Freedom Fighters or Terrorists? ; Lebanese of All Stripes Praise Hizbullah for Ousting Israeli Army and Say They're Not Terrorists

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Abdullah Qassir, who represents the Shia Muslim Hizbullah organization in the Lebanese parliament, is unimpressed with President Bush's executive order to freeze the group's financial assets. If anything, he takes pride in it.

"We feel strong when the United States deals with us as a worthy adversary," Mr. Qassir says. "Hizbullah is known in the region as a resistance party. We were never a terrorist group."

But Washington believes differently. At the beginning of the month, Mr. Bush slapped the order on 22 groups listed by the State Department as terrorist organizations in a bid to neutralize their activities. Although the list encompasses organizations based around the world, few Lebanese doubt that the executive order was primarily aimed at radical organizations opposed to Israel and the stagnant Middle East peace process.

Since Hizbullah's fighters ousted the Israeli army from South Lebanon 18 months ago, ending a 22-year occupation, the organization's activities have centered on a sporadic guerrilla campaign against Israeli troops occupying a mountainous district known as the Shebaa Farms along Lebanon's southeast border with the Syrian Golan Heights. Some in Lebanon, including Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, had begun to question the wisdom of the Shebaa Farms campaign, fearing further instability in the country. But if Bush thought the executive order would encourage the Lebanese government to curb Hizbullah's activities, he was wrong.

"The US classification of Hizbullah as a terrorist faction is unacceptable altogether," Mr. Hariri said. "The Lebanese government holds Hizbullah in high esteem for expelling the Israeli army from occupied south Lebanon last year, and the people of Lebanon are united with the government in this stance."

The mood of outrage at the US decision crossed Lebanon's sectarian divide, uniting right-wing Maronite Christians with Shia Muslims.

Former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel, a Maronite whose father founded the Phalange party, a key ally of Israel in the early 1980s, described the executive order as "definitely an act of arrogance." He said, "There is a difference between resistance to occupation and terrorism, and we need no lessons from anyone in this matter."

Yet Hizbullah is connected to a bloody history of anti-American attacks in war-torn 1980s Lebanon. They include the devastating suicide truck bombing of the US Embassy in 1983 that killed 63 people. Six months later, another explosive-laden truck was driven into the US Marines barracks beside Beirut airport. The blast killed 241 servicemen.

But since the end of Lebanon's civil war in 1990, Hizbullah has undergone a considerable transformation, channeling its energies into fighting Israeli forces in southern Lebanon. The organization has turned into a respected political party, represented in parliament. It has established an effective social welfare network of schools, clinics, and hospitals, bringing basic services to those impoverished parts of the country traditionally ignored by the government.

The US even tacitly recognized the organization as a legitimate military force when it co-chaired with France a five-nation group to monitor a 1996 understanding that forbid both Hizbullah and the Israeli army from targeting civilians.

European diplomats in Beirut regularly meet with Hizbullah's leadership. …