Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Hizbollah may be winning battle for hearts and minds

Hizbollah may be winning battle for hearts and minds
By Roula Khalaf
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
Published: July 25 2006 20:15 | Last updated: July 25 2006 20:15
Once Keyfoun nestled in comfortable obscurity in the pine tree-clad mountains above Beirut, a small Shia Muslim hamlet sandwiched between communities of Christians and Druze Muslims. Now, however, it is at the eye of the storm that has engulfed the Middle East since Hizbollah, the Shia Islamist group, seized two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid two weeks ago.

Keyfoun’s old red-tiled houses and newly-built apartments buildings have been transformed into a refugee camp by the tens of thousands of people fleeing Israeli bombardments in southern Lebanon and the suburbs of Beirut.

As night falls, cars jam the streets, beaming the only lights into an area darkened by electricity cuts. Families, staying in apartments built by middle-class Shia, spend their evenings watching the flames rising from bombed buildings in the south of the capital.

The men say their houses and businesses have been destroyed, but they insist the “party”, as Hizbollah is referred to by its constituency, is fighting for them and their people – and that it will not be cowed.

“We’re proud and we believe in our fate,” declares Mohamed, a father of five. “My aluminium plant has been ravaged but we’ve finally lifted the heads of the Arabs. What none of the Arab leaders could do – confront Israel – one person, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah [the Hizbollah chief] is now doing.”

Israel’s offensive has caused massive damage, killed more than 400 Lebanese, most of them civilians, and displaced over half a million others. Hizbollah has meanwhile claimed more than 40 Israeli lives.

Yet Israel has yet to achieve its objective: limiting the military capabilities and the political power of Hizbollah, a disciplined political party representing a large part of Lebanon’s largest minority and backed by both Iran and Syria. Instead, the offensive has incited Arab anger and elevated Mr Nasrallah to hero status in the Arab and Muslim world. It has also forced many of his political rivals in Beirut to mobilise against the Israeli onslaught and shelve – for now, at least – their fury at the party that started the conflict.

Alarmingly for Israel, ordinary Lebanese, whether Shia, Sunni or Christian, are becoming convinced that the Jewish state, which invaded Lebanon in 1982, is waging war against the whole country. At the entrance to the Beirut port, in front of a building damaged by Israeli strikes, Lebanese families have been gathering in hope of evacuation. Asked why the conflict has broken out, a customs official raises his hands in the air in exasperation. Plainly an opponent of Hizbollah, he says the question should be addressed to Mr Nasrallah as well as Syria and Iran. He adds: “I don’t know why it’s going on but I know it won’t end until we’re over, until Lebanon is gone, until everything we built is gone.”

The determination – and the military sophistication – of the group is at the heart of the international conundrum over how to resolve what is happening.

The world has been seized by the tragedy of Lebanon, many believing that the small Mediterranean country is paying the price for the standoff between the US and the axis of Syria and Iran. Envoys have rushed to Beirut to offer their sympathy to a government dominated by a pro-western coalition that, while not endorsing Hizbollah’s actions, has implored the world to intervene to halt Israel’s retaliation. A similar show of support will be mounted today when foreign ministers from the US, Europe and Arab states gather in Rome to try to hammer out the shape of a possible ceasefire.

But most of the ideas for a cessation of hostilities assume that Israel will be able to neutralise Hizbollah, paving the way for the implementation of UN Security Council 1559, which calls for the group’s disarmament.

The comments of those who have found a temporary home in Keyfoun help to explain why that assumption is flawed, ignoring as it does the nature of Hizbollah. The US considers Hizbollah a conventional terrorist organisation like al-Qaeda that is ripe for obliteration. But in Lebanon it is viewed as a legitimate resistance movement that forced Israel out of southern Lebanon in 2000. As well as being one of the country’s largest political parties, it is also its most organised.

The US this week proposed the deployment of an international force alongside the Lebanese army south of the Litani River, which runs some 25 miles from the Lebanon-Israeli border, in order to push the guerrillas and their arsenal of rockets away from Israeli cities and towns.

Lebanese officials, however, know Hizbollah would reject such proposals out of hand. They fear that attempts to enforce them could lead to a renewal of the internal sectarian conflict that ended only in 1991, after 16 years of war.

In the Grand Serail, the former Ottoman barracks that act as the seat of government, Fouad Siniora, the country’s mild-mannered prime minister who has appealed for an end to the Israeli offensive, says a resolution to the conflict requires a comprehensive deal that addresses all the outstanding disputes between Lebanon and Israel, and gives the government cards to negotiate with Hizbollah.

This deal, he says, would include a prisoners’ swap as well as the settlement of the dispute over Shebaa farms, a strip of occupied border land over which Lebanon claims sovereignty but the UN and Israel consider part of the Golan Heights, the Syrian territory Israel seized in the 1967 Middle East war.

So far, at least, Hizbollah has not felt under pressure to negotiate an end to the conflict. Israel’s offensive has entered a new phase, emptying Lebanese areas close to its borders of residents and sending troops on missions to take over Hizbollah strongholds.

The group, however, has perhaps 5,000 fighters but many more reservists – and, Israel suspects, more longer-range missiles than it has deployed so far. As Anthony Cordesman, security expert at Washington’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies, says, Hizbollah can easily disperse, replace its fighters, then regroup and improve its ambush techniques.

His assessment is that Israel’s strategy could only succeed if the Shia population turned against the group, something which he and many analysts in Beirut believe is unlikely.

Lebanese analysts who know Hizbollah well say that even the government’s sweeping package would prove hard to sell to the group. International initiatives, says Talal Salman, editor of Beirut’s as-Safir newspaper, do not “take into account the reality and the support for Hizbollah on the ground”.

The diplomatic quandary is deepened by the absence of two crucial players with stronger influence over Hizbollah than the Lebanese government – Syria and Iran. European diplomats say some governments are advocating talks with Damascus but Paris and Washington are opposed to seeking Syria’s help, fearing the price that would be paid.

Syria was the power broker in Lebanon until last year when its troops were forced out after the killing of Rafiq Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister. A UN investigation is examining the alleged role of Syrian officers in the assassination. Iran, meanwhile, provides spiritual guidance and much of the military equipment to Hizbollah, and probably has the greater authority over the group.

Both Syria and Iran, however, may want concessions in return for co-operation – Damascus over its own conflict with Israel and the UN investigation, and Tehran over the dispute with the West on its nuclear programme. Iraq, where Syria and Iran are accused of interference, offers an important precedent. Tehran has refused to engage with the US over Iraqi security in the absence of a broader dialogue that includes the nuclear issue.

“When you analyse the situation in the Middle East there are different crisis points that are deeply related to each other. But to find a diplomatic solution you... try to cut the crises into pieces,” says Ghassan Salame, professor of international relations at Paris’ Institut d’Etudes Politiques, and a former Lebanese government minister. That, he says, could pose “the most formidable challenge for the diplomatic process [over Lebanon]”.


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