Formed in the wake of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the Hezbollah (Party of God) movement of Shia Muslims has always viewed the Jewish state as its greatest enemy.
The nascent guerrilla force was inspired by the Iranian Revolution and the teachings of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Its suicide bombing attacks drove U.S. and French forces from Lebanon and pushed Israeli troops into the southern-most part of the country. A number of Western journalists, clerics and other observers were kidnapped to draw attention to its cause.
In the 1990s, Hezbollah turned to politics in Lebanon and to providing its impoverished Shia following with housing, health centres and schools. But its battle against Israel was never far away. When Hezbollah leader Abbas al-Musawi was killed in 1992 by Israeli helicopter gunships, the response was a car bomb attack on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 29 people – the first indication of Hezbollah’s willingness to take its fight outside the Middle East.
Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and the American post-9/11 war on terror kept Hezbollah largely out of view until its 2006 war with Israel, a conflict the Shia group triggered with a cross-border raid into Israel to attack and abduct some soldiers.
Israel’s suspected February, 2008, assassination of Hezbollah’s military commander, Imad Mugniyah, led to the group’s widespread efforts seeking revenge. Its patron, Iran, was also looking to retaliate for assassinations of several of its nuclear scientists, killings that Tehran blamed on Israel.
Together, in January, 2010, Iran’s elite al-Quds force and Hezbollah operatives set out on a killing rampage that took them from Bangkok to Baku, and New Delhi to Burgas, targeting Israeli officials, diplomats and tourists. Hezbollah was assigned the “soft targets,” the tourists, said Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in a revealing report released last week.
The Bulgarian accusations come at a difficult time for Hezbollah.
Its control of Lebanon’s governing coalition (achieved more by alliances and heavy-handed influence than by numbers, since it has only two members in the 30-seat cabinet) already has been shaken by accusations of a special United Nations tribunal that members of Hezbollah carried out the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
At the same time, Hezbollah has joined the battle in Syria in support of the Bashar al-Assad regime, its ally and an important conduit to the group’s arms supplier, Iran. With fights at home and in Syria, the last thing Hezbollah needed was another legal assailant closing in on it.