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From 'fat little kid' to Israel's worst nightmare
Toronto Globe and Mail


August 14, 2006
Monday PM

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- To Israel and many in the West, he's public enemy No. 1, head of an organization that President Bush says is on "the A-team of terrorists," the man running what Israelis call a "state within a state" in Lebanon, and posing a constant threat to Israel.

But to most Lebanese, and many in the Arab world, Hassan Nasrallah is an Islamic hero, a modern-day Saladin, vanquishing Israelis and galvanizing the public in a manner reminiscent of Egypt's much-beloved Gamal Abdel Nasser.




The reality, of course, is more complicated.

Hassan Nasrallah's declared goal is to rid Lebanon of all Israeli presence and to work within the Lebanese political system to advance the cause of his largely impoverished Shia people. (Although he clearly dreams of doing much more: of taking the Islamic campaign to Jerusalem one day, of ridding the region of Israel, of opposing the United States at every turn.)

His tactics are both military and political; his power derives from his movement's successes and from his personal charisma and shrewd planning. To many, he epitomizes what an Arab leader should be at this volatile time in the Middle East.

The question is: Will he limit his ambitions to Lebanon and work within the system, or will he use his phenomenal new clout to advance some larger cause? No one knows for sure.

This spring, Nasrallah signed a remarkable memorandum of understanding with Christian political leader Michel Aoun, the former head of the Lebanese army and, very possibly, Lebanon's next president.

The pact with a Christian leader is not entirely out of character. The Hezbollah leader uses every opportunity to reach beyond his own constituency, lacing his speeches and televised interviews with biblical references and reassurances that he would never encourage sectarian policies or practices.

The big question, however, remains: Does he have plans for more than just a role in Lebanon's future, with or without a militia? Is his dream an Islamic state?

He, like Hezbollah's spiritual leader, Sheik Fadlallah, has always denied wanting to turn Lebanon into an Islamic state, and his agreement with Aoun would seem to rule that out. Aoun certainly thinks so. "Hezbollah must be a part of the power in Lebanon," he has said. That's all.

Some of Nasrallah's criticism of other Islamist groups and their activities may be illustrative of his own philosophy.

The Taliban, for example, turned Afghanistan into "a hideous example of an Islamic state," he told an interviewer this year. It was "the worst, the most dangerous thing that this Islamic revival has encountered."

And the decision by al Qaeda in 2004 to behead Nicholas Berg, the U.S. businessman kidnapped in Iraq, was a "despicable act" that did "grave damage to Islam and the Muslims," he said

He also told The Washington Post's Robin Wright, author of a forthcoming book on Islamic groups, that he condemned most of al Qaeda's practices, particularly its attack on the World Trade Center five years ago.

"What do the people who worked in those two towers, along with thousands of employees, women and men, have to do with war that is taking place in the Middle East? Or the war that Mr. George Bush may wage on people in the Islamic world?" he asked. (The attack on Pentagon, a military target, was a bit less of a problem: "We neither favored nor opposed that act.")

As for Israel, however, desperate times appear to call for more desperate measures, he says. In general, "women and children need to be avoided," he told Wright, but there may be exceptions, such as an attack this year by Islamic Jihad, another Iran-backed group. "It came after more than two months of daily Israeli killing of Palestinians, and the destruction of houses and schools, and the siege that is imposed on the Palestinians. There is no other means for the Palestinians to defend themselves. That is why I cannot condemn this type of operation in occupied Palestine."

Occupied Palestine? Indeed, when Israel withdrew its forces from Lebanon in 2000, Nasrallah declared, "We have liberated the south. Next, we'll liberate Jerusalem."

So, which Nasrallah will emerge after this conflict is over? And where will his ambition lie? Has he been chastened by the unexpectedly ferocious Israeli campaign of the past month?

Not necessarily.

A month ago, Hezbollah was the target of growing criticism within Lebanon for its continued militarization, and Sayyed Hassan had presented a paper on how his militia might be folded into the Lebanese army. His chief patron, Iran, was being widely condemned and faced the prospect of international sanctions over its decision to process weapons-grade nuclear material. Syria, Hezbollah's secondary supporter, had been ostracized for its possible role in the Hariri assassination.

Then on July 12, after 10 years of abiding by its commitment not to attack inside Israel, Hezbollah crossed the blue line and kidnapped some Israeli soldiers.

Sayyed Hassan had told his people repeatedly that this would be the "year of the prisoner," that the two or three Lebanese still held in Israeli jails would be returned. And Hezbollah had conducted prisoner exchanges in the past. But crossing the line elicited a response from Israel that Nasrallah claims he never would have anticipated.

And yet Hezbollah's defenses have held, its political stock has soared and he has emerged a hero.

There's no more talk in Lebanon of disarming Hezbollah, only of incorporating it in the army. And the most likely scenario, when the U.N. eventually implements its Security Council resolutions, will be the return of Hezbollah's many reserve fighters to their homes in the south with, rather like Israel's reserves, their guns tucked under the bed.

Meanwhile, Israel and the "moderate" Arab governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan are terrified of what lessons people may draw from this.

A month ago today, when reports that Israelis had been abducted reached U.N. headquarters in Beirut, a high-level official telephoned a ranking Hezbollah officer to ask what was going on.

Informed that the reports were quite true, the diplomat replied: "Are you crazy? Do you know what you've done?"

Somewhere in the southern suburbs of Beirut, as he packed up his office to move to a safer location, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah probably knew exactly what he had done.


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