Staying Power Adds To Hezbollah's Appeal

Palestinians display Lebanese flags and a portrait of Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah during a rally in the West Bank in support of the militant group.
Palestinians display Lebanese flags and a portrait of Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah during a rally in the West Bank in support of the militant group. (By Nasser Shiyoukhi -- Associated Press)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 2, 2006

BEIRUT, Aug. 1 -- Still in the fight after three weeks of war with Israel, Hezbollah is riding a surge of popularity in Lebanon and has acquired increased influence in the Lebanese government and its component factions, according to senior Lebanese officials and analysts.

The killing of more than 50 civilians at Qana by Israeli airstrikes Sunday in particular built unity in the Lebanese population, in horror if not in politics. The shock of what happened there enveloped the border conflict in broad feelings of nationalism, rallying many Lebanese who are wary of Hezbollah to the flag of battle with Israel.

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a Sunni Muslim who has long worked to assert government authority in the south and disarm Hezbollah's Shiite militia, gave a telling display of the new attitude in a meeting Sunday with foreign ambassadors. Asked about his relations with Hezbollah by a female reporter clad in the scarf and long dress of a conservative Muslim, he replied that he was a good friend of the movement's leader, Hasan Nasrallah, and admired his militia's fight against Israel.

"I thank his eminence Seyyed Ali for his presence," Siniora said, using Nasrallah's familiar name and title, "and I also thank all those who are sacrificing with their lives for the independence and sovereignty of Lebanon, and I ask God to reserve a place in Heaven for all those who have lost their lives for the sake of Lebanon."

The jump in support for Hezbollah, reluctant and fleeting as it may be, has become a complicating factor in efforts to end the fighting, according to a Lebanese cabinet minister and other analysts. The United States and Israel have insisted that a cease-fire can come only as part of an overall settlement, the analysts noted, but the radical Shiite Muslim movement has what amounts to a veto by its presence in the government, its battle-proven militia and the popular standing it has earned by confronting Israeli forces for 21 days without backing down.

"The war of all Lebanon" declared the headline on a front-page editorial in Tuesday's al-Nahar newspaper. "It has united the Lebanese in position and word, instead of dividing them and sowing dissent among them as some may have hoped," the editorial concluded.

"The main issue is that Hezbollah has not allowed the Israelis to attain anything near their objectives," said Fawaz Trabulsi, a former militia leader and political science professor at the Lebanese American University. "This has gained a lot of support for Hezbollah."

Most Sunni Muslims and Christians in Lebanon, a country of about 4 million people, have long shared the Bush administration's goal of bringing Hezbollah under government control by disarming its militia and making the national army the country's only military force. "I hope the Israelis finish the job," said Rina Nehme, an Orthodox Christian sunbathing by a swimming pool in the resort of Juniyah north of Beirut.

A number of Shiites shared a more nuanced version of the goal. Despite their faith, they were more attuned to Lebanon's tradition of tolerance and Western orientation than to Hezbollah's mix of Islamic fundamentalism and Arab nationalism.

But the three-week-old war, now defined for many people here by the deaths at Qana, has tipped an increasing number of secular Shiites toward Hezbollah, Lebanese analysts said. Perhaps more important, it has created a national mood in which opposing Hezbollah and its battle against Israel seems impolitic and unpatriotic.

Similar sentiment has surged in neighboring Arab countries, according to an anti-Hezbollah Lebanese political activist who recently returned from a tour of the Arab world. Should Hezbollah retain a sheen of victory despite its heavy material losses, he said, the repercussions could be felt in a number of countries, giving Shiite-dominated Iran a political advantage in its struggle with the United States.

How long Hezbollah's role as national champion will last has become a big question in Lebanon. Hisham Nahleh, a 23-year-old management student at Lebanese International University, said the movement's enhanced status will be a permanent part of political life here. "After what happened at Qana, everyone is united," he said as he and his father surveyed damage to their home in the heavily bombed Shiite area of southern Beirut.

But his father, Mahmoud, 55, suggested that political back-and-forth, influenced by the United States and other foreign governments, could make things look different six months from now. "You know what I mean," he said with a smile, twisting his hand back and forth in a gesture suggesting that the ways of the Arab world are complicated.

Marwan Hamadeh, the telecommunications minister, who is a member of the Druze faith, said it is too early to understand whether Hezbollah's bump in popularity and influence will be a lasting part of the Lebanese political scene. Much depends on how long the war lasts, how much more devastation Israel wreaks on Lebanon and whether the outcome permits Hezbollah to continue claiming victory, he said.

"Once the guns fall silent and you count the political, physical and moral damage, people will ask for accountability," he said. "If you go to the status quo ante with a destroyed country, they will lose in popularity. If we get Shebaa Farms back, they may lose their arms but gain in status."

Shebaa Farms, a patch of Israeli-controlled territory where the Lebanese, Syrian and Israeli borders meet, has long been a Hezbollah cause. Israel, backed by a U.N. survey, has insisted the ground was captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war. But Lebanon, with Syria having expressed agreement, has maintained that it is Lebanese territory and must be returned.

According to U.S. officials describing her proposals, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has embraced a Lebanese demand that the dispute be reopened as part of any settlement in the current fighting.

Ghaleb Abu-Zeinab, a member of Hezbollah's political bureau, said the movement's leadership feels it has scored a significant victory just by holding out against Israel's modern military as long as it has. Unlike in past wars, he said, the Israeli army has been unable to simply move into Lebanon and take over the territory it wants. Moreover, he noted, Hezbollah fighters are still capable of firing rockets into Israeli communities, frustrating one of Israel 's main goals in the war -- ending such attacks.

This interpretation has been widely accepted by Lebanon's Shiites, who make up an estimated 40 percent -- maybe more -- of the country's population. "We cannot be defeated," said Wael Abu-Ali, a 27-year-old engineering student whose family home in the Shiite suburb known as Dahiya was destroyed by an Israeli bomb that turned several residential buildings into shapeless heaps of concrete.

"Even if Hezbollah is broken up militarily in the end, it wins, because Hezbollah is the people," said Khalil al-Masri, 43, who with his son Abbas, 21, was carrying family belongings from their nearby apartment in the badly damaged neighborhood.

Abu-Zeinab said this is why the United States and Israel will not be able to impose a settlement on Lebanon that includes disarming Hezbollah against its will or clearing it from the border zone. The militia's fighters and supporters are part of the south Lebanon population, he asserted, and getting rid of them would mean emptying the whole zone of its 400,000 inhabitants.

If Shebaa Farms were to be returned to Lebanon, however, Hezbollah would be willing to discuss disarmament, perhaps through integration into the national army, Abu-Zeinab said. Other Lebanese officials said discussions on this issue are underway.

But the discussions will have to be with the other factions in the Lebanese government, not the United States, he specified. And in that arena, he noted, Hezbollah has acquired new weight by waging a widely televised fight against Israel while the national army stood by.

"That's the trouble," said a Sunni cabinet minister, who declined to be quoted by name because of the sensitivity of intercommunal relations in Lebanon.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company