BEIRUT – Forty years since Hezbollah was founded at the height of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the group has morphed from a ragtag organization to the largest and most heavily armed militant group in the Middle East.
The Iranian-armed and funded Hezbollah, which has marked the anniversary with ceremonies in its strongholds in recent weeks, dominates Lebanon’s politics and plays an instrumental role in spreading Tehran’s influence throughout the Arab world.
But the Shiite powerhouse, once praised around the Arab world for unrelentingly standing against Israel, faces deep criticism on multiple fronts.
At home in Lebanon, a significant part of the population opposes its grip on power and accuses it of using the threat of force to prevent change. Across the region, many resent its military interventions in Iraq and in Syria’s civil war, where it helped tip the balance of power in favor of President Bashar Assad’s forces.
There is no specific date on when Hezbollah was founded, starting as a small, shadowy group of fighters helped by Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard. But the group says it happened during the summer of 1982.
The 40th anniversary comes this year as Hezbollah officials have warned of a possible new war with Israel over the disputed gas-rich maritime border between Lebanon and Israel.
Over the years, Hezbollah has boosted its military power. It boasts of having 100,000 well-trained fighters. And now its leader says they have precision-guided missiles that can hit anywhere in Israel and prevent ships from reaching Israel’s Mediterranean coast, as well as advanced drones that can either strike or gather intelligence.
“Hezbollah has evolved tremendously in the past four decades in its organizational structure, global reach, and regional involvements,” says Middle East analyst Joe Macaron.
Hezbollah’s biggest achievement over the past 40 years was its guerrilla war against Israeli forces occupying parts of southern Lebanon. When Israel’s army was forced to withdraw in May 2000 — without a peace deal like the ones it reached with Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians — the victory brought Hezbollah praise from around the Middle East.
“Who would have imagined that our enemy could be defeated?” Hezbollah’s chief spokesman Mohammed Afif said a press conference held in July to mark the anniversary.
But since the withdrawal, the controversy over Hezbollah has steadily grown as its role has changed.
In 2005, Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the most powerful Sunni politician in the country at the time, was killed in a massive truck bomb in Beirut. A U.N.-backed tribunal accused three Hezbollah members of being behind the assassination. Hezbollah denies the charges.
Hezbollah was blamed for other assassinations that followed, mostly targeting Christians and Sunni Muslim politicians and intellectuals critical of the group. Hezbollah denies the accusations.
“Hezbollah’s danger to Lebanon is huge,” says journalist and former Cabinet minister May Chidiac who lost an arm and a leg in a 2005 assassination attempt with explosives placed in her car. She said Hezbollah has been expanding Iran’s influence in Lebanon, “and this is a long-term plan that they have been working on for 40 years.”
Asked if Hezbollah is to blame for the attempt on her life, Chidiac said: “Of course. There is no doubt about that. All these assassinations are linked.”
Lebanese have been sharply divided by Hezbollah’s determination to keep its weapons since Israel’s withdrawal. Some call for its disarmament, saying only the state should have the right to carry weapons. Others support the group’s stance that it must continue to be able to defend against Israel.
Hezbollah fought Israel to a draw in a 34-day war in the summer of 2006. Israel today considers Hezbollah its most serious immediate threat, estimating that the militant group has some 150,000 rockets and missiles aimed at it.
In early July, the Israeli military shot down three unmanned aircraft launched by Hezbollah heading toward an area where an Israeli gas platform was recently installed in the Mediterranean Sea. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned that Israel will not be allowed to benefit from its gas fields in the disputed maritime border area before a deal is reached with Lebanon.
Maj. Gen. Ori Gordin, the incoming head of Israel’s Northern Command, described Hezbollah as a “serious threat,” due to both its proximity to Israel and its arsenal.
“This is a very strong terror army,” he told The Associated Press in Jerusalem. “Not as strong as the Israeli military, not as strong as the Israeli air force. We are in a completely different place when it comes to our military capabilities. But it can do some significant damage. I have to say that.”
Afif, the Hezbollah spokesman, said that “as long as there is an aggression, there will be resistance.”
In 2008, the government of Western-backed Prime Minister Fouad Saniora decided to dismantle Hezbollah’s telecommunications network. Hezbollah responded by capturing by force Sunni neighborhoods in Beirut. It was the worst internal fighting since the 1975-90 civil war ended and marked a breach in Hezbollah’s pledge never to use its weapons at home.
Perhaps the most controversial decision Hezbollah has made was by sending thousands of fighters to Syria since 2013 to back Assad against opposition fighters, as well as against al-Qaida-linked fighters and the Islamic State group.
The intervention “meant becoming entangled in the internal conflict of a neighboring Arab country rather than fulfilling Hezbollah’s claimed mandate of resistance against Israel,” Macaron said.
Across the Arab world, it cemented an image of Hezbollah as a sectarian Shiite force fighting mainly Sunni insurgents and spreading Iran’s power.
Hezbollah was also accused of helping Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, leading at least six Arab countries to list the group as a terrorist organization.
Within Lebanon, Hezbollah has used its powerful support among the Shiite community and tough tactics to gain political dominance.
In 2016, it secured the election of its Christian ally Michel Aoun as president, then it and its allies won a parliament majority in subsequent elections.
But that also sealed its role as part of a governing system whose decades of corruption and mismanagement have been blamed for Lebanon’s economic collapse, starting in late 2019. With the currency crumbling and much of the population thrown into poverty, the political elite, which has been running Lebanon since the 1975-90 civil war ended, has resisted reforms.
Massive protests demanding the removal of those politicians began in late 2019, and days afterward, hundreds of Hezbollah supporters attacked the protesters in downtown Beirut, forcing them to flee. In October, Hezbollah supporters and a rival militia had an armed clash in Beirut over investigations into the 2020 devastating explosion at Beirut’s port.
Voters punished Hezbollah and its allies in this year’s elections, making them lose their parliamentary majority.
One former senior figure in Hezbollah, Sobhi Tufaili, pointed to the new image of the group as part of the system in a recent interview with a local TV station.
“There is a ship full of thieves,” he said, “and Hezbollah is its captain and protector.”
Associated Press writer Josef Federman contributed to this report from Jerusalem.