Hezbollah has lately been preoccupied with defending President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria’s civil war, but its latest confrontation with Israel — a rocket attack on an Israeli military vehicle in retaliation for an Israeli strike in Syria that killed some of its commanders and an Iranian general — is a reminder of why Hezbollah was created.
The Shia armed and political group was formed in 1985 to fight Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon that began three years earlier. It emerged from groups created by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps units sent to Lebanon to fight the Israelis, and it built a popular support base among Lebanese Shia antagonized by the occupation. The movement's fighters carried on a sustained campaign of guerrilla warfare against Israeli forces in Lebanon, and launched attacks on Israeli civilians in other countries. The group has between 5,000 and 10,000 fighters and receives tens of millions of dollars in support from Iran, according to Global Security.
The movement's precursors were accused of the 1983 suicide bombing attacks that killed 258 Americans at a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, and 58 French paratroopers at their own barracks. And it was accused, along with Iran, of responsibility for the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires, in which 85 people were killed.
Israeli forces withdrew unilaterally from southern Lebanon under cover of darkness in 2000 after losing more than 350 personnel and suffering some 1,200 wounded, allowing Hezbollah to proclaim itself the first Arab army ever to force Israel to cede control of territory under fire. The group receives military, financial and strategic support from Iran, and logistical backing from Syria, which has helped make Hezbollah arguably the most organized and successful non-state military force in the world. Hezbollah is deemed a "terrorist organization" by Israel, the United States, the European Union and the Gulf Cooperation Council, but besides its military wing, it also operates a massive welfare system and is one of the largest political parties represented in Lebanon’s parliament.
Hezbollah has certainly tested Israel's ability to prevail over regional challengers by relying on its vastly superior armaments. The movement's "resistance" credentials were further burnished in 2006, when a Hezbollah attack on Israeli forces on the border triggered a 34-day war that included an Israeli ground invasion. That confrontation ended inconclusively: Despite more than 1,100 Lebanese deaths and 165 Israeli deaths, neither side was able to prevail militarily. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the movement's leader, claimed success by virtue of having withstood the effort by Israel's much stronger military forces to dislodge, much less disarm Hezbollah, and its status around the Arab world was significantly boosted.
That status soured, however, as a result of the Syrian conflict, which has further stoked the divide between Shias and Sunnis. Hezbollah opted to back the Assad regime, its patron in Damascus, pitting the group against the citizens challenging the dictatorship. Hezbollah is even credited with tipping the civil war's balance back into the regime’s favor, sending thousands of fighters to boost Assad's forces on some key front lines. The movement’s leadership has concluded that the survival of the Assad regime — which has provided a vital conduit for weapons sent by Iran — is critical to Hezbollah’s own prospects. However, Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria has inspired Sunni groups to carry out attacks in Lebanon, which exacerbates the movement's domestic problems, especially after allegations that it was involved in the assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigating Hariri's assassination has hinted that Syria and Hezbollah may have been involved in the attack, but the tribunal has yet to complete its probe.
Hariri's death — in which Hezbollah and Syria denied any involvement — sparked mass demonstrations in Beirut calling for Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, which Assad eventually did on April 27, 2005. The U.S. hoped to use the momentum of that moment to press for the implementation of U.N. Resolution 1559, which requires Hezbollah's disarmament. Hezbollah launched a counter demonstration campaign on March 8 that year, when hundreds of thousands turned up to show their support for Syria. And in a showdown with rival armed groups in May of 2008, it took full military control of Lebanon's capital. Hezbollah is generally viewed as a far more significant military actor than the Lebanese national army — but it has been restrained in confronting Israel since 2006, mindful of the damage inflicted on Lebanese society and the possibility that the movement could pay a political price for any repeat of that campaign.