Who is Hezbollah?


This is the story of Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, which has been causing trouble for Israel since its founding in 1982. As Israel’s northern border heats up and the two sides draw closer to a showdown, we investigate: who is Hezbollah and what do they want?

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Hey! I’m Noam Weissman and you’re listening to Unpacking Israeli History, the podcast that takes a deep dive into some of the most intense, historically fascinating, and often misunderstood events and stories linked to Israeli history. This episode of Unpacking Israeli History is generously sponsored by Sarala and Danny Turkel.

Before we start this season, I’m going to say what I constantly say – I want to be in touch. So shoot me an email, at Especially in the last few months, the world has exploded, and we need each other. So please, email me, talk to me. I also want to highly encourage you to check out the platform if you’re an educator, or if you’re a parent, and you want to figure out how to talk to your kids about all these big moments. And if you’re a teenager or young adult, and you want to have good conversation, foster courageous conversation, check out that platform. I really think it is the single most helpful resource to teaching about all this stuff.

Also, if you’re new to this show, let me remind you of the structure: 

  1. I tell the story
  2. I give you the five fast facts
  3. I give one enduring lesson as I see it
  4. I read correspondence with listeners

You ready? Welcome to Season 6. Yalla, let’s do this.

You know, when I first became a dad, I was convinced that I’d be one of the cool ones. I was young! I was hip! I named my kid Eyal – after a charming spy on a TV show! (And if you’re like, Noam, what?… go back and listen to our episode on the Mossad and you’ll see how my wife tricked me into that one…She’s a sneaky one, eh.) 

But as my kids get older, they make one thing abundantly clear. 

There’s no such thing as a cool dad, sorry guys. You should see my daughters’ reactions when I dance. I lift up my arms and pump like a Jersey boy just to watch my daughters cringe. And they cringe. Every. Single. Time. But I get it. Eventually, we all buy a pair of unflattering jeans, pull up our white socks as high as they can go, and tell the worst jokes in the world. So that’s how I’m gonna start this episode: with a joke that was probably outdated when my dad was a kid. Lean in, right?

OK, so the joke starts with God creating the world. It’s incredible: he makes rainforests and deserts and icebergs and mountains. He makes Victoria Falls. He makes that insane underwater cave in the Philippines. (Seriously, Google it, it’s gorgeous.) He makes Australia. Ever been to Australia? Place is sick…Bondi Beach? Holy lord. And then, he tells the angels he’s making a special place. It’s gonna be the holiest place on earth, with mountains and beaches and pure-water springs and a sea filled with healing minerals. Not to mention the milk and honey. And he’s gonna give it to one particular group of humans. 

The angels are like, Hold up. This sounds too good to be true. You sure these humans deserve it? And, why them? Won’t the rest of the world get jealous?

But God just smiles and says, Guys, come on. I’m God. You think I don’t think about these things? Of course I do. I’ve installed a fail-safe mechanism to keep the humans humble. And the angels are like, oh my gosh, (they don’t say oh my god, because that would be rude) you’re amazing, genius, what’s the secret?

And God smiles again, this time a little more wickedly, and he says Wait til you see the neighbors.

Eyyyyyy! It’s a classic “old man at shul/church/mosque” joke. But you know what? There’s some truth to it. Cause Israel is amazing. Warts and all. And it is also in a very tough neighborhood. Just no two ways to slice that one.

We’ve talked at length about the neighbors. About the 1948 war between newly-minted Israelis and basically the entire Arab world. About the two front lines of the Yom Kippur War in 73. About endless terror attacks from the north and the south. And of course, we’ve devoted a whole lot of time to Hamas, who won the competition for Israel’s Worst Neighbor on October 7, 2023. Danana, danana. That was my SportsCenter danana noise. (Yes, links for all of this in the show notes.)

But until that horrible day, the competition was stiff, what with Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Lions Den and, oh yeah, the super-powerful, well-funded militia on Israel’s northern border. Any guesses?

Okay, I’ll tell you. That would be Hezbollah – the Lebanese Shia terror group founded, trained, and funded by Iran. Hezbollah and Israel have fought some pretty nasty wars over the past 40-some years. And as I record this, in February of 2024, I hate to say that all signs point to another skirmish and then some. 

Hezbollah fighters pictured at a ceremony in Lebanon in 2018.

Now, I hope I’m wrong. I hope we can maintain at least our current uneasy status quo. I hope that this episode won’t become heartbreakingly relevant, the way our Hamas episode did just four months after we released it in 2023. But one thing is clear. No one knows exactly what’s going to happen, and it’s almost impossible for ordinary folks to prepare for the unknown. All we can do is try to understand: who is Hezbollah? What do they want? And is there any hope in this grim situation at all?

So, let me tell you. Hezbollah is a Lebanese group, but their story doesn’t actually start in Lebanon. In fact, their story doesn’t start until midway through this episode. Resist the Gen Z/millennial temptation to get all your info in 30 seconds or less, we’ll get there… And that’s because to fully understand the conditions under which the militia was born (or the terrorist group, depending on your perspective), you have to understand a couple of massive geopolitical events. So bear with me as I take you into Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel. I promise, it’ll all lead back to Hezbollah. 

And the cool thing about this episode, if you’re gonna really get it all. 

Let’s get into the history. 

Our first stop is 1970s Iran.

It’ll never cease to amaze me that Israel and Iran were once allies. You heard that right, allies. We’re talking a significant Israeli expat community and daily flights between Tehran and Tel Aviv. Bananas. Like Savannah Bananas. – Btw, low key, the savannah bananas have totally hacked the social media game. Good for them, really, cool for them. But anyway, you can learn way more about this from some links in the show notes, but seriously. Crazy.

But 1970s Iran was far from a utopia. True, the country’s king, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, was a reformer, and Iran experienced massive economic growth during his reign. He invested that money wisely in education. Literacy rates skyrocketed, women earned the right to vote, and some minority groups thrived. Including Iran’s Jews. Though they made up less than a quarter of a percent of Iranian society, their community was broadly speaking wealthy and vibrant enough to support multiple Jewish schools, social institutions, and synagogues. (In fact, there were more than 30 synagogues in Tehran ALONE.) It was basically Teaneck, New Jersey. (Sorry, that might be a deep cut.)

But there was trouble brewing under the surface.

The Shah may have ushered in a new age for Iran, but the wealth was not divided equally. The gap between rich and poor, urban and rural, widened significantly. But if you happened to comment on Iran’s massive income inequality, you just might find yourself in an interrogation cell. There was no freedom of speech or press under the Shah, and his secret police, the SAVAK, was among the most feared in the Middle East. Like anyone who unironically calls themselves “King of Kings,” the Shah was obsessed with maintaining his power. He wasn’t above using surveillance, torture, forced disappearances, and executions to do it.

To be fair to this violent dictator – and I love being fair to violent dictators – the threats to his power weren’t just in his head. Yes, he’d inherited the throne from his father, but both father and son owed their power in part to the Brits and the Americans. So for many Iranians, the Shah was nothing more than a puppet of Western imperialism. And as you can imagine, the Shah loved hearing people question his legitimacy. Loved it! 

Just kidding, he hated it and did his absolute best to crush the mounting protests against him. He even tried exiling one of the leaders of the protest movement: a charismatic Islamist named Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose virulently anti-American, anti-Zionist, and anti-Shah sermons had captivated a wide cross-section of Iranian society. But exile did nothing to diminish Khomeini’s influence. He flooded Iran with cassette tapes – remember those – of his sermons, managing to capture Iranians’ imagination even from hundreds of miles away.

The Shah could read the writing on the wall. His regime was crumbling, and he was too old and too sick to fight for it. So in January of 1979, he appointed a caretaker prime minister named Shapour Bakhtiar, and fled the country, a refugee king.

If there’s anyone in this story who I feel bad for, it’s the new Prime Minister. Talk about being set up for failure. The opposition movement was getting louder and louder. If Bakhtiar didn’t do something soon, who knew how much longer he’d have a job – or, for that matter, a head? So he did something desperate. Something a little crazy. Something top-secret.

He turned, ready for this?, to the Mossad for help.

Insane! I’m trying to imagine how that conversation went. What do you say when you’re asking the foreign intelligence service of another country to kill a political opponent? You guys do assassinations, right? Can you off this guy for me? Ridic.

You know I love a counterfactual, and this is one of the most tantalizing what-ifs in Israeli history. What if the Mossad had said yeah, we’ll do it? What if they’d assassinated Khomeini, nipping the Iranian Revolution in the bud? Would I still be hosting this episode, just in a slightly different form? Would Israel and Iran still be allies? Would there be some semblance of peace in the Middle East?

We’ll never know, because the Mossad declined Bakhtiar’s request. Not because they couldn’t do it – Khomeini was still in exile in France, living out in the open – but because he was a political leader. Despite the Mossad’s legen…wait for it…dary reputation for ruthlessness and subterfuge, they’re surprisingly skittish about things like killing political figures who haven’t actually committed any acts of terrorism. (And if you want to hear some incredible Mossad stories, check out our Mossad episode from Season 3.)

So here’s what happened. Khomeini lived, probably unaware that the Mossad had strongly considered assassinating him. And Bakhtiar, for reasons I will never understand, allowed him back into Iran. Bad move. Kind of like, asking for the bowl first in overtime in the superbowl…Too soon, 49er fans? My bad. Within weeks, the Prime Minister was out of a job and on the run, as Khomeini and his forces fought the Iranian army for the country. By March, it was all over. Ninety eight percent of Iranians voted for their country to become an Islamic republic. In December of that year, the so-called “Assembly of Experts” appointed Khomeini as Iran’s Supreme Leader, which is a title that I have to assume he chose for himself. (That’s a lifetime position, in case you were wondering.)

Seemingly overnight, Iran went from an ally of the West to its most fervent enemy. I mean, the Ayatollah had criticized the Shah as quote, “that Jewish spy, that American snake, whose head must be crushed with a stone,” so maybe you can see the direction things were going. His writings are an absolute goldmine of anti-American and anti Zionist rhetoric. I mean, in a 1963 sermon he literally said, quote, this is amazing: “Because of my religious obligation, I hereby warn the people of Iran and the Muslims of the world that the Holy Qur’an and Islam are in danger. The independence of our country and its economy are in danger of being seized by the Zionists. With the deadly silence of the Muslims, it won’t be long before the Zionists destroy the existence of the Muslim nation in all its aspects.” Did you know that was on the Zionist agenda? No one told me!

Anyway, I could go on, but you get the point. The revolution sent shockwaves throughout the world. No one – not Mossad, not CIA, not MI6 – had predicted how easily Khomeini would be able to take over Iran. And no one could predict what happened next.

OK, so it’s 1979, and Iran is now in the hands of a hardline religious extremist with a serious ax to grind with the entire West, including Israel. But this wasn’t the only shakeup reverberating throughout the Middle East. Less than a decade earlier, as the Shah’s rule was crumbling and Khomeini was preparing his takeover, the Palestine Liberation Organization was sowing chaos, too. 

Which brings us to Stop Number 2 on our long journey to understanding Hezbollah: 1960s Jordan.

From its inception in 1964, the PLO – Palestine Liberation Organization – had one aim: get rid of Israel. Remember, this is pre-67. Gaza and Sinai belonged to Egypt. The Golan was a part of Syria. Jordan held East Jerusalem and the West Bank. There was no occupation. There were no settlements. There was just Israel. And the PLO took that personally. (Shoutout to the Michael Jordan meme.)

But if the PLO, and I’m not referring to the Palestinians, I’m referring to the leadership of the PLO, had a secondary goal, it may as well have been be a thorn in the side of every country that agrees to host us. From their HQ in Jordan, they attacked Israel constantly, setting up training camps to teach the fine arts of guerilla warfare. But they also found time to terrorize and extort Jordanian citizens and plot to overthrow the country’s government. Remember, the PLO was an umbrella organization, full of young revolutionaries – some of whom turned their energies towards chaos. Not every PLO member was kidnapping Jordanians for cash or vandalizing mosques. But the PLO’s chairman, Yasser Arafat, didn’t seem interested in getting his guys to calm down. And King Hussein had had enough, especially once the PLO started with the assassination attempts.

By 1970, he was done. Like, civil war, crushing all dissent, kicking you all out of here done. His crackdown was so savage that it became known as Black September. It’s a wild story, and we should do an episode on it one day, but all you need to know for now is this: Hussein got what he wanted in the end. He purged the PLO from Jordan, killing thousands of Palestinians in the process. 

So the newly homeless organization took their act to… Lebanon, where they immediately resumed their old tricks of extortion, violence, chaos, and so on.

Which seriously did not help. Because Lebanon was already full of ethnic and religious groups with serious bones to pick with one another. They didn’t need the PLO coming in and inflaming things.

But that’s exactly what happened. By 1975, the country’s simmering tensions had burst into all-out war.

It was the perfect time for Ayatollah Khomeini to get involved. Yeah, remember that guy from our time in Iran? Well, he was looking to expand his regional influence, building an Islamist force loyal to him and his values. Which, again, included a deep commitment to Islam (or his understanding of Islam) and a hatred of the US matched only by his hatred of Israel.

And he had identified the perfect target from which to build his guerilla force. 

Lebanon’s Shia Muslim minority mostly lived in poverty in Lebanon’s south, neglected and ignored by the majority-Christian government. They were big mad about the decades of discrimination and neglect. So the Ayatollah’s forces swooped in, providing food, healthcare, infrastructure, and welfare programs. They made themselves indispensable to the Shia’s social fabric. Along with the soup kitchens and mosques, they gave out something else: a vision for a different future, an Islamic future, in a Lebanon cleansed of foreign influence. It was an appealing vision, but it could only be achieved by force.

Remember, war is raging. To a neglected minority group, force was not only justified. It felt essential. In a country where every day brought a fresh atrocity, it was kill or be killed. So lots of Shia men took up the Iranian offer of military training and sophisticated weaponry. They were done being kicked around (as they saw it) by the Christians, and the Americans, and the French, and the Israelis, who raided Lebanon every time the PLO got too frisky.

By 1982, many of Lebanon’s Shia had joined the country’s newest highly-trained, well-funded Islamist militia, which was loyal first and foremost to Iran (again, which is a Shiite country). They were now a part of the so-called Party of God. In Arabic, wait for it, you got it right, Hezbollah.

Supporters of Hezbollah gather at al-Ashoura square in the suburbs of Beirut to listen to the speech of the Secretary-general of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah on November 3, 2023 in Beirut, Lebanon. (Photo by Marwan Tahtah/Getty Images)

Lebanon’s civil war was about to get a whole lot messier. So let’s recap for a second, because my head is spinning and we haven’t even gotten to the action yet.

Number one: There’s a civil war in Lebanon.

Number two: The PLO is making it much worse by encouraging sectarian divisions and launching attacks on Israel.

Number three: Meanwhile, Iran has been advancing its own interests by building up a highly-trained Shia militia loyal first and foremost to Khomeini.

And number four: All of this was about to impact Israel in a big messy way.

You might have noticed I’ve been remarkably silent about Israel for a while. Well, welcome to Stop Number Four on our journey: Israel. 

The Jewish state spent the 70s doing two things: recovering from the Yom Kippur War (link in the show notes) and dealing with a seemingly endless string of raids and attacks. Oh, and if pictures from the time period are any indication, wearing really silly bell-bottoms.

Somehow, fighting a civil war hadn’t slowed down the PLO’s main objective one bit. Though they were certainly keeping busy in Lebanon, they were still finding the time to mess with Israel. And the Jewish state was sick of it. Israel had tried to stop the attacks multiple times, but nothing seemed to work. 

Not the Mossad’s 1973 raid on PLO headquarters. (Link in the show notes.) Not their quiet backing of some of Lebanon’s Christian militias, in hopes that the Lebanese would be able to rid the country of their mutual enemy. And not their brief invasion of Lebanon in 1978, in retaliation for a horrific PLO-led massacre that left 38 Israeli civilians dead.

By 1982, the Israeli public had had it up to here with PLO attacks from Lebanon. The final straw was a Palestinian ambush on Israel’s ambassador to England, which left him disabled for life. 72 hours later, IDF tanks set up shop in southern Lebanon with a single goal: stop the PLO attacks once and for all. And because the PLO, well, kinda sucked as neighbors, many Lebanese actually welcomed the IDF. As Yossi Klein Halevi, the great author, recounts in his book Like Dreamers, quote: “Shiites as well as Christians threw rice and candies, welcoming the IDF as liberators from the hated PLO, which had terrorized southern Lebanon.”

But you know who wasn’t happy to see the IDF roll into Lebanon? Our Iranian-backed friends, Hezbollah, who were perfectly in line with Khomeini’s assertion that quote, “We are fighting against the Western world – devourers led by America, Israel, and Zionism.” And what was Khomeini, and thus Hezbollah’s, ultimate goal? Quote, “We say that Israel should be erased from the world and Jerusalem belongs to Muslims.”

Hezbollah took up the fight against the U.S. and Israel with gusto. 

The first indication that Israel was dealing with a new enemy came in November of 1982, when a Hezbollah operative drove a car packed with explosives into the IDF’s military headquarters in Tyre, leveling the 7-story building and killing at least 75 Israelis, not to mention a number of Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners. And Hezbollah didn’t stop there. Their next major suicide attack targeted the American embassy in Beirut, claiming more than 60 lives.

A few days later, President Reagan addressed the United States:

“We don’t know yet who bears responsibility for this terrible deed. What we do know is that the terrorists who planned and carried out the cynical and cowardly attack have failed in their purpose. They mistakenly believe that if they’re cruel enough and violent enough they will weaken American resolve and deter us from our effort to help build a lasting and secure peace in the Middle East. But if they think that, they don’t know too much about America.”

But the attacks kept coming, each one crueler and more violent than the next. A suicide bomb at the UNRWA building in Tyre that killed 29 Israelis. (By the way, UNRWA is now in the news a lot at the time of this recording, so shoutout to that reality.) Two massive side-by-side bombings of American and French peacekeeping forces that claimed 305 lives.

And more, and more. Suicide bombs. Rocket attacks. Kidnappings. Torture. This new group didn’t discriminate. They kidnapped CIA operatives, Israeli soldiers, unlucky French and American citizens living in Lebanon, and Lebanese Jews who had no connection to Israel or to the wider war. Some of their hostages were later freed. Others, like CIA station chief William Buckley, were held for months and slowly tortured to death. 

And in the background, the war was raging. You can hear more about it in our episode on Sabra and Shatila, which is linked in the show notes.

By September of 1982, Israel had achieved its primary objective: getting the PLO out of Beirut. The Palestinian group decamped to Tunisia (which, random), but now Israel had a new and vicious enemy to deal with in Lebanon: Hezbollah. And they kept the attacks coming, even after Israel largely withdrew its forces from Lebanon in 1985.

In fact, 1985 was a big year for Hezbollah. Not just because it’s the year I was born. It’s also because they unveiled their official flag, which shows a hand gripping an assault rifle over the globe. (Masters of subtlety, they are not.) And in case anyone was confused about their aims, they also released a manifesto, which laid out their objectives.

  1. To expel all foreigners from Lebanon (which, kinda hypocritical coming from a group literally founded and funded by a foreign country, but OK!)
  2. To bring the Christian Lebanese political party to justice
  3. To encourage the Lebanese people to set up an Islamic government that, quote, “is capable of guaranteeing justice and liberty for all.”
  4. And, of course, to destroy Israel. And the US, too. (Gotta respect that ambition!)

So when the Lebanese Civil War ended in 1990, Hezbollah saw no reason to disband or disarm. After all, they hadn’t achieved their goals! And for some reason that I truly do not understand, they were the only militia in Lebanon allowed to keep their weapons at the end of the war. Think about that for a second. Lebanon had just been ripped apart by a nasty civil war in which a bunch of armed groups terrorized one another. And yet, the peace agreements that ended the war allowed the nastiest of these groups to keep its weapons.

Friends, I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say, this was not good news for anyone but Hezbollah – and, by extension, Iran.

With their newfound legitimacy, Hezbollah started stepping up its attacks. And they were taking the show on the road. They attacked an Israeli embassy official in Turkey. They bombed embassies in London and Argentina. And in one of their most unforgivable attacks, they bombed a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, killing 85 people.

Their message was clear: nowhere is safe for you. “You,” of course, being Jews.

The group still found time to attack Israel, raining rockets on IDF positions and Israeli cities alike, all of which came from civilian centers. A UN humanitarian aid chief called this tactic, quote, a “cowardly blending among women and children.”

In 2024, this is a depressingly familiar bind. How does an army respond to constant attacks launched from a house of worship or a school? Like, how do they deal with that? Do you:

A) say “screw it” and bomb the heck out of civilians? B) send soldiers in on foot, knowing that you’re condemning a certain number to a nasty death? C) do nothing, abandoning whole neighborhoods to their fate as target practice?

These are all terrible options.

So Israel went with choice D: warning civilians of upcoming strikes by peppering south Lebanon with leaflets saying “EVACUATE!” On the one hand, they were functionally warning Hezbollah exactly where they were going to strike. On the other, they were doing their best to lessen the civilian death toll. 

And in the meantime, the Mossad quietly, surgically assassinated Hezbollah leaders. Cutting off someone’s head is a pretty good way to, you know, kill them. But the terror group just kept sprouting new heads, each one worse than the next. Which is how Hezbollah got its current leader, the super-fanatic cleric Hassan Nasrallah, who took power after Israel killed his boss in 1992.

Maybe you’ve heard that name before, Hassan Nasrallah. As of February 2024, when I’m recording this, the guy is still around. I’m a big sports fan, so from a longevity perspective, gotta give him props. I mean, 92 is the year Michael Jordan and the Bulls beat Drexler and the Blazers…to give some perspective here. That’s nuts. But, his content? It’s brutal. Turn on any of his interviews or speeches and you’ll hear a litany of the anti-Semites’ greatest hits: Jews are parasites and “lesions on the forehead of history,” the Holocaust didn’t happen, Israel is a “cancerous growth” that needs to be removed… Really charming stuff. 

And just in case Israelis thought they were all talk, Hezbollah strafed Israeli towns with rockets whenever they got bored. But they really stepped up their game in the summer of 2006, when they attacked IDF soldiers patrolling Israel’s northern border. Using a rocket barrage as a diversion, they managed to kill three soldiers and drag two more into Lebanon.

For the next 34 days, Israel rained fire on Lebanon, eventually launching a limited ground invasion. The war destroyed much of Lebanon’s infrastructure, killed over a thousand people, and displaced hundreds of thousands more. But at its end, Hezbollah continued to exist. Though Nasrallah later admitted that he wouldn’t have started the war if he’d known just how intensely Lebanon would suffer, that didn’t stop him from crowing about his “victory.”

And honestly, it was a victory for Hezbollah. The war didn’t dislodge them. No one forced them to disarm. And they’ve spent the years since preparing for another war.

Lebanon is not a rich country. Many of its citizens can’t even count on uninterrupted electricity throughout the day. But Hezbollah is doing great financially. Like, really great. Iran provides a generous $700 million allowance each year that Hezbollah has used to become better-trained and better-equipped than the actual Lebanese army. Those weapons include a series of tunnels snaking under Lebanon into Israeli territory. In 2018, Israel destroyed one tunnel network more than 20 stories deep, carved from solid rock and graffitied with slogans like “On the way to Jerusalem!” Attack tunnels, built under Israelis’ feet. Sound familiar?

What is it with terrorists and tunnels, by the way? Hezbollah, Hamas… these guys love their underground infrastructure. After October 7th, we all know what Hamas did with theirs. The thought of a similar attack from Hezbollah is chilling. And it’s not outside the realm of possibility. Because for nearly a decade, Israelis living on the Lebanese border have reported the sounds of digging, drilling, and construction underfoot. Imagine that for a second. You’re living an ordinary life – going to the gym, picking up your kids, doing your grocery shopping, little Soulcycle maybe – knowing, the whole time, that a group sworn to your destruction is digging its way towards you under your very feet. Israel has destroyed some of these tunnels. But it would be naive to think they’ve found every single one.

And the threat isn’t just coming from below the ground. For years, Hezbollah sent rockets towards Israeli towns. In the wake of Hamas’ attack of October 7th, they’ve really stepped up their game. We spoke to an Israeli school teacher who lives a couple of miles from the Lebanese border, whose town was evacuated after 10/7. After months of displacement, she decided to come back to her home. But she returned to a ghost town.

There’s no life here. There are no residents here. I’m very much alone on my moshav. There are no children, There’s nothing… there’s no city. This place is waiting for a big war. And when the war will happen – if it will happen – I won’t be able to live here. But you also can’t be in half of Israel because they’re shelling us all the way to Tel Aviv. It’s scary. It means living in fear. 

And I’m not going to lie to you. It’s February 2024, and I’m also afraid.

Not for my life. I don’t live anywhere near the conflict zone. But I’m afraid of what can happen if Hezbollah decides to enter the war. At the time of this recording, they haven’t yet – but that can change at any minute. And that would expose Israel to a war on two fronts: Hamas in the south. Hezbollah in the north. A war with Hezbollah could be horrific, potentially costing thousands of lives on either side of the border – especially if Hezbollah manages to infiltrate Israeli territory, the way Hamas did on 10/7. 

Hezbollah is an extension of Iran – a proxy force that the Islamic Republic uses to attack Israel. A war with Hezbollah isn’t just a war with a well-armed militia. It’s a war with the entire country of Iran. Which has the potential to be, in the words of Hassan Nasrallah, a fight “without limits.”

Demonstrators gather with Iranian and Palestinian flags and the yellow flags of Hezbollah during a protest in Tehran in support of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip on October 20, 2023 amid the war between Israel and Hamas. (Photo by AFP via Getty Images)

It’s a grim picture. But I’d like to believe that there are glimmers of hope.

Hezbollah is hell-bent on fighting Israel quote “until the hated ones get what they deserve.” But that fight comes with a high cost for Lebanon and the Lebanese people. Remember, more than a thousand Lebanese died in the 2006 war that Hezbollah started. Lebanese infrastructure was decimated. All because of Hezbollah’s vendetta against the Jewish state. As of February 2024, Hezbollah has been shelling Israel’s north and being shelled right back. Tens of thousands of civilians on both sides have been evacuated. The civilian death toll is growing: 20 Lebanese and 18 Israelis, in addition to hundreds of Hezbollah fighters.

Sounds to me like there’s not a whole lot in this for Lebanon. As American diplomat and former UN Undersecretary General for Political Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, puts it, quote, “Hezbollah’s massive arsenal has little to do with Lebanon and serves primarily as Iran’s deterrence against Israel. If Hezbollah ever has to choose between Iran and Lebanon, Lebanon becomes roadkill.”

And yet, a poll from January 2024 revealed that 89% of Lebanese Shia hold a “very positive” view of Hezbollah. (In contrast, 70% of Christians and 66% of Sunnis report having a “negative” or “very negative” view of the militia.)

The World Bank estimates that Lebanon is in the midst of one of the worst economic crises globally since the mid-19th century. So why would the Shia, who make up a third of Lebanon’s population, continue to support a group that pours hundreds of millions of dollars into arming itself while their country slides towards total economic collapse? 

I thought about this a lot. Why do people do things that run counter to their interests? You can ask that question about any of us, by the way. All of us make decisions that might look inexplicable from the outside. But probe deeply enough, and you will find a kind of logic – even if it’s logic you don’t agree with.

So here’s what I think is going on with Hezbollah’s Lebanese supporters.

There are multiple types of power. The show of force. Rolling in with tanks. Making people do or think or believe what you tell them because they’re scared of you. It works for a while, but – as in the case of Iran – it can’t hold forever.

Then there’s soft power. This is the kind of power that Hezbollah is so good at wielding at home. Offering jobs, and hope, and opportunities. In other words: showing up. Building a society. Hezbollah isn’t just a militia, full of scary guys with guns. It’s also a political party, and it occupies a central role in Lebanese politics. 

My association with Hezbollah is dudes with assault rifles. Your average Shia person, though? Their association with Hezbollah might be their friendly neighbor, or the guy who set up the soup kitchen down the street, or the candyman at the mosque (I’m just assuming mosques, like synagogues, all have a candy man. No one correct me if I’m wrong, please!) 

And now that things are heating up with Israel yet again, Hezbollah can yet again position itself as Lebanon’s protector. It’s easy to believe that Israelis are all “warriors,” as Nasrallah once said so charmingly, when all you know of the country to your south is shelling and cross-border raids and the growing death toll in Gaza.

And look, I want to be clear. I’m not condoning support for Hezbollah, like at all, at all. And, I think I understand how it can happen. Lebanon has powerful laws against “normalization” with Israel, which criminalize any contact with Israelis. You’re a gamer in Beirut playing World of Warcraft and an Israeli signs on? Technically, you’re not allowed to talk to them. You’re scrolling Reddit from Tel Aviv and commenting in the Lebanon sub? Well, anyone who responds to you is breaking the law. And that’s an incredibly potent way to keep Lebanese people from seeing Israelis as fully human, as opposed to abstract conceptions. All they know about Israel is violence, and ugly stories, and bloodshed, and war, and strong military men. So of course you’re going to support the group that positions itself as a defender.

Ah, the power of education. And yes, I see the deep, ugly irony in the fact that Hezbollah pretends to be “for” Lebanon when it is literally loyal to another country. But human beings are complicated, aren’t we all? Lebanon is weak, divided, and unstable. And in a country this fractious, anyone who has managed to hold on to power for 40 years might be doing something right. Maybe, to some, Hezbollah is just the best of a bunch of bad options. Seems wild to me from the outside – but I am on the outside. And that’s important to remember, before we start making value judgments about a third of Lebanon’s people. 

I have to believe, though, that there’s still a chance to stop whatever is coming. That Iran and Hezbollah can be convinced to draw their feet back from the fire. That’s why we do this podcast, after all: in the hope that with enough education, enough stories, enough empathy, maybe, maybe things can still change. It’s a slim glimmer of hope. But sometimes, that’s all you need to ward off the darkness.

So that’s the story of Hezbollah, and here are your five fast facts:

  1. In 1979, a fiery Shia cleric named Ayatollah Khomeini took over Iran and quickly started exporting his firebrand ideology across the globe.
  2. He started in Lebanon, which was in the throes of a nasty war, which involved every Lebanese ethnic and religious group, as well as Israel and Syria. (Oy.) Iranian forces zoomed in on the country’s neglected Shia population, earning the community’s loyalty.
  3. By 1985, the Iranians had built a well-trained militia loyal to the Ayatollah. This new force, which they called Hezbollah, made its name with a series of devastating terror attacks on Israeli, French, and American targets in Lebanon.
  4. Even though the Lebanese civil war ended in 1990, Hezbollah did not disarm. They continued their campaign of international terror, vowing to destroy Israel. 
  5. Since then, Hezbollah has attacked Israel numerous times, kicking off a nasty war in 2006. And now that Israel is at war with Hamas in Gaza, it seems increasingly likely that Hezbollah is gearing up to join.

Those are your five fast facts, but here’s one enduring lesson as I see it.

I heard a story recently that really sticks with me. It’s called the Parable of the Sadhu, and it goes like this:

A bunch of mountaineers from different countries are climbing Everest, because that’s how some people have fun, scares the living daylights out of me, but whatever. They’re all in groups: the Americans, the Kiwis, the Swedes, the Japanese. Whatever. And because they’re in a super harsh environment, they’ve developed a kind of camaraderie – you know, warning each other when there’s a steep drop ahead, stuff like that.

Anyway, one of the Kiwis has forged ahead, eager to get to the top. But soon, he comes back down, annoyed, carrying the body of a sadhu, or holy man. The guy isn’t dressed properly. He has no supplies. On Everest, that’s a death sentence. He’d clearly gotten stuck while visiting a shrine, and now he was hypothermic, close to dead.

The mountaineer who brought him down to base camp was like, I did my part. I brought this dude to base camp. Now he’s someone else’s problem. And then he climbs back up, ready to see the summit of this unconquerable mountain.

So the rest of the mountaineers start trying to help the sadhu. They give him clothes and food and water, and he’s starting to revive a little. But there’s no way this dude should be on an icy high-altitude mountain. His body has just gone through shock. He needs to be at sea level, recovering.

Ever been to Everest? No, me neither. But I hear it’s pretty hard to climb. Going down the mountain is almost as precarious as getting up. And yet, no one wants to undo all their progress and help the sadhu get back to ground. 

And I get it. Everest is intense, that’s what they tell me. Even groups with porters needed to conserve their energy. It could be dangerous to bring the guy down and then try to get back up. And why should these groups risk their lives for a guy who hadn’t been adequately prepared?

Finally, someone does end up carrying the sadhu partway down the mountain. But he was still pretty high up. If he wanted to reach sea level, he’d have to fend for himself.

That’s essentially where the story ends, and maybe I didn’t tell it perfectly, but you get the idea.

Don’t you love open-ended, ambiguous tales, where no one knows what happened?

We don’t know if the sadhu lived, we know very little.

And we don’t know how all the mountaineers felt about their choices. They were at altitude. It was cold, snowy, dangerous. They were so close to the summit, to the thing they’d been working towards and training for, for months or years. 

And after all, they did feed him and clothe him. They did carry him at least partway down the mountain. What else could they have done? What else should they have done? And in the context of this episode, who is the sadhu?

Well, to me, the sadhu is… morality. Doing the right thing, even when it’s inconvenient. Even when it doesn’t feel good. Even when it might be slightly dangerous. The mountaineers? That’s all of Israel. Ordinary society. Political and military leaders. Regular old soldiers. Really, the mountaineers represent anyone who has to make difficult moral decisions, particularly in less-than-ideal circumstances. In the parable, the mountaineers are thousands of feet up, the air thin and precious. When every atom in your body is focused on survival, “doing the right thing” can feel like a luxury you can’t afford.

That’s what it is to be a Jewish state among those unfriendly neighbors. Those are the circumstances under which Israeli leaders have made every decision. Parry, or thrust? Choose your own soldiers over the other side’s civilians? Or send teenagers into Lebanon or Gaza on foot, hoping to spare civilians but knowing that at least some will die horribly? Respond to provocations and establish deterrence, or turn the other cheek again and again and again?

And while you’re making these decisions, rockets are arcing overhead. (Yeah, I realize I’m mixing my metaphors at this point.)

The parable would have been a lot different if someone had taken charge. Said, this is unacceptable. We’re gonna get this guy down the mountain no matter what. We can always come back and climb to the top, but he only has one life. The parable would have been a lot different if the mountaineers had actually listened to this kind of conviction.

So… what’s the answer? How do you make these difficult moral decisions when you’re at the top of the mountain?

The answer is: you don’t. You make them before you climb up. You make them when you can think straight. When you can feel something other than the screaming need to just SURVIVE. When you have the luxury of thinking through complex ethical questions.

But that’s not really how life works, is it. That’s not how countries work. And that’s certainly not how war works.

Israel didn’t want this war with Hamas. It didn’t want the war with Hezbollah in 2006. And it definitely doesn’t want another war on its northern border in 2024. But there’s no way off this mountain. No way to stop this ride. And we all have to hope that the “mountaineers” in this scenario will think carefully before they plunge us all into a multi-front war. 

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