Hezbollah finds friends abroad

Special to The Times

Hezbollah has extended its international reach by establishing contacts with left-leaning, environmental and peace groups opposed to U.S.-led economic globalization, analysts and people tied to the group say.

The Lebanese Shiite Muslim militant organization and political party, which is designated as a terrorist group by the United States, has participated through a front organization in dozens of gatherings where attendees criticized U.S. foreign policy and global financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

The aim, analysts say, is to rally support for armed opposition to Israel among groups that regard the West’s policies as a threat to developing countries and to the environment.


“Hezbollah succeeded in incorporating the idea of resistance as part of the international anti-globalization movements,” said Abdel-Halim Fadlallah, vice president of Beirut’s Center for Strategic Studies, the Hezbollah-affiliated think tank that often participates in activities abroad.

“Through our contacts with these groups, we have managed to challenge the idea that Hezbollah is a dogmatic terrorist Islamist organization and convince part of the international left that we can be a strong partner,” he said.

Despite significant ideological differences between Hezbollah and the groups, opposition to U.S.-led military operations and economic policies fostered by Washington has brought them together.

Hezbollah has long sought to downplay its previous calls for the establishment of an Islamic state in Lebanon, where Shiite and Sunni Muslims make up more than 60% of the population. It has dramatically shifted its political rhetoric away from religious politics since the 2006 conflict with Israel and now often depicts itself as a universal movement fighting Israeli domination.

“We think of the sacrifices of all the militants in Lebanon and Palestine and the Arab world from Islamists to nationalists to Arabists or any ideological background they come from,” Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, said in July.

Hezbollah-affiliated officials represent the group at gatherings of the World Social Forum, the largest convention of leftist political parties from around the world and organizations opposed to international financial institutions.

Fadlallah said members of the Hezbollah-linked think tank were invited in 2007 to an exclusive meeting of the organizers of the forum.

Ibrahim Moussawi, a Lebanese journalist close to Hezbollah, explained the group’s positions on a speaking tour in Britain in February despite strong opposition to his visit.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah has played host to American intellectuals such as Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky.

“Hezbollah is aware today of the importance of cultivating contacts with the West,” said Leila Ghanem, a professor at Sorbonne University in Paris, who follows Hezbollah. “Social forums are open spaces of discussion. They present an opportunity for a group like Hezbollah to participate and give their opinions.”

To bolster ties with Western scholars, Hezbollah-linked research groups set up academic-style lectures and conferences. After the 2006 Hezbollah- Israel conflict, hundreds of activists and intellectuals from Latin America and Europe arrived in Beirut for such a gathering. That conflict, in which Israel failed to decisively defeat Hezbollah, inspired leftists around the world, said Caoimhe Butterly, an Irish activist who has worked in Lebanon for two years.

“It was a potent symbol that right makes might and that a guerrilla ready to fight for its people can succeed,” she said.

Leftist activists and jurists also conducted a mock trial in Brussels that concluded that Israeli authorities overseeing the conflict were guilty of “war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.”

But some left-leaning social activists are critical of the embrace of Hezbollah.

“Some leftist groups refuse to consider what Islamist organizations are about: their oppressive practices, their violations of rights, their dogmatic rhetoric,” said Ziad Majed, a political researcher living in Beirut and Paris who is a member of the Lebanese Democratic Left group.


Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi contributed to this report.