A generation ago, Israel’s battlefield adversaries were primarily the Arab armies of Egypt and Syria, both of which fought a succession of wars with Israel from 1948 onward. Since then, the irregular forces of Hezbollah and Hamas, based in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip and backed by Iran and Syria, have been Israel’s chief military foes.
Hezbollah, otherwise known as the Party of God, engaged Israel in a bruising war of attrition in southern Lebanon in the 1980s and 1990s. These battles did not end until Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000. The next round of fighting took place in the summer of 2006, when Hezbollah, touched off a month-long war after killing and kidnapping several Israeli soldiers in the northern Galilee.
Hamas, which emerged during the first Palestinian uprising, terrorized Israelis by means of suicide bombings starting in 1994. Israel responded with a campaign of bombings and targeted assassinations of its leaders. Beginning in 2001, Hamas began firing rockets at Israel, triggering a succession of skirmishes and border wars in 2008-09 and 2012.
Clearly, as Joshua L. Gleis and Benedetta Berti argue in Hezbollah and Hamas: A Comparative Study (Johns Hopkins University Press), a first-rate account of their respective development, Hezbollah and Hamas have evolved into important players in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and will continue to play this role in the future.
Founded in 1982, following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, Hezbollah is a multi-faceted Islamic fundamentalist Shiite organization – a political party, a socio-religious movement and a terrorist group.
Although Israel’s postwar occupation of southern Lebanon was a key factor in its emergence, at least two other factors accounted for its formation, the co-authors contend. Hezbollah capitalized on Shiite grievances of being treated like second-class citizens in comparison to Sunni Muslims and Christians. As well, Hezbollah was inspired by the Islamic revolution in Iran.
“For Iran, having a proxy force in Lebanon allowed it to attack Israel, have a hand in the Arab-Israeli peace process (which it opposed) and expand Shiite influence in the Arab world,” write Gleis and Berti.
Syria, too, used Hezbollah as a surrogate in its struggle with Israel. But because the non-sectarian Syrian regime feared that Hezbollah might use its influence to Islamize the Lebanese Shiite community, Syria tried to keep Hezbollah in check by supporting its secular rival, Amal, from which much of Hezbollah’s leadership was tapped. Syria’s relationship with Hezbollah improved only after 2000, the co-authors note.
From the moment of its establishment, Hezbollah was committed to three objectives: expelling foreign armies – mainly American and French – from Lebanese soil, setting up an Islamic government in Lebanon and wiping Israel off the face of the Earth.
The co-authors claim that Hezbollah thrives on conflict: “Hezbollah’s core raison d’être lies in its ‘resistance’ agenda with respect to Israel… It needs an ongoing confrontation with the Jewish state to maintain both external legitimacy and a wide supportive base.”
Hezbollah, given its belief that Israel is an illegitimate and illegal entity, claims that all acts of “resistance” against the Jewish state cannot be considered terrorism. As the co-authors contend, Hamas makes a self-serving distinction between “martyrdom” operations, which are permitted under Islam, and suicide bombings, which are not allowed.
Hezbollah is far more than an anti-Zionist organization, exhibiting “a rabid streak of antisemitism,” Gleis and Berti point out.
Hassan Nasrallah, its secretary-general, has been quoted as saying, “If we searched the entire world for a person more cowardly, despicable, weak and feeble in psyche, mind, ideology and religion, we would not find anyone like the Jew. Notice I did not say the Israeli.”
Hezbollah also engages in Holocaust denial, placing itself on the same level as neo-Nazis.
Prior to the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Hezbollah fired Katyusha rockets at Israel and launched guerrilla warfare against the Israeli army in Israel’s self-declared security zone.
With Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, the rules of the game changed as Hezbollah shifted the majority of its attacks to the disputed Shebaa Farms region, taken by Israel from Syria in the Six Day War and now claimed by the Lebanese government.
During the early 1990s, Hezbollah moved its operations abroad, bombing the Israeli Embassy and the Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires, supposedly with Iran’s assistance.
In the past few years, however, Hezbollah has largely refrained from attacking Israel. Israeli deterrence has worked, but will probably not last indefinitely. As Gleis and Berti observe, Hezbollah has been rearming at “a feverish pace,” and the day will come when it will throw caution to the wind and try to provoke an incident that will embroil it in battle with Israel yet again.
Like Hezbollah, Hamas is Islamic to the core, having emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. But Hamas is fundamentally a product of violence, having been formed on the anvil of the first Palestinian uprising in 1987.
Not surprisingly, Hamas, like most Palestinian Islamic groups, was influenced by Iran. As Gleis and Berti write, “The [Iranian] revolution provided proof that the Islamists could use the power and ideology of jihad to bring about real change… and wage jihad against Israel.”
From the outset, bilateral relations between Hamas and Fatah – the mainstream Palestinian organization founded by Yasser Arafat in the mid-1950s – have been characterized by competition and reciprocal distrust. No such tension appears to have sullied Hamas’ relationship with Hezbollah.
After having trounced Fatah in the Gaza Strip’s municipal elections in 2005, Hamas won the legislative elections there in 2006, and Ismail Haniyeh was installed as prime minister.
Fatah lost the last election because it was mired in a culture of endemic corruption and was discredited by its failure to deliver services effectively and end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Gleis and Berti explain.
Although Hamas is pragmatically amenable to signing a long-term truce with Israel, within the context of a two-state solution, it accepts neither Israel’s existence nor its legitimacy. According to Hamas, Israel exists on territory deemed to belong to a Muslim religious trust.
Hamas, like Hezbollah, has grown increasingly sophisticated militarily. In last November’s eight-day border war, Hamas rockets reached the outskirts of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv without causing death and destruction, shot down by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system or landing in open fields or in the sea. Although the rockets caused no harm, their range shocked some Israelis.
Politically, Hamas has been effective in Islamizing the Arab-Israeli dispute, the authors add. This, too, is a disquieting trend.