While it appears that the Lebanese Shi'a paramilitary group known as Hizballah may have lost its bid for a parliamentary majority in the most heavily attended, significant and controversial parliamentary election in Lebanese history, don't count them out yet: tenacity has been the hallmark of the "Party of God" since it was founded 27 years ago. (Our World at War: See pictures from the hottest spots on the globe.)
Originally a small-scale guerrilla group in southern Lebanon formed to resist Israeli invasion in the 1980s, Hizballah built its reputation on a dogged ability to repeatedly hold its own against Israeli forces an achievement nearly unprecedented in the Arab world. (See rare pictures of Hizballah's youth movement.)
The seeds that led to Hizballah's emergence were planted in the two decades following the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, when thousands of Palestinians were pushed into the neighboring countries of Lebanon and Jordan. Incensed over the expulsion, various militant factions, including the powerful Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) led by Yasser Arafat, began sprouting up in Palestinian refugee camps in southern Lebanon in the 1960s. The PLO's attacks on Israel's northern border prompted a full-scale invasion by Israeli troops in 1982, a conflict which angered south Lebanon's largely Shi'ia Muslim community which directly suffered the consequences of Israel's military intervention and fueling the rise of the next generation of militant groups, Hizballah among them. "When we entered Lebanon, there was no Hizballah. We were accepted by perfumed rice and flowers by the Shi'a in the south," Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak once noted. "It was our presence there that created Hizballah."
Inspired by the Iranian Islamic Revolution, a group of young Lebanese, including a 22-year-old religious scholar named Hassan Nasrallah, joined forces with the ambitious goal of eradicating the Israeli presence in Lebanon through a series of crude guerrilla attacks, including suicide bombings, kidnappings and assassinations.
The act that brought Hizballah worldwide infamy came the following year: the 1983 suicide bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 American servicemen the largest single-day death toll for the Marine Corps since Iwo Jima. The eventual U.S. pullout from Beirut in 1984 was seen as Hizballah's first "victory" strengthening their credibility within Lebanon as an organization that could truly bring about change.
After Israel assassinated the movement's leader, Abbas al-Mussawi, in 1992, Nasrallah took over as the group's secretary-general. Capitalizing on its growing clout among sympathetic Lebanese and claiming a spot under the ideological umbrella of Iran's ayatollah, Nasrallah entered Hizballah into Lebanon's general election that year; the group won eight parliamentary seats, solidifying its legitimacy. Meanwhile, the group continued its steady stream of attacks against Israeli troops in southern Lebanon until Barak, then Prime Minister, ordered their withdrawal in 2000 allowing Hizballah to proclaim the achievement of their 18-year mission.
Hizballah's success has won it support from many sides: its reputation as the most successful anti-Israeli military group in the Middle East has won support from Arab nationalists and the backing of Iran and Syria. Meanwhile, many Lebanese Shi'as revere Hizballah for its social and educational-development programs. Many Western governments, meanwhile, consider it a terrorist group; it was placed on the U.S. State Department's terrorist list in 1999. Lebanon's ruling March 14th coalition has also blamed the organization for destabilizing the region and unnecessarily embroiling Lebanon in a near-30-year conflict with Israel. In 2006, a second conflict exploded between Hizballah and Israel; the resulting battle killed more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians, only adding to Lebanese discontent with Israel and swelling the ranks of Hizballah supporters. Though the conflict ended in a UN-brokered cease-fire a month later, Hizballah once again claimed victory, rallying public support behind their cause.
The bad blood between Hizballah and the government has continued in the runup to the 2009 election. A 2008 dispute over accusations that Hizballah was using its telecommunications systems for terrorist purposes led to deadly brawls and riots in the street. And while both groups seem poised to continue in their current roles following Lebanon's latest elections, there's no indication Hizballah will take the defeat lying down. "We consider that Lebanon is ruled by partnership, and whatever the results of the elections are, we cannot change the standing delicate balances or repeat the experiences of the past," noted Hizballah lawmaker Hassan Fadlallah. "Whoever wants political stability, the preservation of national unity and the resurrection of Lebanon will find no choice but to accept the principle of consensus." There was no similar cautionary tone in the remarks of Saad Hariri, the leader of Lebanon's pro-Western governing coalition. "Congratulations to you, congratulations to freedom, congratulations to democracy," he told supporters in Beirut. "There is no winner and loser in these elections. The only winner is democracy and Lebanon."