A Defiant Hezbollah Rises From the Rubble
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A Defiant Hezbollah Rises From the Rubble
After holding its own against the powerful Israeli army, the militia is unlikely to disarm.
by Megan K. Stack
BEIRUT — Hezbollah's urban nerve center is a shattered shell. Its most loyal followers trudged homeward to a heartland laid to waste. And yet the Shiite organization lighted up the night sky with fireworks Monday and declared itself triumphant over Israel.
Israel meant to break Hezbollah with its monthlong offensive, but instead the militant organization has been strengthened politically in Lebanon, analysts say. The movement has a fresh boost of popularity, at least for now, and a renewed sense that it is entitled to keep its armed militia outside the control of the Lebanese army, they say.
Hezbollah's newfound clout has come at a staggering cost to Lebanon's infrastructure, economy and civilians, hundreds of whom died under the rubble of Israeli bombs. The fragile central government, which the U.S. administration strove to present as an example of democracy taking root in the Arab world, also has suffered from the month of fighting.
Members of the audience, who said they were Lebanese, cheer and waved portraits of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah as Syrian President Bashar Assad, unseen, addresses a journalists' association conference Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2006 in Damascus, Syria. Assad said Tuesday that America's plan for a 'new Middle East' collapsed after Hezbollah's successes in fighting against Israel, and warned the Jewish state to seek peace or risk defeat in the future. Assad, speaking to a journalists' association conference, said the region had changed 'because of the achievements of the resistance (Hezbollah).' 'The Middle East they (the Americans) aspire to ... has become an illusion,' he said.(AP Photo Bassem Tellawi).
"The reality is, they have weakened the government significantly," said Charles Ayoub, editor of Ad Diyar newspaper. "What room do [officials] have to maneuver? If Nasrallah says he won't give up the weapons, what are they going to do?"
The U.N. resolution that paved the way for the truce calls for Hezbollah's disarmament. So, for that matter, does an earlier, long-ignored resolution. But the terms for giving up the weaponry are vague. And as a prominent party in the Lebanese government, Hezbollah will have a hand in deciding how and whether the language translates into fact.
If anything, analysts say, the war has worsened Lebanon's underlying instability, bolstering Hezbollah at the expense of more moderate, secular figures in government.
"Most of the government really thought that Hezbollah could be trimmed by the Israelis, and that would give them less of a problem," said Judith Palmer Harik, a Hezbollah expert. "But it didn't work out that way, and now there's nothing they can do, in my opinion, to get Hezbollah away from doing what it wants.
"This is a victorious group. Do they want to be disarmed at this point?" Harik said. "That is such a nonstarter."
Back in Washington, President Bush strove Monday to undercut Hezbollah's boasting by portraying the organization as the losers.
"Hezbollah, of course, has got a fantastic propaganda machine, and they're claiming victories," Bush said. "But how can you claim victory when, at one time, you were a state within a state, safe within southern Lebanon, and now you're going to be replaced by a Lebanese army and an international force?"
But even the anticipated deployment of 15,000 Lebanese and 15,000 international troops won't necessarily drive Hezbollah's militia from the southern borderlands. Many analysts believe the Lebanese army is more likely to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with Hezbollah than to shut it down. Foreign troops are no novelty, either — the militia was founded and flourished under Israeli occupation and amid international observer forces and is deeply rooted in the civilian population of the southern towns and villages.
Before the war erupted in mid-July, Hezbollah representatives had agreed to participate in national negotiations about disarmament.
Even then few analysts put much stock in the notion that the guerrillas would voluntarily lay aside their guns. Nevertheless, the fact that the powerful organization agreed to talk about its weapons was taken as a sign that Hezbollah sensed it had to compromise with domestic critics of its militia.
Not so now.
It is unclear what remains of Hezbollah's arsenal. But the group made it plain Monday that the sacrifice of its weapons was off the table for the time being. Nasrallah scoffed at the idea that the "resistance" should lay down its guns in order to build a strong Lebanon. It should be the other way around, he argued.
"First you have to build a strong, capable, just and secure country for all Lebanese, so that you can tell the people, 'We can protect your dignity and honor, and there is no need for the weapons of the resistance,' " he said.
Ibrahim Moussawi, foreign news director at Hezbollah's Al Manar television station, was even more blunt.
"Hezbollah will not give up its weapons. This is a red line. The Israelis couldn't do it, so nobody can," Moussawi said.
"There is no army that can disarm Hezbollah. These 14 of March idiots can't do it," Moussawi said, referring to the bloc of Lebanese politicians who led the charge that ended Syrian dominance here last year and who then turned their attention to Hezbollah's weapons.
Asked what effect Hezbollah's hardened determination to keep its guns could have on Lebanon's ever-shaky national unity, Moussawi responded angrily.
"Hezbollah is not going to be asked about national unity while they're giving their blood to defend the country," Moussawi said. "Hezbollah has to ask them about national unity. They are not in the place to ask about it. How do you ask if you don't defend your country?"
Hezbollah's claims of victory are a reminder that Lebanon remains a fundamentally unstable state. This country shredded itself to pieces in a 15-year civil war, then stood by as its politics were buried under the smothering blanket of de facto Syrian occupation for more than a decade.
A little more than a year after disentangling itself from Syrian domination, Lebanon is still hobbling along under the leadership of a fractious and fledgling government. Aside from Hezbollah, its only military power is a feeble army widely deemed incapable of defending this small Mediterranean nation.
The perennial problems that Hezbollah has long used to justify keeping its weapons also remain untouched.
The dispute over whether Israeli troops should relinquish their hold on the Shabaa Farms, which is also claimed by Lebanon, has not been resolved. Nor has the fate of Lebanese prisoners being held by Israel — men whose captivity inspired Hezbollah's commandos to steal into Israel and take two soldiers prisoner, provoking the long weeks of war.
The fighting polished Hezbollah's image, both at home and throughout the Muslim world, as its fighters held their own against the storied Israeli army.
Domestic critics have been temporarily silenced, pressured by a wartime atmosphere that encouraged solidarity during the crisis.
In his speech Monday, Nasrallah spoke out harshly against Lebanese who dared to criticize Hezbollah.
"We heard them speak from their air-conditioned offices
while people were watching their houses being demolished," he said. "This is really unethical, and a big mistake."
Meanwhile, Lebanese officials were scrambling to figure out how to fulfill their obligations to the United Nations Security Council resolution that paved the way for the truce.
Hezbollah's objections to disarmament reportedly has split the Cabinet and complicated the next moves.
Those concerns were nothing to Nidal Shaib, a 35-year-old taxi driver and longtime loyalist to the Communist Party who joined his brothers to sweep up the wreckage of a badly damaged building in Beirut's southern suburbs.
Until this war, he said, he respected Nasrallah but didn't support him. Now he celebrates him as the man who made Israelis suffer, Shaib said.
"Now I totally accept him. He's a great leader," he said. "Even greater than Che Guevara."
Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi and special correspondent Maha al-Azar contributed to this report.
Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times