Hezbollah’s Dual Roles Complicate Terror Fight

BEIRUT – Hezbollah ruling council member Abdallah Kassir –
perched in a third-floor office under a large photo of the late
Iranian revolutionary Ayatollah Khomeini – boasts that “we have
Katyusha” rockets to shoot at Israel.

And Hezbollah is linked to more American deaths than any
group other than Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda.

But this group also runs social welfare projects and enjoys
wide popularity. Kassir and 11 other Hezbollah leaders serve in
Lebanon’s parliament.

The dual role of Hezbollah – part caretaker of the poor, part
guerrilla force – illustrates why heading off terrorism after the
Afghanistan campaign may prove vexing for the United States.

Is progress more likely if you engage with a group such as
Hezbollah, or if you try to isolate it?

U.S. diplomats recognize Hezbollah’s two sides.

“There are good works that they do in social and economic
areas,” State Department spokesman Greg Sullivan said. “That said,
they are clearly linked to terrorism. They are clearly involved in
the planning and execution of terrorist actions that have resulted
in the deaths of Americans. That’s got to stop.”

So far in the war on terrorism, nobody’s taken action against
Hezbollah, even amid reports the group may have helped al-Qaeda
fighters fleeing Afghanistan. Despite President Bush’s
with-us-or-against-us doctrine, Hezbollah operates about as usual.

Foremost, it opposes Israel. “We are not terrorists. We are
resisting terror,” Kassir said. Any violent acts are “self
defense” against Israel – which is supported by the United States.
“You should stop supporting terrorism yourselves.”

U.S. officials blame Hezbollah for the 1983 suicide truck
bombing in Beirut that killed 241 Marines, for attacks in Israel
that killed Americans and for kidnappings and plane hijackings.
They accuse Hezbollah of supplying a bombmaker linked to the 1998
deaths of more than 250 people at two U.S. embassies in Africa.

They suspect a role, which Hezbollah denies, in the recent
weapons shipment from Iran to Palestinians that Israel

Yet Hezbollah runs schools and health clinics, delivers
drinking water to slums, repairs roads and feeds the poor – all of
which wins support across Lebanon.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and various European
diplomats have met with Hezbollah leaders in recent years,
recognizing the group’s influence.

Hezbollah spokesman Hussein Naboulsi said U.S. officials
negotiated indirectly with Hezbollah before Sept. 11, sending an
intermediary to offer “anything you want” if the group would
renounce violence against Israel.

Sullivan denied this. “If others have claimed to represent
U.S. views, they are doing so without U.S. approval.” British
officials “have had a dialogue with Hezbollah” and may have
mentioned U.S. positions, Sullivan said, but “are not acting on
our behalf.”

U.S. hard-liners argue for attacks on Hezbollah training camps
in Lebanon and for pressure on Lebanon’s Syria-backed government
for harboring Hezbollah.

“You have to be much more aggressive about hitting people
before they hit you,” said veteran U.S. diplomat Paul Bremer, a
corporate security consultant who coordinated counterterrorism
efforts and chaired a terrorism commission under President Ronald

Hezbollah officials call for a different approach. Kassir,
42, insists he’s a reasonable man with the highest regard for
human life.

“God has forbidden us to hurt any human being or animal
without a really strong reason.” He added, “Hezbollah is not an
enemy of the American people.”

As a young man, the son of a teacher, Kassir had just moved
from the family home to Beirut when in 1982 an Israeli mortar
attack killed his 19-year-old brother, Abdel Monem, in southern

“It made me extremely upset and sad. It gave me
determination: “I am going to force the Israelis out.’ It
convinced me without a doubt that Israelis are terrorists.”

Hezbollah came to prominence in the 18-year conflict that
followed Israel’s invasion of Lebanon.

Now the Israelis have withdrawn from most of Lebanon. One
southern area still is contested, and Israeli warplanes fly over
Lebanon several times a week. Hezbollah condemns the flights – as
do the United Nations and United States.

“We’ve made known to the Israelis our concern that
overflights are a violation of the U.N. demarcated line of
withdrawal,” State Department spokesman Sullivan said.

For the United States to attack Hezbollah would be
counterproductive, igniting rage when people in Lebanon are
turning away from violence toward progress, Kassir said.

“You must control yourself. Think with your brains, not your
emotions. Work with partners to make solutions to problems in the
world,” he said.

“I feel with you, with what happened to you in New York. But
now I want you to feel with me, too.”