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Hizbullah: Political Party or Terrorist Organization?

Hizbullah: Political Party or Terrorist Organization?

Yale scholar says Lebanese organization is in the process of joining the political mainstream

Steve Aziz Joudi Email Steve AzizJoudi

In March of 2005, US President George W. Bush appealed to the Lebanese guerrilla group Hizbullah to prove that it was not a terrorist organization by laying down its arms and working toward peace. To date his call has not been answered. However, many scholars do not consider Hizbullah to be a terrorist organization, pointing to several factors that indicate as much. This discourse was the topic of a lecture presented at UCLA on April 27, 2005, entitled "Hizbullah: Political Party or Terrorist Organization?"

Dr. Rola El-Husseini of Yale University contended that "while Hizbullah had been a terrorist organization in the 1980s, it is a legitimate political party in Lebanon today." Dr. El-Husseini argued that the label "terrorist" is largely being used to categorize and describe Hizbullah by two groups of people: "1) Americans in their war on terrorism and Israelis who do not agree with the party's politics vis-à-vis Israel, and 2) some Lebanese groups and individuals unhappy with Hizbullah's increasing importance in Lebanese politics and with its social and political agenda." She pointed to the following events to support her argument.

According to Dr. El-Husseini, "several events since 1989 contributed to the transformation of Hizbullah from a terrorist organization into a political party—if not social movement. This transformation was part of a conscious effort on the part of Hizbullah to transform itself into a political party, exactly to avoid the label of being a terrorist organization." She pointed to Hizbullah's participation in the first postwar legislative elections of 1992 as just one example. "This event is known as the ‘Lebanonization' of Hizbullah, and manifests not only in the party's participation in political life, but also in the development of the network of charities it has established since the 1980s." Since 1992, Hizbullah has participated in every legislative and municipal election and, according to Dr. El-Husseini, has won on average 12 seats in each election.

Furthermore, while the group figures as a terrorist organization on many countries' lists (e.g. the United States, Canada and Australia), the European Union has not branded the party as such. According to Dr. El-Husseini, "despite US pressure, and the wishes of the UK and the Netherlands, the European Union has refused to place Hizbullah on its list of terrorist organizations, arguing that it is a legitimate political party with an extensive network of charitable organizations operating in Lebanon." With regard to the charitable organizations, Dr. El-Husseini identified two primary types of services: 1) institutions providing services to the armed resistance, and 2) those delivering services to a wider group in need of social and economic assistance. In addition to the numerous schools and hospitals that rely on Hizbullah for financial and administrative support, Dr. El-Husseini highlighted another Hizbullah project: "Benevolant Loan, Al-Qard al-Hassan, which opened in 1984, specializes in providing micro-credit, and administers an average of 750 loans per month."

Addressing those who claim that Hizbullah is a terrorist organization conducting operations against Israelis, Dr. El-Husseini observed that in recent times the group has only conducted attacks on Israeli Defense Forces in the Shebaa Farms area, a disputed strip on the border between Lebanon, Israel and Israeli-occupied Syrian territory. She said that Hizbullah has not participated in any suicide bombings or other attacks aimed at Israeli civilians since the 1980s, which is consistent with what President Bush said in an interview on March 15, 2005, that "Hizbullah has been declared a terrorist organization by the United States because of terrorist activities in the past."

Dr. El-Husseini furthermore observed that Hizbullah's activities, which are aimed at defending Lebanon against Israeli occupation, are supported by the leaders of the Lebanese opposition. In a comment to Reuters after his meeting with Hizbullah General Secretary Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said that Hizbullah should keep its arms until Israel withdraws from the disputed areas: "When our ambitions are met, in agreement with the resistance, over Shebaa Farms, then we will talk about [Hizbullah] arms."

Dr. El-Husseini conceded that Israel's withdrawal from Southern Lebanon in 2000 has "created an 'identity crisis' for Hizbullah by depriving the party of its main raison d'etre." She said that she would "like to make a case for the idea that Hizbullah has since 2000 been in search of a role in the region, which might explain its attempts at involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict, what has been termed its 'Palestinianization,' or its attempts to react to the Iraq war." Nevertheless, she said, the party could be coming out of its identity crisis today. "The nuances in Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah's speech on March 8, 2005 show that the party is attuned not only to international opinion and pressure but also to the feelings and opinions of its own Lebanese constituency," she argued.

According to Dr. El-Husseini, the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005 accelerated events and hastened the emergence of Hizbullah's new identity, transforming it into a legitimate political party. "Several anti-Syrian demonstrations led to a pro-Syrian counter-demonstration led by Hizbullah which brought about half a million people into the streets on March 8, 2005. The speech made by the Secretary General of Hizbullah that day projected an image of a national movement and a message that was sympathetic to Syria without being aligned with it," she asserted. Dr. El-Husseini maintained that the demonstration reflected the group's organizational and recruitment capacities and clearly showed its broad popular support.

Dr. El-Husseini's talk was timely, falling on the same day as the Syrian military pullout from Lebanon. "Today, Syria's pullout from Lebanon is complete, and Hizbullah finds itself at an important crossroads. It will have to decide whether to become a more conventional political party, but it will probably do so only if and when that becomes absolutely necessary. While that time has perhaps not yet come, it appears to be close," she said. In this regard, the US role in the region may prove crucial. Dr. El-Husseini concluded by stating that "the US should stop labeling Hizbullah as a 'terrorist organization' and should encourage the party to consolidate its transformation and become a mainstream political party."

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