Hezbollah (1982- ), or حزب الله, said as HEZZ-buh-LAH, which in Arabic means “Party of God” (Hizb + Allah), is the main Shia Muslim party in Lebanon. It rules the south of that country in place of the government, which is much weaker. It gave the world suicide bombers.
Hezbollah has MPs and ministers in the government, but it has not given up its guns and Katyusha rockets, raising its own taxes or even its own foreign policy: in 2006 it started a war against Israel that does not seem to be what the government in Beirut had in mind.
Hezbollah is strong in southern Lebanon, the southern suburbs of Beirut and in the Bekaa Valley in the north-east.
In the south it runs schools, hospitals, businesses, a satellite television station and the best army in the Arab world. It is a small army – a few thousand men at most – armed only with guns, rockets and missiles. Yet, through an artful mix of terror and guerrilla warfare, it has pushed both America and Israel out of Lebanon. It is the only Arab army that has ever defeated Israel in a war.
This has made Hezbollah an enemy of Israel and America. But it has also made it a model and a hope to millions in the Arab world.
Hezbollah has set its sights higher: it has joined the Palestinian Arabs in their fight against Israel. When war broke out in Gaza in 2006, Hezbollah started a war in the north.
Hezbollah may not be acting alone. Syria and especially Iran pour money and arms into Hezbollah, and so it must respect their wishes. In foreign affairs, Hezbollah is to Iran what Israel is to America.
Hezbollah was born in the Bekaa Valley in 1982 when Israel was at war in Lebanon. It was founded by Iran, which had over a thousand men in the valley at that time.
Indeed, Hezbollah at first wanted to turn Lebanon into an Islamic republic just like Iran. Once it had begun to stand for parliament in 1992, however, it quietly dropped that vote-loser.
Hezbollah now sees itself as fighting for the Muslim and Arab world. It says that “Israel” has no right to be on Arab land (its website always puts Israel in quotes). As for America, its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, says that “Death to America” is not just something nice to shout, it is the party’s policy and vision. He blames America for Lebanon’s troubles.
Hezbollah has used suicide truck bombing and kidnapping Westerners as a means of terror. Remember Terry Waite? Remember the 241 American Marines and 58 French soldiers killed in Beirut? That was Hezbollah – way back in the early 1980s.
Hezbollah has murdered over 800 in acts of terror – second only to Al Qaeda.
As things now stand, Hezbollah seems to be the wave of the future in the Arab world. The other answers on offer – like democracy, Arab socialism and banana republicanism – have (so far) failed. Just look at Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
Update (March 12th 2016): Ten years on, Hezbollah has way more battle experience and better weapons (like guided missiles) from fighting in the Syrian Civil War (2011- ). But because it has sided with Syrian President Assad Jr in that war, its shine is gone, enjoying less pan-Arab support. More.