Was Hezbollah a Legitimate Target?

The Bush administration and an overwhelming bipartisan majority of Congress have gone on record defending Israel's assault on Lebanon's civilian infrastructure as a means of attacking Hezbollah “terrorists.” Unlike the major Palestinian Islamist groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah forces haven't killed any Israeli civilians for more than a decade. Indeed, a 2002 Congressional Research Service report noted, in its analysis of Hezbollah, that “no major terrorist attacks have been attributed to it since 1994.” The most recent State Department report on international terrorism also fails to note any acts of terrorism by Hezbollah since that time except for unsubstantiated claims that a Hezbollah member was a participant in a June 1996 attack on the U.S. Air Force dormitory at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia.

While Hezbollah's ongoing rocket attacks on civilian targets in Israel are indeed illegitimate and can certainly be considered acts of terrorism, it is important to note that such attacks were launched only after the U.S.-backed Israeli assault on civilian targets in Israel began July 12. Similarly, Hezbollah has pledged to cease such attacks once Israel stops its attacks against Lebanon and withdraws its troops from Lebanese territory occupied since the onset of the latest round of hostilities. (The Hezbollah attack on the Israeli border post that prompted the Israeli assaults, while clearly illegitimate and provocative, can not legally be considered a terrorist attack since the targets were military rather than civilian.)

Indeed, the evolution of this Lebanese Shiite movement from a terrorist group to a legal political party had been one of the more interesting and hopeful developments in the Middle East in recent years.

Like many radical Islamist parties elsewhere, Hezbollah (meaning “Party of God”) combines populist rhetoric, important social service networks for the needy, and a decidedly reactionary and chauvinistic interpretation of Islam in its approach to contemporary social and political issues. In Lebanese parliamentary elections earlier last year, Hezbollah ended up with fourteen seats outright in the 128-member national assembly, and a slate shared with the more moderate Shiite party Amal gained an additional twenty-three seats. Hezbollah controls one ministry in the 24-member cabinet. While failing to disarm as required under UN Security Council resolution 1559, Hezbollah was negotiating with the Lebanese government and other interested Lebanese parties, leading to hopes that the party's military wing would be disbanded within a few months. Prior to calling up reserves following the Israeli assault, Hezbollah could probably count on no more than a thousand active-duty militiamen.

In other words, whatever one might think of Hezbollah's reactionary ideology and its sordid history, the group did not constitute such a serious threat to Israel's security as to legitimate a pre-emptive war.

Having ousted Syrian forces from Lebanon in an impressive nonviolent uprising last year, the Lebanese had re-established what may perhaps be the most democratic state in the Arab world. Because they allowed the anti-Israel and anti-American Hezbollah to participate in the elections, however, the Israeli government and the Bush administration—with strong bipartisan support on Capitol Hill—apparently decided that Lebanon as a whole must be punished in the name of “the war on terror.”

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On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

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