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Ariel Sharon’s Most Enduring Legacy: The Emergence of Hezbollah

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Forget the monumental Gaza withdrawal in 2005.

Forget his creation of Kadima in 2005 as a new centrist force in Israeli politics.

Forget the infamous 2000 Temple Mount visit that may have sparked the Second Intifada.

As Israel prepares for life after former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who died Saturday at age 85 after eight years in a coma, and as the world weighs the legacy of a man who led Israel both in war and in peace, Sharon's most permanent bequest to the Middle East may be the inadvertent empowerment of Hezbollah, the Shiite Lebanese force that functions in equal parts as armed militia, political party, and social aid group.

It’s not that Sharon intended to create Hezbollah. When, as defense minister, he decided in the summer of 1982 to invade and occupy southern Lebanon and Beirut, he certainly didn't set out to empower a radical new force in the Middle East. Instead, he saw an opportunity to use Lebanon’s civil war as a means of permanently subduing Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization. 

Shiite militias organized in the 1970s during the early stages of Lebanon's civil war, and Hezbollah’s founders, including its first leader Abbas al-Musawi and its current leader Hassan Nasrallah, were determined well before Israel’s invasion to recreate Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution in the Levant. But Sharon's intervention catalyzed the organization and growth of Hezbollah in the mid-1980s.

By occupying southern Lebanon, a region that even today remains less economically developed than the rest of the country, Israel inadvertently pushed Lebanon’s Shiite population toward the radical leadership that Hezbollah embodied. Had Israel not done so, Nabih Berri, a relative moderate who’s served as the speaker of Lebanon’s parliament since 1992, might today be the dominant spokesman for the Shiite Lebanese population instead of Nasrallah, and Berri's Amal Movement might be the dominant Shiite Lebanese political force, not Hezbollah. As Labor Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin succinctly put it in the years before his own assassination, Israel’s 1982 occupation "let the genie out of the bottle." Israel's invasion spawned an 18-year occupation that allowed Hezbollah to transcend its role representing the Shiite Lebanese community into a force fighting for the sovereignty of the Lebanese state, cheered by Israel's enemies from Damascus to Tehran.

Sharon's notorious role in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, even today, attracts significantly greater attention—and it was the subject of a powerful 2008 Israeli film, Waltz with Bashir. Israeli forces under Sharon’s command invited a Phalangist militia of Maronite partisans into a Palestinian refugee camp, and the militia ultimately killed up to 3,500 civilians, including many women and children. A subsequent Israeli commission found Sharon personally responsible for the massacre, and Sharon resigned as defense minister, putting his political career on ice for nearly two decades. But for all the tragedy of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, history may prove Sharon's decision to invade Lebanon even more controversial—and consequential.

Despite Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah has, if anything, gained power in the ensuing 13 years—in much the same way that Hamas has gained power in the years following Sharon's decision in 2005 to withdraw Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip. For example, Hezbollah enhanced its stature within Lebanon when it fought Israel’s military largely to a draw in the 2006 summer war that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert launched shortly after replacing Sharon.

Notwithstanding whatever legitimacy it draws from its Shiite constituency, Hezbollah today risks destabilizing the Middle East on at least three critical axes: 

Lebanon and the Syrian civil war

Hezbollah's insistence on openly and notoriously supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad risks drawing Lebanon further into Syria's civil war by emboldening radical Sunnis within Lebanon and more transnational groups, such as the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, to engage in a tit-for-tat of car bombs and other sectarian violence throughout Lebanon. Hezbollah's intransigence is the chief obstacle to the efforts of Lebanese prime minister-designate Tammam Salam in the past 10 months to form a new government and pass a new election law. 

Iran’s nuclear energy program

Iran's longtime financial support for Hezbollah, fueling its ability to cause mischief in Israel, makes it more difficult for the Islamic Republic and the "P5+1" group to strike a long-term deal over Iran's nuclear energy program. Iran's support for Hezbollah has justifiably conditioned much of the Israeli political elite, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to distrust any deal that falls short of the "zero enrichment" standard, thereby complicating U.S. efforts to reach a permanent deal with new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in 2014. 

Empowering Hamas and disrupting the Palestinian peace process

Though Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas currently find themselves on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict, Hezbollah served as a template for Hamas, which itself was founded in 1987, and the two groups have often directly and indirectly coordinated in common cause against Israel. Since the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections (which took place just 20 days after Sharon's debilitating hemorrhage), Palestine's leadership has been split between Hamas, which controls the ever-isolated Gaza Strip, and the more moderate Fatah, which controls the West Bank. The Hamas-Fatah schism severely complicates the ability to broker a deal that envisions a permanent peace on the basis of an independent Palestine, despite the best hopes of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, chief Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni, or Fatah leader and nominal Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. 

It's not inconceivable that Hezbollah (or something like it) would have come into existence without the foil of an Israeli occupation. Berri’s Amal Movement predated Hezbollah by nearly a decade. From the time that Lebanon became an independent state in 1943, its largely Sunni Muslim and Maronite Christian elite long neglected the poorer, largely Shi'a, regions of south Beirut, southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley, thereby predisposing the Shiite community toward more extreme solutions. Amal and Hezbollah, in the early 1980s, competed to respond to a preexisting domestic demand by providing the social services that Lebanon's central government did not—schools, hospitals and other welfare programs. Hezbollah won that competition and would become the first group with enough muscle to demand a voice at the table of Lebanese governance for its Shiite community. Hezbollah is so successful that it holds virtually a veto over all of Lebanon’s security policy, undermining its fragile government since the end of the Lebanese civil war in the early 1990s. But it's difficult to believe that Hezbollah would play such a pivotal and often frustrating role today if not for Sharon's fateful 1982 decision.

As Israel weighs the legacy of perhaps the last giant of the 1948 generation, Sharon's critics will read the worst motives into his controversial career, and Sharon's boosters will speculate about the peace that Sharon might have been able to deliver if he hadn't fallen into a coma. The Palestinian leadership split, the 2008 Gaza War, the reemergence of Likud (and the collapse of Kadima) have now superseded the key achievements of Sharon’s truncated premiership.

That means that Sharon's deepest impact on the Middle East in the years to come may be something that he never intended at all.