Inside Hezbollah, Big Miscalculations

Hasan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, told Lebanese lawmakers in speeches before the war that the militia was a deterrent to Israel, which would not risk a Hezbollah missile attack.
Hasan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, told Lebanese lawmakers in speeches before the war that the militia was a deterrent to Israel, which would not risk a Hezbollah missile attack. (Associated Press)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 8, 2006

BEIRUT -- The meeting on July 12 was tense, tinged with desperation. A few hours earlier, in a brazen raid, Hezbollah guerrillas had infiltrated across the heavily fortified border and captured two Israeli soldiers. Lebanon's prime minister summoned Hussein Khalil, an aide to Hezbollah's leader, to his office at the Serail, the palatial four-story government headquarters of red tile and colonnades in Beirut's downtown.

"What have you done?" Prime Minister Fouad Siniora asked him.

Khalil reassured him, according to an account by two officials briefed by Siniora, one of whom later confirmed it with the prime minister. "It will calm down in 24 to 48 hours."

More technocrat than politician, Siniora was skeptical. He pointed to the Gaza Strip, which Israeli forces had stormed after Palestinian militants abducted a soldier less than three weeks earlier. Israeli warplanes had blasted bridges and Gaza's main power station.

Calmly, Khalil looked at him. "Lebanon is not Gaza," he answered.

What followed was a 33-day war, the most devastating chapter in Lebanon's history since the civil war ended in 1990, as Hezbollah unleashed hundreds of missiles on Israel and the Israeli military shattered Lebanon's infrastructure and invaded its south. Nearly three months later, parts of the country remain a shambles and tens of thousands are still homeless as winter approaches.

In speeches and iconography, Hezbollah has cast the war as a "divine victory." But a reconstruction of the period before and soon after the seizure of the soldiers reveals a series of miscalculations on the part of the 24-year-old movement that defies its carefully cultivated reputation for planning and caution. Hezbollah's leadership sometimes waited days to evacuate the poor, densely populated neighborhood in southern Beirut that is its stronghold. Only as Israeli warplanes began reducing the headquarters to rubble did they realize the scope of what the Israeli military intended. Hezbollah fighters were still planning to train in Iran the very month that the soldiers were seized; Hezbollah leaders in Beirut had assured Lebanese officials of a relatively uneventful summer.

"They were prisoners of their assumptions," said Nizar Abdel-Kader, a retired Lebanese general.

The outcome of the war, still a matter of perceptions, reveals both the strengths and weaknesses of Hezbollah, perhaps the world's best-organized guerrilla group. The movement, even by the admission of its leaders, misjudged the Israeli response. But by virtue of its complex infrastructure and preparations -- years spent digging tunnels, positioning weapons, upgrading its arsenal and carrying out surveillance along the border -- Hezbollah survived.

"We were always prepared because we always knew that the day would come when we have to fight this war," said Hussein Hajj Hassan, a Hezbollah member of parliament. "We also knew that God was with us. He was with us."

Timur Goksel, a former spokesman and adviser to the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon, put it more bluntly: "Hezbollah did not expect this response, but they were ready for it."

The Militia as Deterrent

On March 2, to great fanfare, leaders from across Lebanon's fractured political landscape began what was hailed as a National Dialogue. It drew together implacable foes: Walid Jumblatt, the chieftain of the Druze sect, sat across from Hasan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader; the two regularly traded thinly veiled insults. Michel Aoun, the most popular Christian leader, sat with Saad Hariri, a political novice who derives clout as the son of a former prime minister slain in a car bombing in 2005. For months, they tackled issues that threatened to tear the country apart: relations with Syria, the presence of armed Palestinians and the future of the isolated, pro-Syrian president.

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