As in Iran, the followers of Hezbollah regard the United States as the embodiment of evil because of its support for Israel.
“America is the country which supports terrorist attacks,” said Sheik Ibrahim Amin, a firebrand Shia cleric from the town of Baalbek. He is just 33 years old but is widely regarded as one of Hezbollah’s top leaders.
“We are ready to work against America and to kill Americans,” Amin said in an interview, his right hand working a set of jade worry beads. “Every country in the world has the right to fight against American terrorism, and we support them.”
If anyone doubted the strength of Hezbollah, the doubt was dispelled in the wake of the Israeli withdrawal from the seaport of Sidon on Feb. 16. Two days after the withdrawal, several thousand Hezbollah supporters traveled by motorcade from Beirut to Sidon, put on a demonstration to mark the “liberation” of the city and denounced President Amin Gemayel, a Christian, as the “Shah of Lebanon.”
The demonstration shocked Sidon, which is primarily Sunni Muslim, and upset Syria, which had been working to avoid communal tension after the Israeli pullout.
Amal Losing Influence
The growth of Hezbollah has taken place largely at the expense of Amal, the mainstream Shia militia organization. Amal’s leader, Nabih Berri, is a lawyer who joined a coalition government with Lebanon’s Christians and even supported talks with Israel in the border town of Naqoura, talks that were designed to coordinate moves of the Lebanese army with Israeli forces during the latter’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon.
Cooperation with Lebanon’s Christian leaders or with Israel is anathema to Hezbollah, which has advocated placing the Christians on trial and destroying Israel in a jihad, or holy war.
The mere mention of Khomeini’s name seems to transport followers of Hezbollah into a sort of religious rhapsody. Indeed, Hezbollah espouses an idea, initiated in Iran, that is known as “the rule of the theologian.” The theologian, even in Lebanon’s case, is Iran’s Khomeini.
Although Hezbollah has emerged from the shadows recently, issuing a 48-page manifesto and having press conferences for the first time, little is known about its structure. Its leaders repeatedly make the point that Hezbollah eschews the trappings of organizations--membership cards, for example.
Hezbollah sprang up in partnership with a group called Islamic Amal, a militia that broke away from mainstream Amal and had its headquarters in Baalbek, in the Bekaa Valley.
According to Hezbollah’s manifesto, its Muslim fundamentalist members are “the children of the nation whose vanguard in Iran was bestowed with victory.” This vanguard, it said, is laying the foundation for a “pan-Islamic state” under Khomeini’s guidance.
Constantly On the Move
In Lebanon, the Hezbollah leadership is believed to be shared by a council of Shia clerics whose membership is kept a closely guarded secret, apparently as a security precaution. Sheik Amin acknowledges that he is constantly on the move. He will not make an appointment more than a few hours in advance.
In addition to the council, a senior Shia cleric, Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, acknowledges that he is Hezbollah’s “spiritual guide,” although he said in an interview that he takes no role in the group’s decision-making. A newspaper recently described him as the most influential man in Lebanon today.
“In Lebanon, the Shias are in a state of confrontation with persecution and deprivation,” Fadlallah said. “We must admit, however, that the cause of Shias has benefited from the state of violence that has prevailed in Lebanon.”
20 Yards From Blast
The car bomb that exploded in Beirut’s southern suburb of Ghbaire on March 8, killing 80 people, was apparently aimed at Fadlallah, whose office is only 20 yards from the scene of the blast. Fadlallah was not present at the time; he had been detained at his mosque by an insistent woman seeking his help--this circumstance has entered the Hezbollah lore as a sort of divine intervention.
Within a few hours of the explosion, Hezbollahis, as the group’s supporters are known, had hoisted signs in English on an apartment building wrecked in the blast, signs that said “Made in USA” and “Death to the USA.” Hundreds of people flocked to join the organization.
‘Islamic Resistance Movement’
At the moment, most of Hezbollah’s energies are concentrated in southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah finances and otherwise supports the “Islamic Resistance Movement” against the Israeli occupation. One recent estimate puts Hezbollah’s strength in Lebanon at 5,000 guerrillas, but the organization is so loose that the number is probably meaningless.
There appears to be a loose command structure, though no one will discuss it. A senior commander, Khalil Jeradi, was killed recently when a bomb exploded at a mosque in Maarake, where he was meeting a senior official of Amal.
At one point, Hezbollah appeared to be attracting guerrillas by means of relatively high pay and bonuses for attacking the Israelis. But Israel’s recent security measures--mass arrests and the destruction of civilian homes, which some Israeli officials have called “the policy of the iron fist"--also have become a recruiting incentive.
Turning Against Israel
“We think Israel has raped the human spirit in southern Lebanon,” Sheik Amin said in the interview. “We are working to have the whole world turn against Israel, even the American people.”
Amin is rankled by Hezbollah’s popular image as a group responsible, in the name of religion, for smashing bars and blowing up nightclubs. He said such acts are aberrations, comparable to the violence that has taken place in the United States by right-to-life extremists in the campaign against abortion.
“You know, we’re not against the American people,” he said. “Why didn’t anyone ask what was happening here in Lebanon? Why do you continue to have more respect for a little bottle of beer than for the lives of people? People are getting killed every day in Lebanon, and the American government isn’t saying anything to stop it.”