Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

Lebanon and the Rise of Hezbollah


Hezbollah_FlagFor more than 30 years, it has been a political force in Lebanon and beyond, at times praised for its extensive work providing social services while condemned by many for its terrorist acts against the U.S. and others. Hezbollah, or “Party of God”, was established by Shia Islamist militants in reaction to Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. With initial funding from Iran and Syria, Hezbollah quickly grew into one of the most powerful and well-established terrorist groups in the world. Infamous Hezbollah members include Imad Mughniyeh, mastermind of countless atrocities, including the U.S. Embassy Beirut bombing and the attack on the Marine barracks in Lebanon.

U.S. policy initially supported Israel’s move to influence the security situation in Lebanon, even though many in the Department were concerned that Washington was unwittingly being drawn into the conflict and that as a peacekeeper, it erred in favoring one side over the other. Efforts then turned toward support for UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, as a stabilizing force; however, its mandate was “toothless” and its rules of engagement were exceedingly weak. This eventually gave way to the 1996 “understanding” among Israel, Lebanon, Syria, France, and the United States, to monitor violations; that too, proved ineffectual. Hezbollah continued to wage a guerrilla campaign against the South Lebanon Army, supported by Israel, for nearly 20 years; Israel ultimately withdrew from Lebanon on May 24, 2000.

All of the interviews were conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy:  David Greenlee beginning in January 2007; Ralph Katrosh in August 1992; Ambassador Edmund James Hull in October 2005; Roger Harrison in November 2001; Philip C. Wilcox Jr. in April 1998.

Read about the 1996 Khobar Tower bombing and hijacking of TWA flight 847 by Hezbollah terrorists.

 

“How can we turn the Lebanese situation to our advantage?”

Ralph Katrosh, Embassy Tel Aviv, 1977-1981

 

united flag

KATROSH: Israel always had its fingers in Beirut, particularly in those years. It was a proxy war with Syria. The Christians up in Lebanon were being supplied by the Israelis and the Muslims and everybody else would get their… help from the Soviets a little bit, and the Syrians. All these factions fought amongst themselves, plus, without any discipline in the country to control the various terrorist groups, the Fatah, the Hezbollah and the Palestine Liberation Front, a whole gaggle of them were running terrorist operations against Israel.

Q: This is right up by the Lebanese border.

KATROSH: Yes, right up to the “Good Fence. There also were and are a lot of Lebanese coming over to Israel to work. They used to call it the “Good Fence” because Lebanese crossed it to go to work and then to return home. The Israelis reasoned: “…There are a lot of Lebanese who support us, we are supporting a lot of Lebanese, particularly the Christians, so why do we have to put up with these awful acts by the terrorists? We will establish a buffer zone. Go up there and take the land and of course we will get a little water — we will have a surrogate Lebanese force.”

The U.S. hemmed and hawed, coughed a little bit, but the [U.S.] Embassy in Israel wasn’t going to do terribly much, [and] Washington didn’t do anything either.

I think there was a school of thought back here — and they were wrong and were told they were wrong — who felt that one possibility for Middle East movement would be to get a sympathetic government in Lebanon which would make its peace with Israel. This is [Secretary of State George] Shultz in the early days of the Reagan Administration. “How can we turn the Lebanese situation to our advantage? We will sponsor peace.” This thinking started during this particular cross-border operation.

“Bomb the bastards in Beirut!”

It didn’t upset the Lebanese government in Beirut too much, even though it was a Muslim-Christian government at that time, because they weren’t controlling anything in the southern border zone anyway. They figured if the Israelis can get a couple of Lebanese to handle security, this gets the Israelis off our backs.

But Beirut didn’t figure the Israeli government was as serious as it was to gain something for all the support they had given to the Christians in northern Lebanon. A lot of materiel went up there:  tanks, guns, money, training, etc. The United States figured that maybe we could make the Christian faction work for us. Washington banked too much on what the Israelis told them was the art of the possible with the Christians….

bomb beirutIsrael was split over the 1981-1982 war in Lebanon. It was a very unpopular war. Even [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin felt — and I am thoroughly convinced of this, although people will argue with me — that because of the Arab atrocities, particularly the Hezbollah at that time coming over the border, Israel had to go about 14 kilometers into Lebanon. The idea was to stop well short of Beirut and clean the area out.

But then [Ariel] Sharon, who was Defense Minister at that time, said, “This is a chance to really cuff the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization].” So Begin was doing one thing and sending out signals to do one thing but Sharon was saying, “Bomb the bastards in Beirut!” So there was a serious conflict of leadership.

If you get a conflict like this between the President and the military Commander-in-chief, you are going to have what appears to be a lack of discipline within the troop fighting on the ground….

“They achieved nothing except to encourage the radicalization of Hezbollah”

Roger G. Harrison

Political Counselor, Embassy Tel Aviv, 1985-87

 

IDFHARRISON:  After the ’82 invasion, the Israelis had created a security zone in southern Lebanon, created a pseudo army called the Southern Lebanese Army under a general named Lahad. It was essentially a local militia paid by the Israelis to create the appearance that there was no Israeli occupation. But, of course, the IDF [Israeli Defense Force] did most of the fighting and took most of the casualties….

I became convinced that the Israeli presence in southern Lebanon was more permanent than they were admitting, since withdrawing at that stage would have been politically risky. It stayed that way for a decade afterward, until the steady cost in casualties and treasure persuaded them to leave…They achieved nothing in particular except to encourage the radicalization of Hezbollah, who claimed they had forced the withdrawal. They were right about that.

By the mid 1980’s, Israelis had given up any notion they could mix successfully in Lebanese politics, and had yielded that ground – outside the security zone — to Syria. There were informal agreements brokered between the Syrians and the Israelis about where Syrian forces could be stationed in proximity to Israel’s northern border. Both sides were always testing these informal demarcation zones, on the ground and in the air….

The Syrians could and did bring pressure to bear on the Israelis in Lebanon by supporting the resistance and – more decisively – by giving Iran permission to establish training base and make arms shipments to Hezbollah. [Israeli Prime Minister] Yitzak Rabin wanted to make [Syrian leader Hafez al] Assad the address for Israeli reprisals, but it was far from clear that Assad could control Hezbollah, especially after the Iranians had established themselves in Lebanon.

In addition, of course, there are diplomatic inhibitions against constant reprisals, especially because the Israelis had no international sanction for their occupation in Lebanon. In short, as long as it stayed an irritant rather than a threat, Assad could be relatively sure that the Israelis could not massively move against him. The Israelis would, on the other hand, mobilize the tanks every so often and huff and puff around on the Golan.

 “We allowed ourselves, unwittingly, to be drawn in as a participant in the conflict rather than a peacekeeper”

Philip Wilcox, International Organizations Bureau, 1980-1983

 

Q: What was our reaction of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, particularly to the shelling of Beirut?

WILCOX: This period in Lebanon, in my opinion, was the nadir of U.S. policy in the Middle East. We had very little understanding of the intricate, complex nature of Lebanese politics. At that time, we saw the Middle East through an East-West prism, and to a lesser extent, an Arab-Israeli prism. The Cold War perspective clouded clear thinking, since it had little to do with the factors that were driving the policies of Israel, Lebanon and the Palestinians.

In the beginning, we were less hard on Israel’s disastrous involvement in Lebanon than we should have been because we saw Israel as a strategic ally and partner in the Cold War. We also made the dreadful mistake of becoming involved as an actor in the Lebanese civil war, in general allying ourselves against the Syrians and pro-Syrian Lebanese, as the Israelis had done, and eventually becoming involved in military activities, although the role of our forces was supposed to have been peacekeeping.

marine baseOur policy was confounded by terrorism by the Hezbollah, supported by both Iran and Syria, which had emerged as a guerrilla force determined to drive Israel out of Lebanon. The attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut (at right), which killed hundreds of U.S. Marines, repeated attacks on our embassy in Beirut, with serious loss of life, and the taking of American citizens as hostages by the Hezbollah were disasters that added a very powerful and volatile emotional element to our adventures in Lebanon.

Unfortunately, the people who were making our policy in Lebanon, including National Security Advisor Bud McFarlane and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, both of whom at different times were U.S. Special Envoys to Lebanon, knew little about the country. They were motivated by an exaggerated belief that we could somehow marshal military power in Lebanon to change the balance there, discourage the Syrians and Iranians, and restore American influence in the Middle East. We allowed ourselves, unwittingly, to be drawn in as a participant in the conflict rather than a peacekeeper.

As a result of attacks on the Marines, we began to shell the Hezbollah and Druze positions from offshore, and to use U.S. air power. We came a cropper.

Ultimately, after saying that we would stay the course in Lebanon and that it was the test of U.S. influence and resolve, we pulled out our forces, calling it a “strategic redeployment.” Three basic lessons from this debacle were that it is often a mistake to view regional conflicts as a product of great power competition; that in peacekeeping missions you don’t ally yourself with one side or the other; and that the U.S. needs to provide better security for its embassies and military forces.…

“UNIFIL could capture weapons, but then it had to return them

We had to face the question of renewal of UNIFIL’s [UN Interim Force in Lebanon] mandate periodically; I think it was every six months. My view at least, and I think one widely shared in IO [International Organizations Bureau] was that Lebanon, Israel and the U.S. would be best served by having an effective UN force in southern Lebanon.

But UNIFIL was toothless. Its troops were not permitted to return hostile fire. It had very weak rules of engagement. It could capture weapons, but then it had to return them. It was weak because no one wanted it to be strong. It was also not large enough and not widely enough deployed to serve as an effective buffer between Hezbollah and sometimes Palestinian guerrillas who sometimes shot rockets across Israel’s northern border.

uno-ifilSo the idea of an expanded UNIFIL with a stronger mandate never gained much momentum. Congress was not very sympathetic toward UNIFIL in those days, nor was the government of Israel because they thought their interests were better served by having an Israeli force in southern Lebanon….

I think there was a high level of understanding and some good reporting on the factional struggle among the Christians and the Sunni and Shiite Muslims and the Amal, the Hezbollah, and the Syrians. There was a sufficient basis of reporting there to guide the Department. I suspect, however, judging from the policies that emerged, that this reporting was not considered very important….

I believe the IDF [Israeli Defense Force] paid too little heed to civilian casualties during the Lebanon adventure. A great many civilian lives were lost through IDF artillery shelling of camps and villages and the aerial bombardment of Beirut. The Israelis argue that they were fighting a guerrilla enemy, the Hezbollah and the radical PLO elements, which used refugee camps and villages as havens for their forces, and that civilian casualties were therefore unpreventable.

The Lebanon adventure for Israel was in retrospect, a catastrophe. The toll in Lebanese and human rights violations has been well documented, and many Israeli soldiers were also killed. [Then Israeli Defense Minister Ariel] Sharon was indeed the author of the invasion and he carried it to the city of Beirut without authorization from the Prime Minister or the Cabinet. The whole Lebanon adventure was a loser for Israel, indeed, a strategic, political and humanitarian disaster.

The invasion created considerable strains in our relationship, and the Sabra-Shatila massacre [in which refugees in camps was slaughtered] was indeed a low point. The IDF could have stopped it. To its credit, the government convened a board of inquiry and wrote a very damning report which resulted in the Ariel Sharon departure from the government for a period, but he has since been rehabilitated.

Q: Why was Syria put on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism?

WILCOX: Syria is on the list because it continues to allow radical Palestinian groups as well as the Kurdish Marxist terrorist group, the PKK, to have offices in Damascus. We have asked them to shut down these offices and explained to them that we regard these as terrorist groups because they kill civilians for political purposes. Syria also has given aid and comfort to the Hezbollah by allowing Iran to export arms through Damascus airport into Lebanon for the Hezbollah military. Although we haven’t succeeded in changing Syrian policy, we ha[d] a very important dialogue with the Syrians on the peace process and the need to resume negotiations with Israel over the Golan Heights

The Monitoring Group:  Decisions, not by consensus, but by “unanimity”

David Greenlee, Israel-Arab Violations Negotiating Group, 1996-1997

 

GREENLEE:  [NEA, the Near East Asia Affairs Bureau] needed someone to represent the U.S. in a monitoring group that was being established in an effort to reduce civilian casualties in the cross-border fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. This was triggered by a tragic incident in which the Israelis shelled a Palestinian refugee camp, killing many innocent civilians. Following an international outcry, the Secretary of State and his French counterpart, I think it was Hubert Védrine, got together. The question was how to induce greater responsibility on the part of the fighters, so that civilians wouldn’t so often be caught in the cross-fire.

shatilaWhat emerged was something called the 1996 “understanding.” It involved Israel, Lebanon, Syria, France, and the United States, but it was not between Syria and Israel or between Lebanon and Syria or Lebanon and Israel, but rather an understanding between each of those entities and the U.S. and France. The essence was that it should not be within the scope of the conflict, the daily fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, to endanger civilian lives.

But how do you enforce such a thing? How do you give it substance? Somebody came up with the idea of a monitoring group. The French later said it was their idea. Anyway, it was decided that a group consisting of parties to the understanding should monitor complaints that could be submitted by Lebanon or Israel. It was also decided that the Monitoring Group would be chaired by the U.S. and France on a rotating basis.

The Israelis insisted that the U.S. and French delegations had to set up close to the region and be ready to deploy quickly. Rome was considered, but Cyprus emerged as the preferred venue….

The Syrians had a particular way that they want this thing to run, and it didn’t have to do with diplomats. It had to do with the military. They said it should be a military committee, not a diplomatic committee.

Heads nodded, but we and the French went our own way. For us it was diplomatic. For the Syrians and Lebanese it was military. For the Israelis, it was a bit of both. So the Monitoring Group was established, at least in principle. It was decided that our delegation and the French delegation would work out of our respective embassies in Nicosia.

We would meet to respond to complaints of violations at the UNIFIL base in Naqura, Lebanon, a few miles north of the Israeli border town of Rosh Ha-Niqra. It was decided that we should meet immediately upon receipt of a complaint and determine responsibility for any civilian casualties. The task seemed impossible. We had to decide, not by consensus, but by “unanimity,” a stronger term, on which side should bear the blame for civilian casualties or other damage.

But the fighting would go on. There was no mandate to try to curb fighter-on fighter violence. That could and would rage on. Why would an Israeli representative say, “Yes, we’re responsible,” or why would the Lebanese, on behalf of Hezbollah, say they did it? But these were our marching orders. I thought a lot about this….

“Hezbollah provided health services and social welfare services that the Lebanese government couldn’t provide”

Q: With Lebanon acting as the surrogate for the Hezbollah, how much connection did the government of Lebanon have with Hezbollah?

hezbollah-zakat-21GREENLEE: Hezbollah was a government unto itself in South Lebanon. Hezbollah provided hospital services, health services, and social welfare services that the Lebanese government couldn’t provide (sign at left). I remember the Lebanese diplomatic representative, who was an ambassador and later became Ambassador to the U.S., expressing his admiration for Hezbollah as a service provider. And this guy was a Christian, with a lot to lose if Hezbollah took over the government.

The main thing was that the Lebanese saw that the Lebanese army couldn’t stand up to Israel and left it to Hezbollah to carry the fight against occupation. What the Israelis always wanted was for the Lebanese army to replace Hezbollah in south Lebanon. They wanted to deal with the government. They wanted to deal with the army. They didn’t want to deal with Hezbollah, which had no formal standing or accountability. That was always a sub-text in the discussions.

The Lebanese army colonel, a guy named Tufali, was from south Lebanon and was a member of a clan that was prominent in the anti-Israeli resistance. He was not connected to Hezbollah, at least not directly, but to another group. He and the Syrians would meet with Hezbollah to formulate their complaints or responses to Israeli complaints. Tufali always purported to speak for Lebanon but in essence he was the Hezbollah advocate, as were the Syrians. It was all pretty complicated.

The Israelis would work with the so-called Army of south Lebanon, which was a surrogate force. The army of south Lebanon, the SLA wasn’t recognized by Lebanon. They were a pretty nasty bunch. They would shell Hezbollah positions and other rival Lebanese groups and the Israelis at times would draw on their input in the Naqura talks….

Q: Did you feel the Syrians had control over Hezbollah?

GREENLEE: They had more influence over Hezbollah than the Lebanese, and they had control to the extent that they could stop the supply of weaponry. They would never admit that, but it was clear that they could exert a lot of influence if they wanted to. Basically, Hezbollah, acting in its own interests, also furthered Syrian and Iranian interests.

“We did not favor going after Hezbollah in an aggressive, military or covert way”

Ambassador Edmund Hull, Counterterrorism Advisor to the Secretary, 1999-2001

 

Q: What was our view of the PLO, the Hezbollah, and the role of Syria and Iran?

HULL: We differentiated the threats fairly clearly. We would identify, and we would label terrorist organizations. We had a process, again mandated by Congress, to do that, and we would do it on a yearly basis, designate different groups as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs).

Although we had scores to settle with Hezbollah — the Marine Corps barracks bombing in Beirut and others — at this time Hezbollah was not targeting Americans. Therefore, we did not favor going after Hezbollah in an aggressive, military or covert way and prompt that organization to target Americans when it was not doing so.

We differed in our approach from that of the Bush administration post-9/11, which conflated threats and dealt with terrorism generically rather than specifically.

 

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