Anatomy of a Winning Insurgency: Learning From Hizballah’s Victory Over Israel in the 1982-2000 South Lebanon Conflict

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By Jeff Burdette |

In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States was pitted against a resilient and adroit insurgency. And each time, the United States struggled to respond effectively. Given the growing presence of al-Qaeda linked or inspired insurgents in numerous countries throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, the United States is likely to be drawn into more of these conflicts in the near future. To respond effectively, the United States must develop a counterterrorism strategy that understands and react to the success of past insurgencies.

In few conflicts can more of these lessons be found than Hizballah’s 2000 victory over the Israel defense Forces (IDF). In 1982, Hizballah launched an insurgency that would culminate two decades later in Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon. When the fighting escalated in 2000, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) entered Lebanon with an impressive history of success, including lopsided victories over its Arab neighbors in 1948 and 1967, but returned without achieving its objectives.

How did Hizballah, a force comprised of no more than a few thousand fighters, drive the IDF from Lebanon? This paper answers this question in five parts. The first section traces Hizballah’s emergence in southern Lebanon in the early 1980s. The next three sections explain why Hizballah’s impressive success is best understood as the culmination of a sophisticated and highly effective politico-military strategy founded on a strong and loyal political following, a vast social welfare program, and military success. In the fifth and final section, the paper shows how the lessons from Hizballah’s success are relevant to U.S. counterinsurgency practitioners today.

Southern Lebanon in 1982 and Hizballah’s Emergence

On June 6, 1982, the IDF crossed into Lebanon as part of Operation Peace for Galilee, an attempt to bring security to northern Israel by expelling Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) forces based in southern Lebanon. Their endgame was the establishment of a friendly Christian government in Beirut, led by Maronite militia commander Bachir Gemayel. But, Israel had not given serious thought to how they would administer the power vacuum left in the south by the destruction of the PLO’s mini-state.[1] As the PLO collapsed and this vacuum emerged, the Shia, a majority of the population in southern Lebanon, rushed to fill it.

By 1982, the Shia in Lebanon had endured a long history of suffering; one observer described them as “a politically, socially, and economically marginalized minority- the ‘wretched of the earth’.”[2] Moreover, their location in southern Lebanon placed them at the center of the PLO-IDF fighting and they suffered disproportionately in the IDF incursions in both 1978 and 1982.[3] In light of their history of political oppression and socioeconomic deprivation, it’s unsurprising that the Shias celebrated the expulsion of the PLO. However, this was not support for Israel’s presence in Lebanon.

Shia resistance to the IDF began almost immediately. Hizballah was not the first group to rise to defend the Shias or contest Israel’s presence in Lebanon. Initially, the Shia militia Amal was dominant. However, Amal was beset by several important weaknesses that would be skillfully exploited by an ascendant Hizballah. First, Amal was largely secular and could expect only tenuous and begrudging support from religious conservatives.[4] Second, they exposed themselves to charges of being collaborationist. When Amal leader Nabih Berri agreed to join a ‘national salvation’ committee that also included Gemayel, outraged Shias condemned him as a collaborator with the Israeli occupiers and even his own deputy angrily denounced him.[5] Third, and perhaps most importantly, Amal was viewed as soft and ineffectual because of their reluctance to engage in violence against the IDF. In the early days of the conflict, the Higher Shiite Council, led by senior Amal member Shams al-Din, urged the Shia of Lebanon to reject the occupation and refuse to cooperate with Israel.[6] But he was describing a campaign of civil disobedience, not one of violence. For some, this was not enough.

Tempers reached their breaking point on October 16, 1983, when an IDF convoy traveling through the town of Nabatiya interrupted villagers celebrating the sacred Shia holiday of Ashura. Outraged, the worshipers rioted in protest. When they attacked the IDF vehicles, soldiers opened fire, killing and wounding several worshipers.[7] Al-Din again called for civil disobedience but conceded that “we might need years before we achieve our final objective.”[8] To the furious Shia, this call for patience rang hollow.

Amal’s apparent impotence in the face of this latest indignity divided its membership and exposed Amal to radicals prepared to outflank them with promises of immediate, violent action. This opportunity would prove fortuitous for the group that would come to be known as Hizballah.[9] In stark contrast to al-Din’s meek call for non-violent resistance, Hizballah- linked cleric Hussein Fadlallah pledged ferociously “if it is legitimate to defend self and land and destiny, then all means of self-defense are legitimate.”[10] These were not empty words. Exactly one week later, Hizballah launched a pair of massive coordinated suicide bombings against French and American barracks in Beirut, killing 241 U.S. Marines and 58 French soldiers.

Political Strategy

Hizballah amassed strong support through a sophisticated and effective political strategy resting on two pillars: a broadly resonant narrative emphasizing nationalist resistance to Israeli occupiers and a massive social welfare program that consolidated public support.

Hizballah’s Narrative

Beginning with Mao Zedong, insurgents have emphasized the centrality of broad-based political support to military success. Accordingly, Hizballah’s most important challenge was to build a narrative capable of not only energizing their narrow political base of conservative religious Shias, but also transcending it to reach Lebanon’s cosmopolitan and religiously diverse population. In the context of Amal’s competition for leadership of the Shias and the brutal inter-confessional civil war raging throughout Lebanon, this meant being able to reach beyond Shia religious ideology without disavowing it.

At first, Hizballah was largely unsuccessful in its attempts to strike the ideological balance between being adequately conservative for their base and sufficiently secular for the rest of Lebanon. In February 1985, when they released a manifesto formally announcing their formation, efforts to reach beyond the Shia community were of secondary importance to consolidating the support of their base. Journalist Nicholas Blanford characterizes the document as reflecting an “arrogance of conviction”; it was written to energize existing supporters, not woo new ones.[11] Moreover, though the first goal listed in the manifesto—the expulsion of western powers from Lebanon—was premised upon popular nationalist sentiment, the remaining two were of much narrower appeal. The second goal called for the defense of Muslims and Christians, but singled out the predominantly Christian Phalange as their oppressor.[12] The third goal was even more explicitly exclusionary, calling for the establishment of an Islamic government as the only means of protecting the sovereignty of Lebanon from the predations of external powers.[13]

Scholar Christopher Whitting points out that this emphasis on religion meant Hizballah “had nothing to offer the non-Shiite two thirds of Lebanon’s population.” Even its support within the Shia community had as much to do with Hizballah’s commitment to redressing their historical deprivations and indignities as it did with ideological affinity.[14] Early attempts by Hizballah to impose an austere form of sharia law upon southern Lebanon were met with an intense backlash. One observer describes this period:

“Islamic laws backfired to such a degree that they alienated the local population, with the closure of coffee shops being deemed especially harsh. The Islamic laws ruined the local tourist economy, with empty beaches and restaurants. [Hizballah] had disregarded the importance the local population attributed to individuality and were losing their support in the process.”[15]

As Whitting explains, this soon changed; “by the 1990s, Hizballah was forced to the conclusion that it could not continue to defy Lebanon’s cosmopolitan reality…Party leaders came to deny any ambition to impose an Iranian-style Islamic state.”[16] Instead, they cloaked themselves in nationalism, relentlessly portraying themselves as the only capable defenders of southern Lebanon. By 1989, senior party official and future Hizballah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah was reassuring the Lebanese that “we do not seek power and do not wish to compete with anyone over state positions; our political movement is based on the premise of fighting Israel.”[17] This new narrative resonated. By 1992 Hizballah was widely considered unmatched in its single-minded drive to expel Israel from Lebanon.[18]

They sought to consolidate their new nationalist bona fides by taking steps to allay fears that they hoped to establish an exclusionary theocratic state. First, they actively sought to integrate themselves into a political system they previously rejected as corrupt and apostate. In 1992, several Hizballah candidates ran for Parliament and the group won eight seats.[19] Unsurprisingly, their platform focused almost exclusively on resistance, rather than religion or the imposition of sharia. A popular campaign slogan noted that “they resist with their blood, resist with your vote.”[20] Significantly, Hizballah’s candidates were mostly civilians rather than clergy members, and even included members of other religions.[21]

Second, they aggressively reached out to non-Shia communities, particularly Maronites. This effort included the abandonment of an initial goal to abolish Lebanon’s sectarian political quota system.[22] Hizballah also took conscious steps to moderate its rhetoric towards Christians. Leaders stopped dismissing them as unwelcome intruders unworthy of full rights and began welcoming them as muwataneen (fellow citizens).[23] They even sought to portray themselves as not only accepting of other sects, but actively inclusive of them, establishing special intra-confessional military units known as “Lebanese Resistance Brigades.”[24]

As Hizballah embraced nationalism and the resistance narrative, their public standing improved dramatically. After Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996, a devastating Israeli air campaign provoked by Hizballah rocket fire, they were so strongly supported in Lebanon that no politician from any sect dared criticize their insurgency, and the government was ready to defend Hizballah before the United Nations.[25] A villager interviewed in 1993 in the wake of an Israeli air operation spoke for much of the country when he said Hizballah is “only fighting for their country…they just want to get Israel out of here.”[26]

But even while Hizballah was integrating itself politically and extending an olive branch to Lebanon’s other religious communities, they were able to satisfy their conservative Shia base. Iver Gabrielsen notes that, remarkably, “the Party of God said enough to energize its Islamic members, but also toned down their rhetoric sufficiently to appease their non-Islamic neighbours.”[27] That they were able to strike this difficult balance is testament to their political agility and skill.

Social Welfare

The nationalist narrative was only one pillar of Hizballah’s campaign to win the support of the public. In parallel with the developing narrative, they erected a vast social welfare program. Numerous scholars have argued that Hizballah’s focus on providing basic services to the long-deprived people of south Lebanon gave them a degree of public support the IDF could never hope to match. Indeed, the scale of Hizballah’s program was breathtaking running the gamut from food, clothing, and monthly stipends to the construction of hospitals and schools.[28] In their southern Beirut stronghold, they purchased trucks and employed volunteers to clear the mountains of garbage clogging the streets.[29] They improved the sewage system and provided agricultural assistance to farmers. By 2000, roughly 400,000 people were receiving healthcare from Hizballah.[30]

As Blanford notes, Hizballah viewed these programs as an important strategic tool in their insurgency against Israel.[31] The assistance helped create a state of dependency that fused the population inseparably to Hizballah. Hizballah deputy leader Naim Qassem explains that this was seen as an important part of their ambition to build a “society of resistance” whereby the insurgency would belong not just to formal members of Hizballah, but would become an inextricable part of the entire community. In his words, the resistance would become “an integration of the people, whereby everyone gives.”[32]

Hizballah’s aid program also allowed them to exploit the collateral damage incurred during IDF operations. They have claimed that, between 1991 and 2000, they repaired every single home damaged in an Israeli raid or attack, a total of 17,212.[33] Daniel Helmer recounts a typical episode: “as soon as Israel stopped shelling, [Hizballah] returned into the areas and began rebuilding the homes that Israel had destroyed.”[34] The assistance programs, therefore, placed the IDF in a difficult bind where almost any offensive operation could be twisted into a political coup by Hizballah.

Military Strategy

It is often said that, in insurgencies, people back winners. Unsurprisingly then, in addition to a strong narrative and their vast public welfare program, Hizballah’s military success was instrumental in fueling its public support. This success can be attributed to their understanding of the relationship between military and political strategy, their tactical flexibility, their persistence in identifying and focusing on Israeli public support as the center of gravity, and their significant external support from Iran and Syria.

The Relationship between Military and Political Strategy

Summing up the relationship between politics and military strategy nearly 200 years ago, Carl von Clausewitz wrote “the political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it.”[35] Importantly, Hizballah recognized that military strategy is important only within the context of a viable, coherent political strategy; or, more bluntly, the political goal drives military strategy, rather than the inverse. Consequently, Hizballah military operations were always designed with the specific intent of cultivating popular support and they adopted and fiercely adhered to a new admonition, “the population is a treasure- always nurture it.”[36]

Hizballah went out of its way to meet this standard, adopting onerous precautions to ensure its attacks did not lead to unnecessary civilian casualties. This even extended to taking promising military options off the table if they were deemed likely to harm the Lebanese population. For example, few weapons had as significant a strategic impact as Hizballah’s stocks of Katyusha rockets. Despite their limited tactical value, each rocket fired across the border by Hizballah terrified the population of northern Israel and highlighted the IDF’s continued inability to eliminate this threat. Yet, each rocket fired was also invariably met with ferocious Israeli retaliation, such that even some supporters of Hizballah became apprehensive about their use.[37] As a result, Hizballah largely abandoned offensive use of the rockets. According to Nasrallah, their value was as a deterrent: “If you attack us, we will use our Katyushas; if you do not attack us, we will not use our Katyushas.”[38] Hizballah, in other words, correctly assessed that a less restrained use of the missiles could lead to military gains, but they would be outweighed the resulting loss of popular support and damage to Hizballah’s narrative.


The second pillar of Hizballah’s military success was their notable strategic and tactical flexibility and willingness to study and learn from the IDF. An early account of Hizballah’s tactics from a UN observer in Lebanon dismisses them as “amateur and foolhardy, though very brave.”[39] Their early success in employing terrorism to impressive effect has been well documented, but their tactics on the battlefield were still fairly rudimentary at the beginning of the insurgency. They focused principally on large-scale raids against IDF and Southern Lebanon Army (SLA) outposts. These ambitious attacks usually resulted in very heavy casualties and limited success. The UN observer describes a typical early raid: “They simply walked into the line of fire only to be cut down immediately…A single attack against Israeli troops in mid-1986 resulted in twenty-four [Hizballah] fatalities.”[40] These tactics were, of course, unsustainable. First, Hizballah could not afford the casualties. Though Hizballah boasted a large number of supporters, and often drew on them to bolster operations, the number of full-time fighters was quite small. Estimates for the number of Hizballah fighters range from several thousand on the high end to as low as 500 full-time fighters on the low end.[41] Second, the ineffectiveness of their tactics undermined their public support because people are unlikely to accept the risks of supporting an insurgency unless they expect it to win.[42] Hizballah would have been particularly sensitive to this concern given their emphasis on maintaining strong public support. Clearly, their tactics needed to change.

In fact, Hizballah proved exceptionally adaptive. Helmer recounts that “suicide assaults on IDF positions gave way to sophisticated, coordinated, and timed attacks as [Hizballah] became more and more effective.”[43] Small, quick ambushes became a common, and devastatingly effective, tactic. Hizballah drafted and disseminated a list of thirteen principles of warfare encapsulating many of the tactics made famous by Mao and other classic guerillas. One principle cautions fighters to “avoid the strong and attack the weak,” while others emphasize that “surprise is essential to success” and urge fighters to hit hard and then “slip away like smoke before the enemy can drive home his advantage.”[44] These principles served as their new tactical model.

As Hizballah adapted, they were at once everywhere and nowhere on the battlefield. In 1990, the IDF officially credited Hizballah with 25 attacks; by 1998, they were averaging almost four per day, an increase of over 5000% annually.[45] IDF and SLA soldiers “grew to dread moving out of their base camps for fear that any object, rock, bush, or tree might explode next to them.”[46] But even as the tempo of attacks spiked, the IDF was frustrated by their inability to find and strike Hizballah insurgents. Whitting explains that “the perpetual problem facing the IDF is that Hizballah targets cannot be found. They were looking for guerilla targets. They found none to hit and there was nothing they could do.”[47] Too often, the frustrated IDF responded with mass, non-targeted sweeps that resulted in the arrest of innocents or retaliatory shelling or air strikes that invariably harmed civilians.[48] Predictably, this only reinforced Hizballah’s support.

Presaging the U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hizballah’s most feared weapon was the roadside bomb; it was perhaps here that they best demonstrated their impressive flexibility. Iver Gabrielsen describes the cat-and-mouse contest for supremacy that developed between Hizballah bomb-makers and the IDF:

When the IDF employed sniffer dogs to discover wire-triggered bombs, [Hizballah] answered by hiding IEDs inside fiberglass rocks and used radio control to set off the bombs. The IDF responded by sweeping radio frequencies from listening posts at Mount Hermon. [Hizballah] then switched to using cell phone receivers to trigger the IEDs. The IDF answered by jamming cell phone signals, while [Hizballah] responded by using infra-red beams to set off the IEDs.[49]

Despite persistent IDF attempts to eliminate the roadside bomb threat, Hizballah always remained one step ahead. In February 1999, near the end of the war, Hizballah’s IED campaign enjoyed its greatest success when a roadside bomb killed Brigadier General Erez Gerstein, one of the most senior IDF commanders in Lebanon.[50] By the end of the conflict, Hizballah’s roadside bombs had become so sophisticated and so well hidden that IDF mine clearing operations entailed patrols walking along roads and literally counting rocks.[51]

By the Israeli pullout in 2000, some IDF officers admitted that Hizballah had been more flexible and adaptable than its adversary. According to General Moshe Kaplinsky, commander of the Golani Brigade, Hizballah is a “learning organization” that studies Israel’s evolving tactics.[52]

Israeli Political Will as the Center of Gravity

The third component of Hizballah’s military success was their unwavering fixation on Israeli political will as the war’s center of gravity. Because insurgents, almost by definition, are militarily inferior their goal is typically not military victory, but to prolong the conflict until their adversaries are willing to concede or negotiate a settlement favorable to the insurgents. Similarly, according to Gordon, Hizballah had no illusions about their inability to directly confront the IDF militarily and never sought to.[53] Unlike Mao, who envisioned a phased insurgency culminating in a conventional victory, Hizballah never attempted to build a conventional force. From the very beginning they recognized that the war would turn on public perception, so they focused their efforts on attriting Israeli political will by isolating Israel from its allies, building a sophisticated media apparatus, and directly threatening the Israeli public.

One of Hizballah’s first goals was to demoralize Israel by driving its allies from the battlefield. The United States, for its support of Israel, and France, for its support of Maronite Christians, were identified as critical targets, and Hizballah went aggressively after both.[54] In fact, Hizballah first became broadly visible to the world with a spate of terrorist attacks against the United States and France in 1983. On April 18, a suicide bomber detonated a truck bomb outside of the U.S. embassy, killing 17 Americans. Then, on October 23, truck bombs were detonated minutes apart at separate barracks housing American and French soldiers, killing 241 Americans and 58 Frenchmen.[55] The message was clear; as long as the United States and France remained in Lebanon, their forces would be targeted. Soon thereafter, the Multinational Force in Lebanon withdrew.[56]

Hizballah also took aim at Israel’s Lebanese allies. The Southern Lebanese Army, a largely Christian militia established by the IDF, became a favorite target and Hizballah sought the defection of SLA fighters through both coercion and incentives. Hizballah terrorized the SLA, cultivating and encouraging the perception that no fighters were safe. An assassination program killed SLA leaders at all levels, culminating most prominently in the death of deputy leader Aql Hashim.[57] Yet this stick proceeded with a parallel system of incentives; amnesty was offered to any SLA fighters willing to defect or become spies.[58] By 1999 this combined assassination-amnesty campaign had created “a deficit of trust” between Israel and the SLA, with each questioning the other’s commitment.[59] In one particularly devastating episode, Hizballah kidnapped SLA security chief Ahmed al-Hallaq and immediately compromised the entire IDF intelligence structure in Lebanon.[60] In effect, Hizballah’s ability to knock out Israel’s allies left the IDF alone on the battlefield, and the effect on Israeli morale was deeply damaging.

While seeking to isolate Israel, Hizballah also launched a sustained and multifaceted campaign to shape Israeli domestic opinion. The famous Clausewitzian concept of the trinity of war observes that the continued prosecution of a war requires the alignment of a state’s political leadership, military, and population.[61] In effect, this represents a key vulnerability to modern liberal democracies because militarily inferior insurgents can challenge their adversary’s ability to sustain combat if they are able to adequately influence its population. Hizballah recognized this vulnerability and built its military strategy around it. According to Israeli analyst Schmuel Gordon, Hizballah intended “to aim at what Israeli society is most sensitive to- the loss of human life.”[62] Hizballah has explicitly discussed their awareness of Israeli casualty sensitivity and its potential as a lever for undermining support for the war. Hizballah official Nabil Qawk observed “the more Israelis we kill, the more disputes we’ll be sowing among them.”[63]

One of Hizballah’s 13 principles of war notes that “the media has innumerable guns, whose hits are like bullets. Use them in the battle.”[64] Indeed, Hizballah stands out among most insurgents in the sophistication and aggressiveness of their media operations. In 1991, it founded its own television station, al-Manar (“the beacon”), and radio station, al-Nour (“the light”).[65] For the remaining decade of the insurgency, this media arm would become one of Hizballah’s most important weapons. Media and propaganda were integrated directly into Hizballah military planning and operations; attacks were videotaped and quickly disseminated through al-Manar.[66] The ability to document their attacks and broadcast them directly to the Israeli public served to demonstrate Hizballah’s effectiveness and substantiate their successes while exerting an emotional impact that press releases or written stories never could have. By 1996, Hizballah had sought to capizalize on this success by broadcasting some al-Manar and al-Nour programming in Hebrew, directly addressing IDF soldiers and civilians and relentlessly hammering home the message that the IDF would be subject to attacks for as long as it remained in Lebanon.[67] One IDF officer bemoaned the effectiveness of this strategy, assessing that “frequently, TV reports on a guerilla operation have more effect than the operation itself.”[68] Or, as Nayaf Krayyem, chairman of al-Manar explained in a 2001 interview, “it’s a political weapon, social weapon, and cultural weapon.”[69]

Hizballah even designed some offensive operations specifically with propaganda in mind.[70] It was tireless in its pursuit of opportunities to reinforce their message that Israeli counterinsurgency would be both futile and bloody. On January 19, 2000, IDF Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz held a press conference announcing that 1999 had seen just 13 IDF fatalities. Hizballah immediately escalated its offensive operations, soon averaging 15 attacks per day. Within three weeks of the press conference, Hizballah had killed 7 IDF soldiers and humiliated Mofaz. Polls in Israel showed a dramatic decline in public support for the war.[71]

Hizballah’s media operations have been linked to the growing morale problems that plagued the IDF as the conflict progressed. In 1995, a paratrooper unit was disbanded after its soldiers learned they were being deployed to Lebanon and demanded that their commander give them a different mission.[72] By the end of the war 200 IDF soldiers had been imprisoned for outright refusing to serve in Lebanon.[73] In Israel, peace movements such as the Four Mothers group emerged and vocally advocated immediate Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon.[74] The IDF’s targeting of Hizballah’s TV and radio facilities suggests that it shared Hizballah’s views on the importance of its media operations.[75] Nasrallah himself has claimed that victory would not have been possible without al-Manar.[76]

Hizballah’s pressure on Israeli domestic opinion went beyond effective use of the media. It also pursued attacks demonstrating their ability to bring insecurity directly to Israeli civilians. The message was that not only would the IDF continue to face heavy casualties until it agreed to withdraw, but even civilians within the borders of Israel were not safe.

First, a series of terrorist attacks in the 1980s and 1990s demonstrated Hizballah’s ability to reach Israeli targets anywhere in the world. Most famously, it has been blamed for a pair of major attacks in Buenos Aires: the 1992 Israeli Embassy bombing and a 1994 bombing at a Jewish community center. Blanford has argued that these attacks were intended to convey a clear message to Israel that Hizballah “had the means and will to retaliate on a global basis.”

Second, Hizballah used Katyusha and other short and medium-range rockets to tremendous effect. As noted, Hizballah was hesitant to actually fire rockets into Israel, fearing that harsh retaliation would degrade their support. Nevertheless, it was still able to effectively use the rockets to shape Israeli public opinion. Their presence alone served as an implicit threat and Hizballah’s deployment of the rockets, even if infrequent, clearly demonstrated to Israeli citizens the IDF’s inability to keep them safe. Helmer reports that “by 1988, Israelis in Galilee were beginning to doubt that they would ever have permanent security in their homes from Katyusha rockets,” rendering ironic the name Peace for Galilee given to Israel’s original 1982 incursion into Lebanon.[77] By the 1990s, Israel was forced to provide significant financial incentives to prevent residents from fleeing.[78]

Hizballah’s ability to directly target the Israeli public is a fairly unique for an insurgency facing an external counterinsurgent. In very few expeditionary counterinsurgencies,as opposed to their domestic counterparts, does the insurgent have the capacity to target as much of the counterinsurgent’s populace as frequently and easily as Hizballah. While other insurgents can attempt to use terrorist attacks to create a similar effect, they cannot hope to do so in the quantity or with the tempo with which Hizballah can launch rockets. And while strong states will generally have robust counterterrorism capacities, there was little Israel could do to stop Hizballah’s rockets throughout the South Lebanon Conflict. Hizballah’s proximity to Israel, therefore, gave them a unique capacity to undertake such operations directly against the Israeli population, both abroad, and within Israel itself. The emergence of this new trend, in tandem with their effective media operations, made Hizballah’s capacity to shape Israeli domestic opinion all the more acute.

External Support

The final element of Hizballah’s military success is its strong external support from Iran and Syria. Numerous scholars of insurgency discuss the importance of external support, with some going so far as to describe it as nearly a prerequisite of success. For instance, Bard O’Neill argues that “unless governments are utterly incompetent, devoid of political will, and lacking in resources, insurgent organizations must normally obtain outside assistance if they are to succeed.”[79]

From the very beginning, Hizballah had enormous external support. Indeed, despite its deeply Lebanese character, Hizballah’s very roots are entangled with foreign powers. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), with the support of Syria, took an active role in encouraging Hizballah’s formation. Hizballah reciprocated by hewing closely to the wilayat al-faqih, the revolutionary Shia Islamist conception of governance advanced by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. A February 1985 open letter formally announcing the group’s formation opens by proclaiming “we obey the orders of one leader, wise and just, that of our tutor and jurist…Ruhollah Musawi Kohmeini.”[80] In 1995, the two were bound even closer together when Iran formally designated Nasrallah Supreme Leader Khameini’s deputy in Lebanon.[81]

In return for Hizballah’s ideological fealty, Iran provided substantial support in the form of training, weapons, and funding. Helmer has argued that support from Iran and Syria was “vital” to Hizbollah’s emergence.[82] In 1982 as Hizballah was beginning to coalesce, the IRGC sent 1,500 soldiers to Lebanon to train and support the movement.[83] The training assistance was supplemented by large-scale shipments of weapons.[84] For its part, Syria offered Hizballah logistical support and helped secure the supply line through which Iranian weapons and trainers flowed.[85] This support went beyond purely military assistance. The vast social welfare programs so essential to Hizballah’s public support were largely underwritten by Iranian funding.[86]

Hizballah made no effort to hide the extensive material and political support it received. Former Hizballah Secretary General Subhi al-Tufayli conceded that denying Iran aided his organization was like “denying that the sun gives light to the Earth.”[87] Despite the close ideological, financial, and military links between the two, it would be a mistake to view Hizballah as purely an Iranian proxy. It would have been impossible for Hizballah to maintain its strong popular support if it were seen as an Iranian pawn. Terrorism expert Graham Fuller argues that Hizballah retained significant autonomy and broadcast this independence to their Lebanese base. According to Fuller, “all Lebanese are deeply aware of the group’s deeply Lebanese character” and viewed Hizballah’s close relationship with Iran as a forgivable example of pragmatism in a nation with a long and pervasive history of foreign meddling in domestic politics.[88]

Lessons from the South Lebanon Conflict

For the foreseeable future, insurgencies are likely to continue to dominate the landscape of conflicts confronting the United States and its allies. Recent years have seen al-Qaeda linked, inspired, or sympathetic insurgents active to varying degrees in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and a litany of other countries throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. Given overwhelming U.S. conventional superiority and the vulnerabilities to insurgency demonstrated in Iraq and Afghanistan, these adversaries will continue to seek to confront the United States and its partners with irregular or asymmetric tactics and strategy.

The United States would do well to study Hizballah’s success against Israel. Particular attention should be paid to Hizballah’s ability to shape an attractive and resonant nationalist narrative and its use of social services to win the support of the population. The United States has recognized the effect of Hizballah’s social services model, and sought to deny insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan similar opportunities by integrating the provision of services into its counterinsurgency doctrine.[89] This strategy has often proven difficult, with frequent reports of waste and corruption.[90] Nevertheless, even in the face of difficulties, this effort should not be conceded; one of the key lessons of Hizballah’s victory is that providing services where the government is unable or unwilling to do so is one of the insurgents’ most effective means of winning support.

It will be more difficult for the United States to craft a resonant narrative, but where authentic counter-narratives form organically, the United States should recognize an opportunity to support them. For instance, in Iraq, there were several waves of popular resentment and anger against al-Qaeda insurgents, but each ended in failure until late 2006 when the United States actively encouraged and supported what would come to be known as the Anbar Awakening.[91]

Attention should also focus on drawing lessons from the important components of Hizballah’s military success, many of which have seen echoes in the strategies of other recent insurgencies. For instance, two key elements in Hizballah’s strategy will remain major concerns for the United States. The first is Hizballah’s ability to directly target the Israeli population. While the United States is unlikely to ever face an insurgent capable of threatening its population to the degree Hizballah did Israel’s, al-Qaeda has proven both innovative and presistent. Before September 11, 2001, it would have been impossible to imagine an insurgent conducting such a lethal attack in its enemy’s homeland. Moreover, just as Hizballah relied more on the threat of rockets than their actual use, al-Qaeda does not necessarily have to conduct a steady stream of attacks to have the desired effect on public opinion. Second, internet and social media platforms like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook have made it even easier for insurgents to manipulate public opinion in its enemy’s homeland. Inspire, the English-language magazine produced by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has received widespread media attention in the United States, and is likely one of the major reasons AQAP is generally regarded as the most dangerous al-Qaeda franchise.[92]

Little can be done about the advances in technology that have made it progressively easier for future insurgents to reach the American public and the threat from terrorists capable of striking the United States will remain, but the United States may be able to blunt the effects of both propaganda and future attacks by building greater psychological resiliency in its population. Experts have pointed out that, far from strengthening resiliency, an emphasis on the dangers of terrorism have more often increased fear.[93] By building resilience in its population, the United States has the potential to blunt this problem by reducing the ability of future insurgents to use propaganda and the threat of attacks to manipulate public opinion. And, of course, the United States has been bedeviled by varying levels of material and political support provided by states to insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, Pakistan’s unwillingness or inability to deny safe haven to the Taliban has threatened the success of American counterinsurgency efforts, while Iran was often accused of supporting insurgents in Iraq.[94] Because there are often greater geopolitical interests at play that prevent more concerted action against the state providing support, there may be little the United States can do to alter the cost-benefit analysis of states that choose to sponsor anti-U.S. insurgents, just as there was little Israel could do to deter Iran from supporting Hizballah. Nevertheless, because external support can be such an important factor, U.S. war planning should give careful thought to whether and to what degree the insurgency is likely to receive external support and weigh its decision about whether or not to engage in a given counterinsurgency campaign accordingly.

The above points provide a snapshot of how Hizballah’s victory yesterday should help inform U.S. counterinsurgency efforts tomorrow. By cataloging and exploring Hizballah’s victory against Israel, this paper illuminates how insurgents have won in the past, and how they can win again in the future. The United States ignores the seeds of Hizballah’s success at its own peril.

Jeff Burdette is an MA candidate in Georgetown’s Security Studies Program; his research interests include jihadist terrorism and Middle East and North African security issues.


[1] Daniel Isaac Helmer. “Flip Side of the COIN: Israel’s Lebanese Incursion Between 1982-2000.” The Long War Series, 47. Available at:

[2] Graham E. Fuller. “The Hizballah-Iran Connection: Model for Sunni Resistance.” The Washington Quarterly (Winter 2006-2007), 142. Available at:

[3] Florence Gaub. “The Role of Hezbollah in Post-Conflict Lebanon.” European Parliament, Directorate General for External Policies (July 16, 2013), 7.

[4] Ibid.

[5]Nicholas Blanford. Warriors of God (New York: Random House, 2011), 46.

[6] Helmer, “Flip Side of the COIN,” 47.

[7] Ibid., 48.

[8] Ibid., 49.

[9] Though the roots of Hizballah can be traced to 1982, they did not formally announce their existence until February 16, 1985.  Before that, they existed as a largely clandestine, loosely organized network, operating under different names, including Islamic Jihad.

[10] Helmer, “Flip Side of the COIN,” 49.

[11]Blanford, Warriors of God, 72.

[12] The Phalange is a Lebanese political party primarily supported by Maronite Christians. During the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war, the armed wing of the Phalange represented Lebanon’s most formidable Christian militia. For further background, see “Phalange Party” in Thomas Collelo, ed. Lebanon: A Country Study (Washington: General Printing Office, 1987). Available at:

[13] ”An Open Letter: The Hizballah Program.” Accessed July 25, 2013. Available at:

[14] Christopher E. Whitting. “When David Became Goliath.” Masters Thesis, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College (June 1, 2001), 65. Available at:

[15] Iver Gabrielsen. “Hezbollah’s Strategy and Tactics in the Security Zone from 1985-2000.” Small Wars Journal (July 11, 2013). Available at:

[16] Whitting, “When David Became Goliath,” 65.

[17]Blanford, Warriors of God, 91.

[18] Helmer, “Flip Side of the COIN,” 54.

[19] Gabrielsen, “Hezbollah’s Strategy and Tactics in the Security Zone from 1985-2000.”

[20] Ibid.

[21] Gaub, “The Role of Hezbollah in Post-Conflict Lebanon,” 7.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Whitting, “When David Became Goliath,” 66.

[25] Gabrielsen, “Hezbollah’s Strategy and Tactics in the Security Zone from 1985-2000.”

[26] Helmer, “Flip Side of the COIN,” 56.

[27] Gabrielsen, “Hezbollah’s Strategy and Tactics in the Security Zone from 1985-2000.”

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31]Blanford, Warriors of God, 82.


[33] Gabrielsen, “Hezbollah’s Strategy and Tactics in the Security Zone from 1985-2000.”

[34] Helmer, “Flip Side of the COIN,” 56.

[35] Carl Von Clausewitz. On War, trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 87.

[36] Helmer. “Flip Side of the COIN,” 54.

[37]Blanford, Warriors of God, 99.


[39] Whitting, “When David Became Goliath,” 66.

[40] Ibid.

[41] See Gabrielsen, “Hezbollah’s Strategy and Tactics in the Security Zone from 1985-2000”; Kellie S. Rourke. “U.S. Counterinsurgency Doctrine: Is it adequate to defeat Hezbollah as a threat model of future insurgencies?” Masters Thesis, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College (June 12, 2009), 5.

[42] Gabrielsen, “Hezbollah’s Strategy and Tactics in the Security Zone from 1985-2000.”

[43] Helmer, “Flip Side of the COIN,” 51.

[44] Ibid, 53.

[45] Whitting, “When David Became Goliath,” 46.

[46] Ibid, 73.

[47] Ibid, 86.

[48] Helmer, “Flip Side of the COIN,” 53.

[49] Gabrielsen, “Hezbollah’s Strategy and Tactics in the Security Zone from 1985-2000.”

[50] Ibid.

[51] Whitting, “When David Became Goliath,” 84.

[52]Blanford, Warriors of God, 148.

[53] Shmuel L. Gordon. “The Vulture and the Snake: Counter-Guerilla Air Warfare: The War in Southern Lebanon.” Mideast Security and Policy Studies, No. 39 (July 1998). Available at:

[54] Augustus Richard Norton. Hezbollah: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 37.

[55] Kellie S. Rourke. “U.S. Counterinsurgency Doctrine: Is it adequate to defeat Hezbollah as a threat model of future insurgencies?” Masters Thesis, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College (June 12, 2009), 5. Available at:

[56] Ibid.

[57] Gabrielsen, “Hezbollah’s Strategy and Tactics in the Security Zone from 1985-2000,” 4.

[58] Helmer, “Flip Side of the COIN,” 58.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Whitting, “When David Became Goliath,” 75.

[61] Clausewitz, On War, 89.

[62] Gordon, “The Vulture and the Snake.”

[63]Blanford, Warriors of God, 200.

[64] Helmer, “Flip Side of the COIN,” 54.

[65] Whitting, “When David Became Goliath,” 94-95.

[66] Ibid., 94.

[67]Ibid., 136.

[68] Ibid., 96.

[69]Blanford, Warriors of God, 135.


[71] Gabrielsen, “Hezbollah’s Strategy and Tactics in the Security Zone from 1985-2000.”

[72]Blanford, Warriors of God, 149.

[73] Gabrielsen, “Hezbollah’s Strategy and Tactics in the Security Zone from 1985-2000.”

[74]Blanford, Warriors of God, 200.

[75] Gabrielsen, “Hezbollah’s Strategy and Tactics in the Security Zone from 1985-2000.”

[76] Ibid.

[77] Helmer, “Flip Side of the COIN,” 55.

[78] Ibid.

[79] Bard E. O’Neill, Insurgency and Terrorism (Washington D.C.: Potomac Books, 2005), 139. See also Daniel Byman, Peter Chalk, Bruce Hoffman, William Rosenau, and David Brannan, Trends in Outside Support for Insurgent Movement (Washington D.C.; RAND, 2001); Jeffrey Record, “External Assistance: Enabler of Insurgent Success” Parameters, Vol. XXXVI (Autumn 2006).

[80] ”An Open Letter: The Hizballah Program.” Accessed July 25, 2013. Available at:

[81] Helmer, “Flip Side of the COIN,” 51.

[82] Ibid.

[83] Whitting, “When David Became Goliath,” 46.

[84] Fuller, “The Hizballah-Iran Connection,” 142. Note: “Effective” is of course a relative term.  As noted, Hizballah’s early operations were tactically primitive compared to their later operations.  However, they were able to conduct several sophisticated and effective terrorist attacks as early as 1983, and this likely would have been impossible without Iranian training and material support.

[85] Natasha Lander. “Hezbollah: Organizational Analysis of an Insurgency.” The Michigan Journal of Public Affairs, Vol. 7 (Spring 2010), 2. Available at:

[86] Gabrielsen, “Hezbollah’s Strategy and Tactics in the Security Zone from 1985-2000.”

[87] Ibid.

[88] Fuller, “The Hizballah-Iran Connection,” 143.

[89] For example, see Army Field Manual 3-24: Tactics in Counterinsurgency (Washington D.C.; Department of the Army, 2009), 7-20.

[90] Jordan Carney, “Waste and Fraud in Afghanistan: A Greatest Hits Collection,” National Journal, February 11, 2014. Available at:

[91] Stephen Biddle, Jeffrey A. Friedman, and Jacob N. Shapiro, “Testing the Surge: Why Did Violence Decline in Iraq in 2007?” International Security, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Summer 2012), 18-23.

[92] For examples of AQAP being deemed the most dangerous franchise, see Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens and Peter R. Neumann, “Al Qaeda’s Most Dangerous Franchise,” Wall Street Journal, May 20, 2012. Available at:;  Jonathan Masters and Zachary Laub, “Backgrounder: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP),” Council on Foreign Relations, August 22, 2013. Available at:

[93] Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Bin Laden’s Legacy: Why We’re Still Losing the War on Terror, (Hoboken, NJ, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2011, 217-220.

[94] For information on the Taliban safe haven in Pakistan, see Lisa Curtis, “Denying Terrorists Safe Haven in Pakistan,” Heritage Foundation, Backgrounder No. 1981 (October 2006). Available at: For background on Iran’s support of Iraqi insurgents, see Lionel Beehner and Greg Bruno, “Backgrounder: Iran’s Involvement in Iraq,” Council on Foreign Relations, March 3, 2008. Available at:

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