On the evening of Dec. 24, 2007, Dr. Edgard El Chaar received an intimidation message from Hezbollah while visiting Lebanon.
“I slept the whole night with a gun under my pillow,” El Chaar, 39, said. “The next day I had to leave my house and go somewhere else and I cut my trip short.”
The message was sent verbally to El Chaar through a friend after he appeared on television with the leader of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian Lebanese party that is considered a threat to Hezbollah hegemony in Lebanon.
El Chaar fought for the Lebanese Forces against the Syrians in the late 1980s He moved to the U.S. when he was 23 years old.
“Are they terrorists?” El Chaar said. “Absolutely. No question about that. They are terrorists against their own people and against everybody else. They are terrorizing me as a Lebanese citizen.”
Since Hezbollah’s formation in Lebanon in 1983, people like El Chaar whose lives have been touched in one way or another by the organization say it is not only a growing terrorist organization, but an increasingly important player in Lebanese and global politics, and a threat to Israel and much of the Western world.
“Every day that they survive, they are a threat,” El Chaar, now a periodontist in midtown Manhattan, said. “Every day they survive, the surrounding allies that we have are getting weak.”
Having grown up in Lebanon, El Chaar witnessed Hezbollah’s formation at the beginning of the Shi’ite Muslim movement in the early 1980s and its growth into the 1990s.
“I was 12 years old when Israel came into Lebanon,” El Chaar said.
Israel’s presence in southern Lebanon beginning in the early 1980s sparked the fundamentalist Shi’ite movement in the country, which was also an offshoot of the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
The first notion of the movement in Lebanon was seen on a global scale when over 240 Americans were killed in Beirut in 1983 when a group thought to be Hezbollah’s precursor bombed the United States Marine barracks.
At the time of the bombing, the U.S. Department of State estimated that 41 percent of 2.6 million people in Lebanon were Shi’ite Muslims. Today, the number of Shi’ites living in Lebanon is still estimated around 40 percent, but the total Lebanese population has swelled to over 4 million, according to the CIA World Factbook.
With many of those 1.6 million Shi’ites now supporting Hezbollah, the group has firmly established itself in Lebanese politics. Unlike fundamentalist groups like Al-Qaeda, the organization stands on firm political ground. It currently holds 14 of 128 seats in Lebanon’s parliament, and in May of 2007 was granted veto power in Lebanon’s Cabinet.
“It is a political party,” El Chaar said. “They won elections and they will win more elections in the government.” In addition to maintaining a private practice, El Chaar volunteers for the Lebanese Information Center (LIC), a non-profit Research Institute that promotes Lebanon as an independent, sovereign and democratic nation.
“Hezbollah is no longer just a Lebanese party, but a part of the regional conflict, and that’s where the dangers of it is,” El Chaar said.
Hezbollah’s shift into politics began with its participation in Lebanon’s 1992 government elections, according to Hezbollah expert Augustus Richard Norton in his book Hezbollah, A Short History. Hezbollah’s initial goal of turning Lebanon into an Islamic state was reformed with the influence of Shi’ite cleric Sheikh Muhammad Husain Fadlallah.
“Fadlallah argued that, because revolutionary transition to Islamic rule and an Islamic state was impossible in the diverse Lebanese society, gradual reform was necessary,” Norton said. “And that, insisted Fadlallah, required participating in the political system.”
Some Hezbollah specialists, however, consider such reform nothing more than semantics.
“They substituted the words ‘Islamic Revolution’ for ‘Islamic Resistance,’” Tony Badran, 32, a Ph.D. candidate at New York University said. “By doing that, they switched attention away from the Islamic state.”
Hezbollah, which is now generally known as “the resistance” in Lebanon, won 12 parliamentary seats in 1992.
But Hezbollah’s real political breakout didn’t come until 1996 during Operation Grapes of Wrath, said Badran, who grew up in Lebanon. The 16-day war between Israel and Lebanon resulted from Hezbollah’s attacks on northern Israel in reaction to Israel’s continuing presence in southern Lebanon.
“Israel was occupying the south of Lebanon, so resistance was a legitimate thing,” El Chaar said.
A ceasefire agreement was reached between the parties with an implementation committee that included representatives from Syria, France, the U.S., Israel and Lebanon.
“The problem is this legitimized Hezbollah as an actor,” Badran said, because it asserted Hezbollah as a force to be reckoned with.
The arrangement lasted for ten years, until war broke out between Hezbollah and Israel again in the 2006 Lebanese War—six years after Israel withdrew its forces from southern Lebanon.
Hezbollah, however, “alleges that Israel has not withdrawn completely from Lebanese territory because, in its view, the Shebaa Farms and other areas belong to Lebanon,” according to the U.S. State Department.
“When they go and instigate a war with Israel in 2006, then they are putting themselves into a regional conflict,” El Chaar said.
The U.S. State Department put Hezbollah on its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations in 1999, only to be taken off the list after September 11, 2001. But Hezbollah was put back on the list shortly thereafter.
Hezbollah also maintains close ties to Syria and Iran – countries that are rapidly developing their uranium enrichment program. Iran also supplies weapons and explosives to Hezbollah, according to the U.S State Department.
“They are all trained and fed and sponsored by the Iranian regime,” El Chaar said. “And this is the question that America has to ask itself. Is it in our interests as Americans, to have a superpower called Iran, an Islamic fundamentalist regime, with nuclear power, oil, everything, as a big player in the area?”
Just last month, the British government agreed to begin talks with Hezbollah.