By David Ignatius
Tuesday, September 23, 2003; Page A27
BEIRUT -- Hezbollah is on the Bush administration's official list of terrorist organizations. But when the group invited me to speak to a conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict here last week, I accepted -- on the theory that it was a chance to learn about the group and that more information, even about alleged terrorists, is better than less.
My only stipulation was that I be free to say what I wanted, even if others attending the gathering disagreed. I'll get to my speech and the audience's reaction later, but first I want to explain what I learned from this visit to the lion's den.
Hezbollah believes that the Islamic forces arrayed against Israel are winning -- thanks to the carnage wrought by suicide bombings. These "martyrdom operations," as Hezbollah prefers to call them, are often seen in the West as a tactic of desperation. But the leaders of this Lebanese Shiite militia view them as a successful weapon that has put Israel on the defensive.
A brochure prepared in English and Arabic for the Beirut conference outlined why Hezbollah regards these bombings as a route to victory. The group argues that "the first harsh defeat" for Israel came in May 2000 when it withdrew its forces unilaterally from southern Lebanon after several years of Hezbollah suicide attacks on Israeli soldiers there.
Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad embraced these martyrdom tactics in their "Second Intifada," and Israel ever since "has been passing through its worst days," according to the pamphlet.
"The Zionists do not dare to move in the streets and he who ventures out is not sure he will come back alive," the pamphlet said. In this climate of fear, the Israeli economy has lost more than $5 billion, and Israelis are migrating away from the Jewish state, according to the pamphlet. It predicted that the intifada would defeat Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, just as it did his predecessor, Ehud Barak.
This stark assessment makes clear that suicide bombings are part of a very deliberate strategy. They aren't driven by poverty, neglect, irrational fanaticism or the other factors Westerners often cite. They are motivated by a belief that killing Israelis will bring military victory.
Said Hasan Nasrallah, the Shiite cleric who leads Hezbollah, explained in a speech why suicide bombings make tactical sense: "Israel has 400 nuclear weapons. What can they do to a young man who wants to blow himself up to recover the dignity of his nation?"
Arab analysts describe Nasrallah as a charismatic leader who is becoming a powerful figure in the Muslim world. After seeing him in action, I understand why people take him seriously. Rather than indulge in flowery rhetoric, Nasrallah is sharply analytical. He can be a rabble-rousing populist one moment, an intellectual the next.
The Hezbollah leader is also a study in political ambiguity. Even as he lauded martyrdom tactics against Israel, he said he is arranging an exchange of prisoners with the Jewish state. The message seemed to be: We are strong enough to negotiate with our enemy.
Many of the Arab media delegates said they have, as one speaker put it, a "patriotic and national duty to support the Palestinian resistance." That certainly is the view of Hezbollah's television station, Al Manar, which organized the meeting. (Yes, Hezbollah has a TV station -- one that's widely watched around the Arab world.)
So what did I tell the gathering? I said that a journalist's duty was to report the truth, not support a cause. I expressed hope that an Arab television crew would someday chronicle life with an Israeli family, just as I had once spent a week living with a Palestinian family in the occupied West Bank for a series of articles I was writing.
"The only thing that worries me about the rise of the Arab media," I said, "is that they sometimes see their job as telling the story from the Arab point of view -- rather than just telling the story. . . . The Arab people deserve to know the truth, even when it hurts."
These comments produced murmurs in the hall and some criticism later from other delegates. But a few people actually seemed to agree.
An Asian delegate asked whether it served the Palestinian cause "to celebrate the blind killing of innocents." An Egyptian said Arabs mistrust what they see in their media because they believe it is biased and controlled by the government. "We should fix ourselves before putting the blame on the enemy," he said.
I wish these critical comments reflected the views of the conference as a whole. But the reality is that most delegates probably agree with Hezbollah's analysis: Suicide bombings are working. They have enraged and frightened a powerful adversary. Israel's problem isn't simply the bombs but the long line of people who want to be bombers.
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