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Hezbollah

JCPA Middle East BriefingIn the October 21 and the October 28 issues of the New Yorker, Jeffrey Goldberg provided a careful examination of the group that may be the world's most dangerous terrorist organization, Hezbollah, or "Party of God." Goldberg's description of the ideology and the goals of this group is important for an understanding of the situation in the Middle East. When participants in the JCPA Leadership Mission to Israel met with officials in Israel recently, they were told that one of Israel's primary present concerns is the situation on their northern border. Following are excerpts from an online interview with Jeffrey Goldberg:

What is Hezbollah? Who are its members?
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Hezbollah is a radical Lebanese Shiite movement, headquartered in Beirut, and backed by the governments of Iran and Syria. It is a political party -- it has eleven seats in the Lebanese parliament -- and it is a social-service group that runs hospitals and orphanages and the like throughout Lebanon. It is a movement, one expert said, that operates on four tracks simultaneously: the political, the social, the guerrilla, and the terrorist. From the perspective of the American government, though, Hezbollah's political activities and charity work are irrelevant; it is the terrorism that interests the American government. American officials consider Hezbollah to be one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the world, one that has killed, over the past twenty years, more than three hundred Americans.

In your article, you describe Hezbollah as "the most successful terrorist organization in modern history." Do you mean that it is successful in the narrow sense of having pulled off acts of public violence, or in the achievement of certain political ends?
Unlike Al Qaeda, for instance, Hezbollah has succeeded, on two notable occasions, in achieving policy goals through the application of terrorist techniques. First, it drove American and French peacekeepers from Lebanon in the early 1980s after a series of deadly bombings. (In one, two hundred and forty-one U.S. marines were murdered.) And two years ago, through guerrilla warfare and terrorism, it forced the Israeli Army to pull out from Israel's so-called security zone in southern Lebanon.

Does Hezbollah have a final goal, a point at which it would be satisfied? For example, certain groups in Ireland want all the Irish counties to be united.
Hezbollah is more ambitious than that. It wants to create in Lebanon an Islamic republic in the style of Iran; it wants to destroy Israel; and it wants to unite the Islamic world under its banner. The word "Hezbollah" means "Party of God," and its leaders do not think of their membership as Shiite alone. All righteous Muslims, in their formulation, are members of the Party of God.

Hezbollah is based in Lebanon, and yet it seems beyond the control of the Lebanese government -- if it can even be called a government. Who controls Lebanon? And is there any state that can be said to control Hezbollah?
The short answer to both questions is Syria. Syria is the power broker in Lebanon; it has occupied the country since the end of the civil war, and it is Hezbollah's patron. Syria's patronage, in fact, explains why Hezbollah was the only militia not forced to disarm when Lebanon was reunified. There is, of course, a government in Lebanon, split up among the country's many confessional groups -- Christians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and Druze, mainly. But national security decisions are in the hands of the Syrians. That said, Hezbollah receives support, inspiration, financial aid, and weapons from Iran. It is not clear, though, if Hezbollah is completely controlled by Iran and Syria, or if it has the capacity and the will to act on its own.

One interesting question you explore is where, in the rhetoric and ideology of Hezbollah, hatred of Israel ends and frank anti-Semitism begins. Can you discuss this distinction? How unusual is Hezbollah in this respect? And how dangerous is it?
To most Israelis, and, indeed, to most Jews, the belief that Israel should be destroyed is itself a kind of anti-Semitism. In other words, the argument approaches anti-Semitism when it goes beyond, say, the rights and wrongs of Israeli policy with regard to the West Bank and Gaza, and becomes a question of whether the Jews constitute a nation that deserves a state at all. That said, something new is happening in the Arab world -- namely, the melding of Arab nationalist-based anti-Zionism, anti-Jewish rhetoric from the Koran, and, most disturbingly, the antique anti-Semitic beliefs and conspiracy theories of European fascism. Add Holocaust denial, which is also becoming popular in the Arab world, and you have a dangerous new ideology, an ideology that Hezbollah, despite its assertions that it has nothing against Jews as Jews, propounds quite vigorously.

There is some concern that the first act of a military conflict between Iraq and the United States might involve Hezbollah firing missiles into Israel. How real is this threat? Do you see a war between the U.S. and Iraq turning into a regional war?
The short answer is that anything is possible. The threat is real; the only question is whether American pressure on Hezbollah's sponsor, Syria, can keep Hezbollah from opening up a campaign to spark an Arab-Israeli war. Such a war would, among other things, divert the world's attention and hamstring the Bush administration's effort to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

Why, in reporting on a Lebanese terrorist group, did you travel to Paraguay? And what did you find there?
Hezbollah, like other Middle Eastern terrorist groups, has sympathizers, financiers, and even terror operatives spread out across the globe. One of the places that Hezbollah is strongest is in the area of South America known as the Triple Frontier, or Tri-Border area, where Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil meet. Law enforcement is lax, which, of course, is attractive to terrorists, and there is a large Arab community in Paraguay and Brazil in which to hide. What I found in the Triple Frontier was a very complex and lucrative funding network for Hezbollah, as well as proof that Hezbollah maintained training camps in the area. I also found that two of the worst terrorist attacks in South American history -- the attacks in Buenos Aires on the Israeli Embassy and on a Jewish community center -- may have been planned in the Triple Frontier.

You describe shakedowns of businesses in Arab immigrant communities in South America. How important are these? Where does Hezbollah get its money, and how does it move it from country to country?
Hezbollah is the best example in the world today of a state-sponsored terror group; it receives most of its budget from the government of Iran, something in the range of a hundred million dollars each year. But it takes in more money than that from its criminal operations, from its fund-raising activities, and from shakedowns of legitimate, or nonaffiliated, Middle Eastern businessmen. This is what happens in the Triple Frontier. Law-enforcement officials I spoke to in the region told me that Hezbollah took in twelve million dollars in the year 2000. It moves its money in much the same way that drug cartels move their money: by washing it through legitimate businesses, and by moving it through shell companies and offshore bank accounts.