Although the Iran-backed Shiite Muslim movement likes to highlight its role in defending Lebanon, analysts believe that in the event of military action against Iran, it may be called upon to act as Tehran's proxy in retaliation by firing rockets into Israel or launching terrorist attacks against Western targets. That's why many Lebanese fear that their country, still recovering from long years of civil war and intervention by foreign armies, is in danger of becoming a battlefield in an extraneous regional conflict.
War gamers would pay Hizballah little heed if its fighters hadn't shown such prowess over the years. Washington has long suspected Hizballah of responsibility for deadly attacks on the U.S. embassy and on a Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. Hizballah denies involvement, preferring to trumpet its resistance attacks that led Israel in 2000 to pull out of southern Lebanon after a 22-year occupation. Since then, Hizballah's estimated 600 full-time fighters have maintained a border watch, manning observation posts and bunkers built into hillsides, patrolling remote sectors of the frontier and moving around on rally bikes and in SUVs with smoked windows and no license plates. Their military skills have even won the wary respect of the Israeli military. "It is very, very professional, disciplined, well-equipped and dedicated. They are a very serious enemy," a senior Israeli military intelligence official tells TIME.
Since Israel's withdrawal, Hizballah's fighters had largely limited themselves to occasional attacks on Israeli positions in the Shebaa Farms, a strip of Israeli-occupied mountainside along Lebanon's southeast border with the Golan Heights. Then, last month, eight 122mm Katyusha rockets were fired at an Israeli military control center on Mt. Meron nine miles from the border, the target deepest inside Israel ever struck by rocket fire from Lebanon. And Western military observers tell TIME that the range, choice of target and accuracy of the rockets five out of eight hit their mark suggest Hizballah involvement. Israel responded with artillery fire and more than 60 air raids that flattened some Hizballah outposts in the area. Military observers say the attack may have been a deliberate foretaste of what could be expected in the event of confrontation with Iran. Hizballah denies involvement in the rocket attack, which was believed by Lebanese analysts to have been a retaliation for the earlier assassination of two Palestinian militants based in south Lebanon. But there's no doubting the potency of its threat.
Hizballah officials have publicly said that the group possesses some 13,000 rockets. Most of them are believed to be standard Katyushas, which have a 12-mile range. But Israeli officials say Hizballah also maintains a supply of 220 mm and even larger rockets from Iran, a "strategic threat" capable of hitting targets in Haifa 20 miles inside Israel and beyond. "They can target all of the north and go as far afield as Haifa, threatening one million inhabitants of Israel. It must be considered by Israel's leaders at all times," the Israeli military intelligence official says.
Israeli officials have reportedly claimed that the long-range rockets are under the direct command of officers of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, which Israel alleges has lately expanded its presence along the border. This charge, too, is denied by Hizballah, and has not been independently confirmed.
Yet, Hizballah's arsenal is a source of growing concern not only to Israel but to many Lebanese as well. The hero status enjoyed by the movement after Israel's pullout began to wane last year, as opposition to Syria's presence in Lebanon mounted. Many non-Shiite Lebanese now openly question the group's strong links with Damascus which was widely accused in the assassination of popular former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and with Iran. "They are a tool in the hands of the Syrian regime and for Iran's regional ambitions," Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon's Druze and an outspoken critic of Hizballah, tells TIME. Others complain that Hizballah's refusal to disband its armed wing has paralyzed Lebanon's new government and revived sectarian polarization. "They are over-powerful, over-financed, over-armed and over-organized," says Ghassan Mokheiber, a Christian MP.
Hizballah does nothing to hide its Iranian connections. The group was created in 1982 as a guerrilla outfit by an Iranian Revolutionary Guard contingent dispatched by Ayatollah Khomeini following Israel's invasion of Lebanon. No one knows for sure how much money Hizballah still receives from Iran, although one Western diplomat in Beirut estimated the figure at between $20 million and $40 million a month. Hizballah officials won't disclose the sum, but they make no apologies for accepting Iranian financial assistance. "What are the gifts of the United States to the Shiites of the South and the Bekaa?" asks Nawaf Mussawi, head of Hizballah's international relations.
Much of the Iranian funding maintains Hizballah's extensive social welfare network of schools, clinics, hospitals and charitable associations. Some Beirut analysts believe Hizballah has steadily evolved as a Lebanese organization with a Lebanese agenda. It has 14 MPs in parliament, and last year for the first time it allowed one of its officials to accept a cabinet post. And its domestic concerns may restrain its behavior along the border. While Hizballah's Shiite constituents support its anti-Israel rhetoric, they may not welcome actions taken in defense of Iran that may provoke another Israeli onslaught. "The last thing Hizballah would want is to validate all the accusations about it being an Iranian proxy by attacking Israel," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a Lebanese expert on the group.
Hizballah's commander for southern Lebanon, Sheikh Nabil Qaouk, suggested in an interview with TIME that the group would stay out of the military confrontation unless Hizballah itself came under attack. "The resistance is for the protection of Lebanon," he said during a two-hour, late-night meeting at a Hizballah office in the party's south Beirut stronghold. "It has no other projects nor acts on behalf of other countries." Iran, he added, is capable of defending itself.
But even as he spoke, sitting next to a Lebanese flag, it was Iran's leaders, Khomeini and his successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who peered down from the framed color photographs hanging on the wall. For skeptics in Lebanon and the rest of the world to be convinced that Hizballah has only Lebanese rather than Iranian interests at heart, those portraits may have to go.
With reporting by Christopher Allbritton/Beirut; Aaron Klein/Jerusalem