Journal Essay

Hezbollah's Social Jihad: Nonprofits as Resistance Organizations

Shawn Teresa Flanigan, Mounah Abdel-Samad

Summer 2009, Volume XVI, Number 2

Dr. Flanigan is an assistant professor at San Diego State University’s School of Public Affairs. Dr. Abdel-Samad is director of San Diego State University’s Institute for Public and Urban Affairs.

A Beirut taxi driver hears news that the Hezbollah-operated television station where his son and daughter-in-law work has just been bombed by Israeli warplanes. Beirut’s southern suburb is being pummeled in response to the abduction of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah militants in July 2006. While Lebanese public opinion regarding the Hezbollah abductions is divided, most agree that Lebanon would not be under attack, if it were not for Hezbollah’s action. All of Lebanon is likely to be affected by Israel’s destruction of infrastructure, the flight of tourists and capital, and the faltering economy that will follow in the conflict’s wake. In spite of this knowledge, and in spite of believing his son and daughter-in-law to be dead, when the taxi driver is asked if he still supports Hezbollah’s actions, he replies, “Yes. There is no other way.”1 What accounts for Hezbollah’s unwavering base of support? Using empirical evidence gathered during field research in Lebanon, this article seeks to explore what motivates Hezbollah to provide social services and how social-service provision increases community support for Hezbollah. Central to the article is the assertion that employees of Hezbollah’s nonprofit health and social-service organizations see their work as an act of resistance or jihad that is integral to Hezbollah’s struggle against Israel and the West.

This article is based on an empirical study of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that provide health and social services in Lebanon. The Lebanon portion of the study involved interviews of 30 employees of 22 NGOs. Five of these individuals were explicitly affiliated with Hezbollah and were employed by Hezbollahoperated NGOs. Other interview participants worked with Sunni, Christian, Druze and secular NGOs and discussed their organizations’ partnerships with Hezbollah and/or Hezbollah’s role as a player in the Lebanese NGO sector. Data was collected in Lebanon in December 2005 and January 2006 through semi-structured interviews with staff of NGOs providing health and social services to low-income populations. Interview data were complemented with a content analysis of publications and publicity materials produced by Hezbollah’s health and social-service NGOs.


Hezbollah is an important political player in Lebanon. Outside that country, Hezbollah is best known for its military actions against Israel, which it began fighting during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. More recently, Hezbollah’s military actions involved the July 12, 2006, kidnapping of Israeli soldiers in hopes of a prisoner exchange, which was followed by a 34day Israeli bombardment of Lebanon and Hezbollah missile attacks against Israel’s northern cities. However, Israel has not been Hezbollah’s only target. The United States has labeled Hezbollah a terrorist organization due to a 1983 attack that killed 241 American Marines in Beirut, as well as subsequent attacks against American and Jewish targets.2 Yet, other governments disagree with labeling Hezbollah a terrorist organization and make an effort to differentiate among Hezbollah’s military, political and charitable activities. Hezbollah is not included in the European Union’s list of terrorist organizations,3 though the EU has expressed concern about various Hezbollah attacks on Israel and has urged the Lebanese government and other regional players to end attacks emanating from Lebanon’s territory.4

Beyond its role as a paramilitary organization, Hezbollah is an important political party in Lebanon, holding numerous positions in municipal governments and in the Lebanese parliament. Hezbollah controls a large parliamentary bloc composed of 14 deputies, mainly Shiite Muslims and some Christians. As there are a total of 128 legislators in the Lebanese parliament, the size of this bloc makes Hezbollah an important player. Hezbollah also has two ministers in the current government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora: the minister of electrical and hydraulic resources and the minister of labor. Moreover, Hezbollah has close relationships with other government ministers who are not officially members of the party. Additionally, in Lebanon each religious sect has veto power over national policies, and Hezbollah is one of the holders of the Shiite veto, giving the party significant influence.

In addition to its national political power, Hezbollah gained control of a large number of municipalities in southern Lebanon after the 2004 municipal elections. Hezbollah controls 60 percent of municipalities in southern Lebanon and has been successful in gaining posts in Beirut’s southern suburb, besides controlling 27 out of 30 contested municipalities in the Bekaa Valley.5 Such a strong local and national presence makes it difficult for international donors and governmental entities to avoid interaction with Hezbollah. However, beyond its military and political roles, Hezbollah operates an extremely sophisticated network of health and social-service providers that far exceeds the capacity of the Lebanese state.


In 1974, Lebanese Shiite cleric Mousa El Sadr started the Movement of the Deprived, which came to be called Amal, an Arabic acronym for the Legions of Islamic Resistance.6 Amal is considered to be the original political party from which the founders of Hezbollah emerged. In 1982, Hezbollah was created in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. It was bolstered by the arrival of 1,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards,7 part of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s effort to export the Islamic revolution. From 1982 until the present, Hezbollah’s most visible activity has been its resistance against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. However, in 2000, Israel withdrew from the regions it occupied, keeping only the Shebaa Farms, the ownership of which is still undetermined. A number of scholars predicted that Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon would spell the end of Hezbollah as a party, since it had so thoroughly incorporated military resistance into its identity and mission.8 However, rather than dissolving, Hezbollah emerged to become a primary player in the Lebanese political system. One factor that helped Hezbollah to play a stronger political role in society and transform itself from a military actor into a political party was its provisions of healthcare and social services.

The exact date that Hezbollah began helping the poor Shiite community in southern Lebanon and the Bekaa region is not clearly known. In interviews, the staff of Hezbollah’s charities describe their social-service provision as beginning with individual initiatives that later evolved into its more elaborate form, making it difficult to pinpoint an exact beginning.9 In another interview, Hezbollah expert Judith Palmer Harik indicated that the early history of Hezbollah is murky enough that it is difficult to know whether the group’s political or social work began first.10 However, the people of Lebanon, and particularly the Shiite community, quickly came to view Hezbollah as a movement for the poor.11 Basic assistance activities such as aiding people trapped in their homes in the Bekaa during a 1992 snowstorm have caused the public to take notice of Hezbollah’s role.12


Beirut’s downtown and its southern suburb offer a stark contrast. A primarily Shiite neighborhood, the southern suburb is dotted with small markets rather than hip bars and cafes, and the women wear veils over their heads rather than the miniskirts and high heels seen downtown. The streets are lined with modest blocks of fl ats, many in poor repair and still pockmarked by the bullets of the civil war. Hezbollah’s social-welfare headquarters looks much like any other building in Beirut’s southern suburb. After navigating around pot holes in the crowded streets, you enter the dark stairway of a building as nondescript as its neighbors. However, upon entering Hezbollah’s offices, you are transported to quite a modern setting, with workers busily attending to customers’ loan applications from behind a long row of gleaming glass windows.

Hezbollah has a highly organized system of health and social-service organizations (see figure). The service system is made up of the Social Unit, the Education Unit and the Islamic Health Unit,13 which together make up an elaborate network of service providers that primarily benefit Lebanon’s Shiites. Many of Hezbollah’s service organizations are legally registered with the Lebanese government as NGOs, a status that provides certain legal protections and eases collaboration with other organizations that may be wary of the “Hezbollah” name. Hezbollah’s NGOs eagerly cooperate with other local and international organizations in their efforts to serve the community.14

The Social Unit is an umbrella for four organizations: the Jihad Construction Foundation, the Martyrs’ Foundation, the Foundation for the Wounded and the Khomeini Support Committee.15 The Jihad Construction Foundation, Jihad El Binaa, has become one of the most important NGOs in Lebanon. This institution is responsible for infrastructure construction and, in the early 2000s, delivered water to about 45 percent of the residents of Beirut's southern suburb.16 Following the Israeli aerial bombardment of Lebanon in summer 2006, the Jihad Construction Foundation became indispensable, assessing damage and paying reconstruction compensation to residents of southern Lebanon and Beirut’s southern suburb.17

Also under the umbrella of the Social Unit, Hezbollah’s Martyrs’ Foundation provides aid to those adversely affected by Hezbollah’s continuing military struggle with Israel, offering financial assistance health and social support to the families of “martyrs” who have been killed in combat. In addition, the Foundation for the Wounded grants aid to civilians who have been injured during Israeli assaults.18 Because of the assistance these organizations provide, both Hezbollah members and the Shiite population as a whole trust that Hezbollah will meet the needs of residents when they become victims of conflict.

Hezbollah's Service Sector

Hezbollah’s Islamic Health Unit also has a vital function in meeting public health needs. It operates three hospitals, 12 health centers, 20 infirmaries, 20 dental clinics, and 10 defense departments.19 The Islamic Health unit has been so effective that it was asked to assume the operation of several government hospitals in Southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley.20 The health-service unit provides health care to low-income Shiites and other low-income populations at little or no cost. The Islamic Health unit is involved in a number of initiatives, such as offering free health insurance and prescription-drug coverage through a network of local pharmacies.21

Hezbollah’s Education Unit provides another indispensable service to the Shiite poor. Lebanon’s public school system is considered to be of extremely low quality, a last resort for only the poorest of families, who cannot afford to send their children to private schools. Hezbollah operates a number of primary and secondary schools at fees that are far less than those of most other private schools. Hezbollah’s schools reportedly serve approximately 14,000 students.22 In addition to education, Hezbollah provides low-income students with scholarships, financial assistance and books, buying in bulk and selling at reduced prices; it also operates lending libraries for students.23 In a country where public education is weak and sometimes lacking, Hezbollah’s highly valued educational services put the party at the center of people’s daily lives. The large amount of money Hezbollah spends on social assistance provides additional evidence of its importance. By September 2006, Hezbollah reportedly had spent $281 million for rehabilitation and compensation following the 2006 Israeli bombardment of Lebanon,24 with reports that the party was prepared to spend $300400 million in compensation to the victims.25 The fact that Hezbollah’s service institutions are under the direct control of the party’s Executive Council and occupy a relatively high position in the organization’s hierarchical structure may be another indication of their value (see figure).

Hezbollah’s health and social services primarily benefit Lebanon’s Shiite population and typically are not advertised to the Lebanese population at large except following an Israeli attack. At such times, Hezbollah’s services receive a great deal of coverage by the media; then, after some time, the party returns to focusing its services on the Shiite population.26 Because Hezbollah is principally a Shiite party whose services are directed primarily toward the Shiite population, an understanding of the history and grievances of the Shiites in Lebanon is essential.


One cannot really understand Hezbollah without knowing the challenges Lebanon’s disadvantaged Shiite community has faced. As Judith Palmer Harik notes,

[Hezbollah] took the position of helping the Shiite people…. That’s their core. They are known to be the least favorably treated among the groups in Lebanon. They are the ones who have really suffered the most with Israel in the south and they have been more or less forgotten in the hinterlands. So these people could be helped by all kinds of groups and still not have enough.27

Two conflicts have colored much of Lebanon’s recent history: the 1975-91 civil war and the struggle with Israel. While affecting much of the Lebanese population in some form or another, these two conflicts have further damaged the already precarious social and economic condition of Lebanon’s Shiite community. Partially as a result of the civil war and the struggle against Israel, rural-to-urban migration has harmed the economic conditions of the Shiite community. Less than 50 years ago, Beirut’s southern suburb was predominantly agricultural land. However, the area’s relatively inexpensive real estate and unregulated access made it the destination of many rural migrants from the south as a result of the Israeli invasion.28 In addition, the civil war created increased religious segregation in Beirut, with neighborhoods often controlled by sectarian militias. In the face of these new divisions, the southern suburb became the logical home for many displaced Shiites.29 While Hezbollah’s original goal was to end the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, it soon found itself playing a broader role in Lebanese society. During the civil war, Christian forces bombarded Beirut’s southern suburb, leaving its estimated half-million mostly Shiite residents to face disastrous conditions. Emergency action was needed, and Hezbollah’s already well-organized social and public services came to the rescue.30

High population growth in the southern suburb and a faltering economy in Lebanon as a whole have caused living conditions in the area to continue to deteriorate. In 1993, the population of the southern suburb was estimated to equal one-sixth of Lebanon’s population, and a 1997 study of one particularly poor area of the suburb estimated per capita income to be a mere 14 percent of that of the average Lebanese citizen.31 In this context, one can see the appeal of a party that has designated itself “the champion of the ‘peasants and farmers, the laborers and the poor, the oppressed and the deprived, the workers and the homeless.’”32 In downtrodden areas such as Beirut’s southern suburb, the agricultural Bekaa Valley and southern Lebanon, Hezbollah’s provision of social welfare has served the deepest needs of some of Lebanon’s most deprived citizens.33

In its war against Israel, Hezbollah has undertaken military resistance and healthcare and social-service activities with equal zeal. In 1996, Israel attacked southern Lebanon, causing a great deal of damage to infrastructure. After this attack, Hezbollah began the process of reconstruction. Its statistics show that, in two months, it rebuilt 5,000 homes in 82 villages, repaired roads and infrastructure, and paid compensation to 2,300 farmers. As a result of these activities, Hezbollah was rewarded with more support from Shiites, who offered their votes to members running for parliament.34 Later, in 2006, Hezbollah’s health and social services occupied a central role in the fight against Israel and in the aftermath of the war. Following the 34-day Israeli bombardment, Hezbollah’s first action was to stop its military efforts and divert all its energy toward social services and reconstruction. Hezbollah provided displaced people with water, food and shelter, and also promised to pay compensation to people whose houses had been destroyed, offering $12,000 for rent and furniture until homes were reconstructed.35 These activities have increased confidence in Hezbollah, but they constitute only a small part of the party’s social services.

While Hezbollah insists that its services are open to everyone, they are dedicated primarily to the Shiite poor. This is due in part to the fact that it is simply more politically feasible in an acutely sectarian country for Hezbollah to operate in Shiite communities. As one Hezbollah staff member explains:

The people who benefit are not always Shiite…. If the areas they live in are mixed, you might have Christians, you might have Sunnis, and you have Shiites who benefit from the services. Because we are considered Hezbollah, it is not easy for us to provide services in an area that is dominated by another sect, because this might be seen as infringing on the other sect.

In communities where the majority is Shiite, Hezbollah also provides services to members of other sects who live in the community. Officially, Hezbollah provides assistance to those considered part of the “uprising population,”36 and its service provision is particularly inclusive in mixed communities that are affected by the conflict with Israel. One of Hezbollah’s social-service staff members gives an example:

In the south, there are very mixed areas, and the relationship with sects or with other political parties is very good. For example, we are at the center of the work in Shebaa and Kfarshouba, even though they are Sunnis, due to the conflict in those areas on the border with Israel. Sunnis or Christians in those areas receive services from Hezbollah.


Decades after the end of the civil war, the Lebanese government remains inert, unable to provide for many of the basic needs of its population. In this vacuum, Hezbollah has emerged to become one of the country’s most important and competent service providers. As Hamzeh notes, this service provision has created a solid constituency and expanded Hezbollah’s patronage, thus generating major electoral victories for the party.37

As we will discuss, Hezbollah’s service provision undoubtedly increases community support for the organization, amplified by the near absence of services from the Lebanese state. During and after the civil war, the Lebanese central government neglected service provision. Municipal elections were not held for 35 years, and the municipalities’ human, financial and technical capacities deteriorated, rendering them mere skeleton institutions.38 In the absence of intervention by the national government, this erosion in capacity made the municipalities unable to address social needs, further aggravating social conditions. Moreover, rural areas in Lebanon and the southern suburb of Beirut have long been neglected by the Lebanese state in favor of Beirut-centered development strategies.39 While the Lebanese government has almost ceased to offer social-welfare services, Hezbollah has become one of the country’s largest and most reliable providers.

Government neglect has had a clear effect on NGOs and political parties. One Hezbollah NGO worker describes the situation clearly:

There is an instability on the financial level and on the business level. This weakness is very high in the government. For example … the weakness of the public schools in the poor areas has pushed Hezbollah to create schools, and has caused Amal to create another group of schools….There might be quantity in terms of public schools, but there’s not quality.

As previously mentioned, Hezbollah-operated schools provide an attractive alternative to Lebanon’s dilapidated public-school system or expensive private education. In the absence of the Lebanese state, Hezbollah delivers drinking water to Beirut’s southern suburb, collects garbage, and provides snow removal in the Bekaa Valley. As noted earlier, Hezbollah’s Islamic Health Unit assumed responsibility for a number of government hospitals after the government proved financially and technically unable to run the facilities.40 By successfully providing services, Hezbollah has increased its popularity and proven its competence while simultaneously highlighting the ineffectiveness of the Lebanese government.41

Hezbollah’s social-welfare services have made an important difference in the lives of many disadvantaged Shiites, as well as some Sunnis and Christians in Lebanon.42 Indeed, Hezbollah staff members are careful to note that they provide services based on need rather than sect.43 Hezbollah has incorporated its welfare services into its parliamentary platform and has relied on the good reputation its services have produced.44 As a result, “It was not surprising to see many people rewarding Hezbollah by voting for its candidates and allies.”45

Hezbollah charity workers are undoubtedly aware of the gap they are filling and the political support they have gained for the party. While some service providers indicated they felt overwhelmed and are hopeful that the Lebanese state will eventually assume many of their responsibilities, most believed this was not very likely. As one states,

We will always need this work, no matter how strong the government is. We believe this human society, this country, has duties and responsibilities, and we do too. Even if the government provides for all needs, people will always need each other. Look at Hurricane Katrina in the U.S. The capabilities of the government were weak, so who was moving the wounded people? Human beings had to come together.

While the absence of the government has exacerbated the need for services, the motivation of Hezbollah’s charity staff lies mainly in their belief that they are involved in a religious and humanitarian activity. One Hezbollah staff member describes their work as a humanitarian effort to help the needy and fight poverty:

The Lebanese government doesn’t work on the social level. They say that the country is in a deep economic crisis and they need to solve all the economic issues such as corruption and so on, so let them not deal with these social issues.... We start looking everywhere to solve social problems, poverty, health, education, unemployment. The regulations of the state govern me, but what if the state is not perfect, or it has problems? Do I allow it to stop me from performing my human duty?… These duties belong to the party, in addition to the political work.… We believe if there was no party or government, we would still provide our services.


In the absence of the Lebanese state, health and social services have become an essential element in the political process of the country, particularly as a tool of political patronage.46 For example, while the government purportedly provides universal health care to its citizens, in practice someone requiring care in a government hospital would need to approach his or her legislator and ask for a bed in the hospital as a “favor.” This favor would be repaid with political loyalty from the sick individual and the extended family at election time.47 Some political parties such as Amal and the Progressive Socialist party have been particularly successful at using government resources to selectively provide for the needs of their constituents, thereby gaining their loyalty. For example, Amal leader Nabih Berri and Progressive Socialist party leader Walid Jumblat have used resources belonging to the government development agency, the Council of the South, and the Ministry of the Displaced to provide social services to their constituents.48 However, Hezbollah was not part of any government institution until the 1992 parliamentary appointments.49 This made it essential for Hezbollah to create its own social-service organizations in order to compete with other political parties that are able to access services for their supporters through the government apparatus. Interestingly, a publication from a Hezbollah NGO portrays Hezbollah’s services as a gift to the loyal as well, although in this case the “loyal” being rewarded were not necessarily voters, but resisters.

We were able to license the Martyr Salah Ghandour Hospital, which the Islamic Health Committee presented as a loyalty gift to those who stood their ground after the Israeli attacks. The same is true of the Batoul Hospital in Hermel, the city of martyrdom. The happiness of getting these licenses is similar to the happiness of victory in several aspects.50

This selective use of the government bureaucracy to gain community support is perceived poorly by much of the Lebanese population, who resent having to ask for favors from their political leaders in order to receive basic services. This reputation for corruption and favoritism among Lebanon’s politicians made many Hezbollah social-service staff proud that they had remained outside the government for so long. Staff members believed that the community at large had greater trust in Hezbollah due to the fact that they provided services broadly and had not misused the government bureaucracy to serve only their supporters. As one Hezbollah staff member describes,

We started the resistance in 1982, and from 1982 to 1993, we were not able to send one wounded person to hospital on the government’s tab. We didn’t care. When leadership has morals and provides services in the right way, it will be respected and loved. Finally, with all this corruption and waste, we don’t want anything from the government.

Hezbollah certainly receives the support of the low-income Shiites who benefit from its services.51 Poor Shiites believe that the party cares about them and is willing to provide them with needed services in an unbiased way. This dynamic has increased loyalty and has paid off politically, with an increasing number of Hezbollah party members in the parliament, in the cabinet and in control of municipalities.52


The number of people receiving services from Hezbollah is not clear. Some reports claim that the number of service recipients is more than 200,000, while other estimates claim Hezbollah provides services to about 10 percent of all of Lebanon’s citizens, or about 350,000.53 Hezbollah is not unique as a nonprofit service provider; with the Lebanese state absent, many NGOs provide services. What has made Hezbollah’s NGOs more prominent than many others, however, is the large array of services they provide, the efficient manner in which they operate, and the specific location and constituency they serve.

In addition, Hezbollah provides financial assistance in the form of small loans and direct grants to families of “martyrs.” Hezbollah assists with income generation by providing credit assistance to small businesses and families, and providing agricultural extension services to farmers. The party has undertaken a large number of infrastructure projects that have provided low-income Shiites in the Bekaa Valley, southern Lebanon and Beirut’s southern suburb with livable communities. All of these activities have made Hezbollah a well-known entity in Lebanese social welfare.54

In addition to providing a vast array of services, Hezbollah is famous in the NGO community for being highly efficient.55 The source of its efficiency lies in the organization of its NGOs and motivations of its social-service employees. Many of them are volunteers with a strong belief in the morality of their work. As we will discuss in more detail below, both Islamic ideology and the belief that service provision is an act of resistance contribute to this sense of morality. This shared motivation among Hezbollah’s social-service staff and volunteers increases their desire to provide services efficiently and effectively. As one staff member from Hezbollah’s lending institution puts it:

Our institution members feel excited about their work because they are helping people. They are happy to serve lower classes rather than higher classes, especially by providing loans without interest.

In addition, Hezbollah’s social-service institutions are known for reacting to problems more quickly than the government. One Hezbollah staff member explains that their NGO is more efficient than the government:

If there is a problem in [one region of Lebanon], for the government to move with its bureaucracy, it would take like a month. As for us, we move the very next day. In [one village], there were 340 cases of typhoid, so we took our medical teams, medicine and our equipment and went there, and we stayed for a week, 10 days, until we finished the case. Last year, in [another village] there was typhoid, but there was a political problem, because some said the typhoid came from the meat, and some people said the sewage had run into the water. The government didn’t know the source. So while the government was busy dealing with the political problem, we were on the ground and started working.

Hezbollah’s staff members state that their NGOs’ continuous preparation and planning allow them to be more efficient and react more quickly to crises. Members of Hezbollah’s social units explained that they are continuously preparing for new threats, especially in their struggle against Israel:

For war, we have different tasks and duties, we are always prepared and we are ready to move to help refugees and those who are injured. The Red Cross cannot always go in when some areas are bombarded, but we go in. When they are encircled, they cannot get to them, but we can get to them. The people who work here do not work for salary, or for position, or for personal benefit. It’s an internal commitment that is strong. We’re highly motivated. Therefore, 10 of us will produce more than 1,000 civil servants.

In their work, Hezbollah depends on people who are in direct contact with the population. As one Hezbollah staff puts it:

We have a network within the party or the institutions around the party, and this network identifies the people that need the services…. Anyone who they send as a client, we will ncorporate him or her into the program that we have.

This grassroots network in the community allows Hezbollah to locate the needy and react quickly. In her New York Times article, Sabrina Tavernise describes a man who receives his groceries from Hezbollah without knowing who brings them. Hezbollah’s close ties to the community through its party apparatus allow service providers to have inside knowledge about individual needs. Another example of this is Hezbollah’s distribution of compensation after the 2006 Israeli bombardment of Lebanon. Hezbollah’s Jihad in Construction visited each village and based all compensation on the recommendations of Hezbollah’s official representative in that village. Hezbollah’s representative directed the engineers and financial officer of Jihad in Construction to the houses and their owners, and afterward people received compensation immediately, even without identification.56 However, while this closeness to the community may make service provision more efficient, it certainly highlights the importance of maintaining a positive relationship with Hezbollah’s political leaders in the community and staying in their good graces.

While people often have to seek favors from local politicians in order to gain access to Lebanon’s overtaxed public service systems, Hezbollah provides comparatively easy access for those in need. This detachment from the Lebanese government and its corruption has increased the community’s trust in Hezbollah. Its work has engendered a deep loyalty among Shiites in particular, who for years were Lebanon’s underclass and whose sense of pride and identity are closely intertwined with Hezbollah. As one Hezbollah staff member points out:

We have trustworthiness… from doing what we say we will do. And we work a lot on the members that we have, on their capacities and capabilities. We are very organized, and there is trust among our members. We give empowerment to members. We don’t have lots of internal confl ict, even though we have participation in decision making on all levels.

In a survey about social, health and educational services, 64 percent of Shiite participants indicated that Hezbollah provided the most services of any entity in Lebanon. In the same survey, 72 percent of the poor indicated that their political preferences were with Hezbollah.57 In the aftermath of the fighting in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps in summer 2007, Palestinian Islamist leaders in three camps confessed their affinity for Hezbollah as well. While asserting that they are not aligned with any Lebanese political party, they admitted that Hezbollah is most popular, not only because the party fights Israel, but because it provides the largest amount of assistance to Palestinians in the camps. This assistance includes not only health and social services, but even provision of internal security in some camps.58


In Hezbollah’s efforts to address the negative effects of poverty, there is a clear message of resistance. In addition to humanitarian motives, some Hezbollah staff members believe that the role of the social-service units is to build a “resistance society,” measured by their readiness to face Israel in war.59 This is notable in a quote in a publication from a Hezbollah NGO staff member:

I was happy to be part of the Islamic Health Committee, which provided health services after the retreat of the Zionist enemy. For six months we provided free diagnoses and medicines to our people who stayed on their land.60

As Fawaz notes, Hezbollah’s popularity is due not only to meeting acute community needs such as providing drinking water and collecting garbage, but also to its success in adopting rhetoric that validates Shiites’ frustration and desire for social justice. Like that of liberation theologians in many parts of the world, much of Hezbollah’s work has involved making poverty a religious issue and then tying it to political and military struggle. As Saad-Ghorayeb states, “It is not poverty per se that determines whether one is oppressed, but deprivation and exploitation. It is only when poverty is the result of state discrimination, negligence and abuse that it becomes synonymous with oppression. Otherwise, poverty is merely a social description.”61

Hezbollah accomplishes its political objectives by highlighting the Lebanese government’s neglect of the Shiite community and then running for political office. Hezbollah accomplishes its military objectives by capitalizing on the fact that the Shiite community has been disproportionately affected by Hezbollah’s confrontation with Israel in southern Lebanon and then portraying resistance against Israel as a religious duty. While the categorization of Shiites as oppressed stems not from the Quran, but from past Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon,62 Hezbollah has interwoven social injustice, political and military struggle, and religious piety so skillfully that the motives for community support become difficult to isolate.

Aside from Hezbollah’s political and military missions, its charity organizations are openly political and see themselves as part of a resistance movement. Hezbollah’s NGOs declare publicly that they are serving the resistance, and Fawaz describes how Hezbollah’s NGOs perceive their mission as building the “resistance society.” Hezbollah’s NGOs perceive their mission as complementary and essential to Hezbollah’s military resistance and display pictures of martyrs and leaders of the party on their walls. Fawaz quotes Hezbollah NGO director Hajj Kassem Aleik:

The resistance society is our vision. It is the task to build a society that will refuse oppression and fight for its rights. All the rest — water provision, garbage collection, agricultural training — is only a working strategy.63

This resistance culture is evident in publications from Hezbollah’s health-service NGOs. A publication by Hezbollah’s Islamic Health Society quotes Health Minister Dr. Karam Karam:

The services provided by the Islamic Health Committee strengthen the heroic efforts of fighters and reduce their worries about who will take care of those who support them. This network is a shield that protects the resistance fighter and assures those in need and protects those fighting for dignity, for the country and for sovereignty.64

For Hezbollah, the work of its health and social-service providers parallels the resistance of fighters on the battlefield; this work is in its essence political. One Hezbollah staff member said,

A medical doctor is a resister. Helping sick people and fighting microbes and other maladies is resistance. And when you give social services, you are saving a kid from ignorance or from going to prison.

A volunteer quoted in Islamic Health Committee publications views their work in a similar way:

I found in the Islamic Health Committee, which heals the wounds of the mujahedeen of the Islamic Resistance on one hand and also helps the oppressed in our society, a place where I can help people and reduce their suffering and build a healthy society.65

This view that NGO service provision is complementary to Hezbollah’s military resistance is essential to understanding the importance of social services for the party. Hezbollah considers that those involved in the provision of social services are part of the jihad. Social-service provision thus opens the door to be part of the military or political units of the party.


There are scholars who assert that Hezbollah’s health and social-service provision is merely a front to raise funds for their violent activities.66 However, the broad scope of services Hezbollah provides, the amount of resources devoted to service provision, and the technologically sophisticated nature of much of its work make this seem very unlikely, though the extent to which Hezbollah uses service provision to recruit militants is unclear. Events such as Hezbollah’s Ashoura pa-rades,67 in which one can readily see rows of elementary school children marching in the clothing of Hezbollah militants, certainly raise the question of how Hezbollah’s schools and Boy Scout troops may use their influence to prepare children to be part of the “resistance society.”

Perhaps equally significant is the extent to which health and social-service workers may be recruited to engage in the more violent activities of the organization. As we describe above, workers within Hezbollah’s NGOs certainly value the role they play in the struggle against Israel and see their efforts as an integral part of the resistance. This shared value system might suggest that NGO employees and volunteers would be willing to engage in violent activities as well, since these are seen as serving the same ultimate goal of building a resistance society. A publication memorializing a former employee of a Hezbollah NGO describes how an ambulance driver was later trained to be a fighter and became a soldier in the south of Lebanon:

His early faith pushed him to sacrifice and engage in jihad by frequently visiting the Islamic Health Society centers. He used his father’s car to transport and assist the wounded in the middle of the war. Then he started looking to the battlefields of the South to become a fighter.68

In spite of this example, the frequency with which NGO staff are enlisted into military work and social-service clients are recruited to become military resisters remains unclear. As one would expect, the recruitment process is very secretive.69

However, several scholars believe that the Shiite community’s low standard of living and alienation allow for their mobilization and recruitment by fundamentalist institutions.70 This opens the door for speculation about the role of social-service provision in the process of recruiting militants. While Harik indicates that Hezbollah’s social-service provision to the poorest people in Beirut has attracted the poor into the party, it is not clear if this attraction might be to the party’s military wing.71


Hezbollah’s effective social services have gained them loyalty among poor Shiites. In part through providing these services, Hezbollah has increased its votes, its share of power in the Lebanese government, and perhaps some militants for its cause. While we cannot prove that these were the motives behind Hezbollah social-services provision, the results are clear. However, Harik explains that Hezbollah’s NGOs alienate a number of those who need services but do not want to abide by the religious commitment of the organization. Hence, some people exclude themselves from participating in organizations that are linked publicly with Hezbollah and whose religious commitments are stringent. However, for those in desperate need, choosing to exclude oneself from services may be a privilege many simply cannot afford. In many communities, Hezbollah has become a sole provider of services. Its high level of competence combined with the absence of the state has increased the party’s control over certain areas, to the extent that it is difficult for other service organizations to operate without Hezbollah’s approval. Hezbollah supervises and controls all assistance to people in southern Lebanon and in the southern suburb of Beirut. This situation makes it difficult for international NGOs to provide humanitarian aid, particularly if their home country has designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization.72

Given Hezbollah’s own role as a service provider, its control over the resources of other humanitarian agencies, and the need for referral from Hezbollah’s political leaders in order to receive services, the poor in Hezbollah-dominated communities demonstrate their loyalty to the party, whether heartfelt or not. Hezbollah’s social services have increased the standard of living of many poor Shiites. This positive effect has undoubtedly generated genuine allegiance and continuing political support. However, when human needs are high and there is only one party to go to for services, recipients may be subtly coerced to show their loyalty to Hezbollah in ways that go beyond voting on election day.

1 Information from the conversation with the taxi driver is taken from a July 13, 2006, MSNBC News Services article entitled “In Beirut, those who can are getting out.” As it turns out, the bombing of Hezbollah’s television station did not result in any casualties.

2 Terrorism Knowledge Database Group Profile: Hezbollah (Oklahoma City: Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, 2006).

3 EU List of Terrorist Organisations (Council of the European Union, 2006).

4 Declaration by the Presidency on Behalf of the European Union on the Escalation of Violence in the Middle East (Council of the European Union, 2003); Declaration by the Presidency on Behalf of the European Union on the Recent Violations of the Blue Line (Council of the European Union, 2005) 2675th Council Meeting General Affairs and External Relations.

5 Nayla Assaf, “Analyst Says Hezbollah Stronger for 2005,” Daily Star, May 11, 2004.

6 Rachel Ehrenfeld, Funding Evil: How Terrorism Is Financed — and How to Stop It (Bonus Books, 2005).

7 Graham Usher, “Historical Development of Hezbollah: Hezbollah, Syria, and the Lebanese Elections,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 26, No. 2, pp. 59-67.

8 Howard Vincent Meehan, Terrorism, Diasporas, and Permissive threat Environments. A Study of Hezbollah’s Fundraising Operations in Paraguay and Ecuador (Naval Postgraduate School, 2004).

9 Based on interviews with Hezbollah staff members in January 2006.

10 From an interview with Judith Palmer Harik in January 2006 in Beirut, Lebanon.

11 Usher, op. cit.

12 Ibid.

13 Ahmed Nizar Hamzeh, In the Path of Hizbullah (Syracuse University Press, 2004).

14 Based on interviews with staff of Hezbollah service providers and other non-Hezbollah NGO service providers in January 2006.

15 Hamzeh, op. cit.

16 Ibid.

17 “Hezbollah Started Giving Assistance for Rent and Furniture,” Elaph, August 18, 2006.

18 Hamzeh, op. cit.

19 Islamic Health Society — 21 years promoting Health Services (Beirut: Islamic Health Society, 2005).

20 Based on interviews with staff of Hezbollah service providers and other non-Hezbollah NGO service providers in January 2006, publications of Hezbollah’s Islamic Health Unit, and Hamzeh, 2004.

21 Ibid.

22 “Who receives the services?” Ha’aretz, July 26, 2006.

23 Based on interviews with staff of Hezbollah service providers and other non-Hezbollah NGO service providers in January 2006.

24 “Hezbollah Completed the Rehabilitation and Sheltering Program,” Annahar, August 27, 2006. This figure stands in contrast to the $21.1 million (32 billion Lebanese pounds) spent by the Lebanese government’s High Relief Commission on rehabilitation and compensation by September 2006 (Presidency of the Council of Ministers, 2007).

25 “Why did Hezbollah pay in Dollars?” Elaph, September 2, 2006; Sabrina Tavernise, “Charity Wins Deep Loyalty for Hezbollah,” The New York Times, August 6, 2006.

26 Magnus Ranstorp, “The Strategy and Tactics of Hezbollah’s Current ‘Lebanonization Process’,” Mediterranean Politics, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 1-37.

27 Harik interview, January 2006.

28 André Bourgey, “La Guerre et Ses Conséquences Géographiques au Liban,” Annales de Géographies, No. 521 XCIV 1985, pp. 1-37.

29 Mona M. Fawaz, “Agency and Ideology in the Service Provision of Islamic Organizations in the Southern Suburb of Beirut, Lebanon.” Paper presented at the UNESCO Conference on NGOs and Governance in the Arab Countries, Cairo, Egypt, March 2000.

30 Judith Palmer Harik, “Between Islam and the System: Sources and Implications of Popular Support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah,” Journal of Conict Resolution, Vol. 40, No. 1, 1996, pp. 41-67.

31 Fawaz, op. cit.

32 Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, Hizbu’llah: Politics and Religion (Pluto Press, 2002) p.18.

33 Ibid., p.43.

34 Usher, op. cit.

35 “Hezbollah Completed the Rehabilitation and Sheltering Program,” Annahar, August 27, 2006; “Hezbollah Started Giving Assistance for Rent and Furniture,” Elaph, August 18, 2006.

36 “Who receives the services?” Ha’aretz, July 26, 2006.

37 Hamzeh, op. cit.

38 Sati Arnaout, “The Role of Local Governments: The Lebanese Context,” Paper presented at the Economic Development and Poverty Reduction workshop, Mediterranean Development Forum. Marrakech, Morocco, September 1998.

39 Fawaz, op. cit.

40 Hamzeh, op. cit.

41 Ibid.

42 Ibid.

43 Based on interviews with staff of Hezbollah service providers in January 2006.

44 Hamzeh, op. cit.

45 Ibid., p. 113

46 Mounah Abdel-Samad, “Between Local and National Interests: The Impact of how Constituents are Perceived on Legislators’ Representational Styles in Lebanon and Jordan,” Ph.D. Dissertation, State University of New York at Albany, 2007.

47 Ibid.

48 Elizabeth Picard, Lebanon: A Shattered Country (Holmes & Meier Publishers, 2002).

49 Ibid.; Wajih Kawtharani, “Civil Governance and the Belief in the Waliat el Fakih,” Annahar, November 3, 2006.

50 Islamic Health Society, The Health Committee, August 2005 (Beirut: Islamic Health Society, 2005), p. 48.

51 Tavernise, op. cit.

52 Picard, op. cit.

53 “Who Receives the Services?” Ha’aretz, July 26, 2006.

54 Hamzeh, op. cit.; also based on interviews with staff of Hezbollah service providers and other non-Hezbollah NGO service providers in January 2006, and Hezbollah NGOs’ brochures.

55 Based on interviews with staff of Hezbollah service providers and other non-Hezbollah NGO service providers in January 2006.

56 Zainab Yaghi, “Hezbollah and Reconstruction,” Assafir (Beirut), October 20, 2006.

57 Harik, 1996 op. cit.

58 Shaden El Lakkiss, “Beirut Camp Islamicists in a New Era Following the Bared Camp Battle,” Annahar, September 14, 2007.

59 Mona M. Fawaz, “Agency and Ideology in the Service Provision of Islamic Organizations in the Southern Suburb of Beirut, Lebanon,” paper presented at the UNESCO on NGOs and Governance in the Arab Countries, Cairo, Egypt, March 2000, p. 11.

60 The Health Committee August 2005, op. cit., p. 48.

61 Saad-Ghorayeb, op. cit., p. 19.

62 Ibid.

63 Fawaz, op. cit.

64 Islamic Health Society. 2005. The Health Committee August 2005 (Beirut: Islamic Health Society), p. 3.

65 Ibid., p. 42.

66 R.T. Taylor, Wages of Crime: Black Markets, Illegal Finance, and the Underground Economy” (Cornell University Press, 2003).

67 Ashoura is a Shiite holiday commemorating the deaths of two of the most revered Shiite leaders, Hassan and Hussein.

68 The Health Committee August 2005, op. cit.

69 Tavernise, op. cit.

70 Harik, op. cit.; Picard, op. cit.

71 Harik, 1996, pp. 41-67.

72 Tavernise, op. cit.