Adam Ash

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Sunday, July 30, 2006

This time Israel bit off more than it can chew -- read about a Hezbollah cleric waiting for the IDF, Kalashnikovs stacked in his doorway

As the shells fall around them, Hizbullah men await the Israelis
Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, south of Tyre

Inside a well-furnished apartment in a village on the outskirts of Tyre, with shelves of books piled from floor to ceiling, a black turbaned cleric and three men sit sipping bitter coffee. By the door is a pile of Kalashnikovs and ammunition boxes; handguns are tucked into the men's trousers. The four are Hizbullah fighters, waiting for the Israelis.

"Patience is our main virtue, we can wait for days, weeks, months before we attack. The Israelis are always impatient in battle and in strategy," says the cleric, Sayed Ali, who claims to be a descendant of the prophet. "I know them very well."

As if to make his point, the sound of Israeli shells blasting the surrounding hills shakes the door and shutters every few minutes. Ali does know the Israelis. He started fighting them at the age of 17 when they invaded Lebanon in 1982. Three years later he was arrested with two of his comrades and spent a few months in an Israeli prison. Within weeks of his release he was fighting them again.That's what he did for the next six years.

For the last five years he has been finishing his theology studies in Tehran. A month ago, he was asked by Hizbullah to return to southern Lebanon. He arrived a week before the fighting began.

Standing at the window, he points to the banana plantations between us and the blue Mediterranean. "I have fought for years in these groves. We used to sit and wait for them [the Israelis] to make a move and then we would hit. They always moved too quickly, too soon."

All over the hills of south Lebanon hundreds of men like Sayed Ali and his comrades are waiting - some in bunkers, some in farm houses - for the Israeli troops to arrive. Sayed Ali and his men spend most of their time in the building where his apartment is, moving only at night.

"We stay put and we don't move till we get our orders, and this is why we are not like any other militia. A militiaman will fire whenever he likes at whatever he likes," explains one of the men, who says he has been involved in firing Katyusha rockets into northern Israel. "We have specific orders. Even when we fire rockets we know when and where [to fire] and each of the men manning the launchers runs to a specific hiding place after firing the rockets."

He says Hizbullah fighters expect the site of a rocket launch to be hit by an Israeli airstrike or shell within 10 to 15 minutes.

Another of the men, who says he is Sayed Ali's brother, explains how Hizbullah teaches its fighters patience: "During our training we spend days in empty buildings without talking to anyone or doing anything. They tell me go and sit in that building, and I go and sit there and wait."

According to Ali, Hizbullah operates as "a state within the state", with its own hospitals, social organisations and social security system. "But we are also an Islamic resistance movement, an indoctrinated army," he adds. "I would go and knock the door at someone and say we need $50,000, he would give me [that] because they trust us."

The fighting force of the organisation is divided into two: the "active" group, whose task is to serve in Hizbullah, and the reserve, or Ta'abi'a, as it is known in Arabic. The active fighters get monthly pay. The reserves are called on only in time of war, and receive bonuses but no regular pay. A third section, the Ansar, comprises people who support or are supported by the organisation.

Ali, the commander of Hizbullah in his village, and his men are part of the active force, and their orders are to wait for further orders. "Hizbullah hasn't even mobilised all its active fighters, and the Israelis are calling their reserve units," he said.

Hizbullah prides itself on its secretiveness and discipline. "We don't take anyone who knocks at our door and says 'I want to join'. We raise our fighters. We take them when they are young kids and raise them to become Hizbullah fighters. Every fighter we have believes that the ultimate form of being is martyrdom." The three men nod their assent.

Shia symbols and mythology play a big role in the ideology of Hizbullah, especially the tragedy of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet who in the 7th century led a few hundred men against the well-organised army of the caliph in Damascus. He was slain in Karbala, and Shia around the world commemorate these events in Ashura.

"Every one of those fighters is a true believer, he has been not only trained to use guns and weapons but [indoctrinated] in the Shia faith and the Husseini beliefs," Ali says.

He and his fellow fighters have been preparing for the latest conflict with the Israelis for years and he acknowledges the support received from Iran.

"When we defeated them in 2000 we did that with [Katyusha] rockets. We had six years to prepare for this day - the Americans are sending laser-guided missiles to the Israelis, what's wrong if the Iranians help us? When the Syrians were here we would get stuff through their supply lines, now it's more difficult."

The TV is blaring patriotic songs and pictures of destroyed bridges, houses and buildings. The men are feeling confident - only a day earlier the Israelis suffered heavy casualties in the village of Bint Jbeil.

"Our strategy is to hit the commandos and the Golani units like we did in Bint Jbeil," Ali says. "Those are their best units. If they can't do anything, the morale of the reserve units will sink."

For Ali and his comrades, the latest conflict is a war of survival not only for Hizbullah but for the whole Shia community. It is not only as a war with Israel, their enemy for decades, but also with the Sunni community. Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt have all expressed fears of Iranian domination over the Middle East.

"If Israel comes out victorious from this conflict, this will be a victory for the Sunnis and they will take the Shia community back in history dozens of years to the time when we were only allowed to work as garbage collectors in this country. The Shia will all die before letting this happen again."

He says that even if the international community calls on Hizbullah to disarm as part of a peace deal, he and his men will not lay down their arms. "This war is episode two in disarming Hizbullah. First they tried to do it through the Lebanese government and the UN. When they failed, the Americans asked the Israelis to do the job."

Despite Israel's claims to have inflicted heavy losses on Hizbullah, Ali insists his side is in a strong position. "Things are going very well now, whatever happens we are winning. If they keep bombing us we will stay in the shelters, and with each bomb more people support the resistance. If they invade they will repeat the miserable fate they had in 1982, and if they hold one square foot they will give the Islamic resistance all the legitimacy. If they want to kill Hizbullah they have to kill every Shia in the south of Lebanon."

And even when the battle with the Israelis is over, he adds menacingly, Hizbullah will have other battles to fight. "The real battle is after the end of this war. We will have to settle score with the Lebanese politicians. We also have the best security and intelligence apparatus in this country, and we can reach any of those people who are speaking against us now. Let's finish with the Israelis and then we will settle scores later."

2. Sheik Up -- by Annia Ciezadlo

In the early hours of September 13, 1997, the Israeli army killed one 45-year-old woman, two Hezbollah fighters, and six Lebanese soldiers in the mountains of southern Lebanon. Later that day, Hezbollah officials viewed video footage of the bodies and confirmed that one of the slain was a precious kill indeed: 18-year-old Hadi Nasrallah, son of Hezbollah's leader, Secretary-General Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah.

That evening, Nasrallah was scheduled to give a speech in Haret Hreik, the southern Beirut suburb where Hezbollah's offices are located. His second-in-command, Sheik Naim Qassem, offered to speak in his place. But, when the Lebanese turned on their televisions that evening, they saw the bearded, boyish face--at 37, looking hardly more than a youth himself--of Hassan Nasrallah.

Though the entire nation knew by then that he had lost his son, Nasrallah didn't mention it. He commemorated the anniversary of the September 13 massacre, a 1993 incident in which the Lebanese army opened fire on Hezbollah supporters. As he spoke, the audience began to clamor: Why wasn't he talking about his son?

To this day, people in Lebanon still talk about what happened next. Breaking off from his speech, Nasrallah noted that the country had given many martyrs the previous night. He recited the names of the soldiers and added, almost as an afterthought, that his son and another Hezbollah fighter were also killed. He thanked God for choosing a martyr from his family, saying that, while he used to feel ashamed in front of families whose sons had died for their country, now he could look them in the eye. Hadi's killing was a victory for Hezbollah, not for Israel, he pointed out: Instead of fighting each other, as in 1993, Lebanon's army and its guerrillas were united. "We are now fighting together and falling as martyrs together," said Nasrallah, as the audience cheered and chanted Hadi's name. "This is a great victory for us, of which we are proud." And then he went on with his speech.

Timur Goksel, then a senior adviser to the United Nations in Lebanon, watched the speech with a pro-Israel Christian family. "This Christian family, who hated everything Hezbollah stood for, they started crying," Goksel recalls.

In the Middle East, political leaders are often old, corrupt, and repressive; just as often, they are the pampered, Western-educated sons of aging dictators. There are also guerrilla leaders, who, if they survive, often end up as petty old despots themselves.

And then there is Nasrallah. Revered by the Shia, respected by his enemies, he has already earned the distinction of being the only Arab leader to evict Israel from Arab land without having to sign a peace treaty. But he is also a religious warrior. Today, as he fights a lopsided military battle against the Jewish state, he is becoming an icon--not just in the Arab world, where he was already a hero, but in the umma , the world of Islam. Nasrallah's war is not just a war between Lebanon and Israel, or even between Iran and America's allies; it's a war of myths and images, a battle to transform the Arab and Islamic worlds. Whatever battlefield setbacks Hezbollah may suffer in Lebanon, on this larger stage, Nasrallah has already won.

By Friday, July 14, everyone in Lebanon knew it was war. It was clear that Hezbollah had miscalculated the Israeli response when it kidnapped two Israeli soldiers two days earlier. Israel had bombed the airport and bridges, blockaded the ports, and killed dozens of people, most of them civilians. The Lebanese were succumbing to collective panic, cleaning out grocery store shelves, buying up gasoline, and frantically withdrawing U.S. dollars. After a defiant press conference on the day of the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers, Nasrallah had disappeared from sight. Rumors circulated that he had been struck by an Israeli missile; people were beginning to wonder if he might be dead.

Friday evening, at about 8:30, Nasrallah called in to Al Manar, Hezbollah's TV station. He sounded tired and sleep-deprived, like a man living underground. But his voice was firm, and the photograph that accompanied his speech showed, somewhat surreally, his trademark sunny, open smile. He began by offering condolences to the families of the martyrs, who had given their lives "in the noblest confrontation and battle that the modern age has known, or rather that all history has known." He taunted the Arab regimes that had abandoned him and reminded the Lebanese of the victory they had won on May 25, 2000, when Israeli troops withdrew from southern Lebanon.

Then he did something no one from Hezbollah had ever done before. Reminding his audience that he had promised them "surprises," he announced that they would begin momentarily. "Now, in the middle of the sea, facing Beirut, the Israeli warship that has attacked the infrastructure, people's homes, and civilians--look at it burning," he said calmly, almost matter-of-factly. As he spoke, out at sea, an Iranian-made C802 missile crashed into the warship. We could see an orange glow, like flares, shooting up from the sea to the sky.

Everyone tuned in to Nasrallah that night. I live in a mixed Beirut neighborhood, not heavily Shia or even exclusively Muslim. But, when he spoke these words, from the buildings around me, I heard a surround-sound rustle of cheers and applause. Outside, caravans of cars rolled through the abandoned streets, and the drivers honked their horns.

It was classic Nasrallah, charismatic and pointed, as if to underscore his difference from other Arab leaders. "In the Arab world, you have two kinds of rhetoricians: the very fiery, passionate kind, who make a lot of false promises, à la Yasir Arafat--the typical Arab rambling and passion that gets you nowhere," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a professor of political science at Lebanese American University and author of Hizbu'llah: Politics and Religion . "And you have others who are populist leaders, who are more plainspoken and practical. And Nasrallah is in between both."

With his dramatic attack on the Israeli ship, Nasrallah upped the stakes, and not just for Lebanon. This was the first time any Arab leader had staged an attack on an Israeli target and announced it simultaneously, live on television. It was as though he had heeded the words of Osama bin Laden's closest adviser, Ayman Al Zawahiri, who wrote in a letter to Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, that "more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media."

"Nasrallah, he's becoming like bin Laden--a star," says Lebanese journalist Paula Khoury. "Because now he has this ability to address the world. This is a new thing, and it's dangerous."

Hezbollah's pioneering tactic of massive suicide bombings once inspired bin Laden, becoming a classic in the Al Qaeda playbook. With his current war, Nasrallah is innovating once more, this time in the world of images, creating a new template for speaking to the Muslim world. Unlike the Sunni jihadists, he attacks the enemy's armies, not just its civilians. Unlike Zarqawi, Nasrallah has style. He can match rhetoric to action, as he proved on July 14. And, unlike the lugubrious bin Laden, he can appear practical and pragmatic, down-to-earth--even fun. As Saad-Ghorayeb points out, "What other Arab leader threatens Israel and grins?"

Unlike bin Laden, and in a country where most political leaders inherit their positions, Nasrallah was born into a poor family. It was 1960, a time when Shia were moving to Beirut in droves, up from the south of Lebanon--much as American blacks had made the great migration, and for similar reasons. The son of a greengrocer, Nasrallah grew up in both southern Lebanon and Karantina, a hardscrabble Beirut suburb.

After the civil war broke out, the teenage Nasrallah joined Amal, a Shia empowerment movement created by the charismatic cleric Musa Al Sadr. When Nasrallah decided to study Islam, an Amal cleric wrote him a letter of introduction to Muhammad Baqir Al Sadr, the revolutionary Iraqi cleric who was one of the leading lights of Najaf (and a relative of current Iraqi militia leader Moqtada Al Sadr). In Najaf, he studied with Sayyid Abbas Musawi, who would later become the leader of Hezbollah.

After Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, Iraq became inhospitable to young Shia clerics, and Nasrallah returned to Lebanon, where he eventually joined the new, Iranian-backed militia. He rose to become a commander, serving as ambassador to Iran and leading battles against Israel in the south. When Israel killed Musawi in 1992, Hezbollah's central command replaced him with his protegé, Nasrallah, then only 31.

Nasrallah surprised the nation--and angered Hezbollah hardliners--when he decided to bring the party into electoral politics, a move that some saw as tantamount to laying down Hezbollah's arms and giving up its guerrilla status. But, in 2000, when Israel pulled out its last troops from the south of Lebanon, Nasrallah became unassailable. And having members in parliament actually protected Hezbollah's arms by giving it legitimacy and power in Lebanon's political sphere. Today, with charity organizations that span the country, 14 of 128 parliamentary seats, and two cabinet ministers, the party is so strong that people describe it as a "state within a state."

But, even more than this savvy political maneuvering, it was his son's death, and his stoic reaction to it, that elevated Nasrallah from a sectarian guerrilla leader to something altogether more potent. In the days after Hadi was killed, Lebanese leaders from across the political spectrum--even Christian warlord and bitter enemy Elie Hobeika--paid their respects to Nasrallah and his wife. Nasrallah capitalized on this moment of popularity, opening the ranks of Hezbollah to Lebanese from all sects and forming the Lebanese Brigades, a unit with several thousand non-Shia recruits. A quintessentially Shia leader--a cleric, even--had transcended his sect to become a national hero.

So why did Nasrallah, who is nothing if not a master strategist, launch this war now? Most observers think Hezbollah miscalculated, that it didn't expect the ferocity of Israel's response. But, in a way, it doesn't matter: The more Israel pounds Hezbollah and Lebanon's Shia, the more it burnishes Nasrallah's image as defender of the umma .

There are others who have been vying for that title. In 2004, a London-based Salafi named Abu Basir Al Tartusi wrote a document called "The Lebanese Hezbollah and the Exportation of the Shi'ite Rafidite Ideology." In the document, as translated by the Search for International Terrorist Entities Institute, Tartusi claimed that Hezbollah is a front group concocted by an unholy trinity of Iran, the United States, and "its foster daughter, the state of the sons of Zion." Its sole purpose is to spread Shia Islam throughout the world and prevent authentic--i.e., Sunni Salafi--jihad.

The notion of a U.S./Iranian/Zionist axis might sound silly, but it carries a lot of weight in the jihadosphere. In June, just a week before he was killed by a U.S. airstrike, Zarqawi echoed Tartusi's claims. In an audio message posted on the Internet, he accused Hezbollah of serving as Israel's security wall against Sunni militants, and, even more bizarrely, he parroted U.S. demands that Hezbollah be disarmed.

On July 21, nine days after his forces kidnapped the two Israeli soldiers, Nasrallah answered Zarqawi and Tartusi. Looking relaxed and reasonable, in a carefully staged interview with Al Jazeera, he mentioned Zarqawi's statement. "Today, we are Shia fighting Israel," he pointed out, in a peroration not unlike the one he made the day his son died. "Our fighting and steadfastness is a victory to our brothers in Palestine, who are Sunnis, not Shia. So, we, Shia and Sunnis, are fighting together against Israel, which is supported, backed, and made powerful by America." In a brilliant inversion of Tartusi's logic, Nasrallah even suggested that "some Arabs" were collaborating with Israel to smash the resistance in Lebanon.

Hardcore Sunni jihadists, especially those who congregate online, will probably continue to distrust Nasrallah and all Shia. But, closer to the Islamist mainstream, powerful and popular Islamist groups like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood have come out strongly in support of Hezbollah. On Al Jazeera, the Brotherhood's leader, Mahdi Akef, hailed Nasrallah, saying that "the Lebanese who kidnapped the Zionist soldiers are true nationalists, led by a great man."

What do the Shia, his main constituency, really think of Nasrallah and his war? Among the religious majority, especially the moderates who follow Lebanese Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah instead of sterner Iranian and Iraqi mullahs, Nasrallah is adored and respected, an emblem of Islam and Arab pride. According to the independent Lebanese pollster Abdo Saad, people have begun referring to him as the "shadow of God."

But not all Shia are happy. In fact, secular Shia are outraged. Lebanon's Shia merchant class, like all the country's bourgeoisie, has been devastated by the current conflict. And even some of the devout are privately expressing doubts about Nasrallah's promise to rebuild their decimated villages and neighborhoods with the help of a new "friend"--i.e., Iran. "People are sleeping on the ground, and Nasrallah doesn't care," mutters Umm Hussein, a devout Shia woman from Beirut who says she has never criticized the sayyid before. "He said he was going to make Lebanon like it was before. Is he going to bring back the people who died?"

But, in the end, Hezbollah may not care that much about local public opinion. "Of course they're not happy that people are dying," says Saad-Ghorayeb. "But I don't think that public opinion is all that important to them, especially not now."

What matters far more than Nasrallah's eventual victory or defeat is the iconography he has created: that of an Arab leader who, unlike all the others, isn't afraid to defend the umma . In just a few weeks, he has succeeded in exporting the Shia jihad--a goal that even mighty Iran has failed to achieve in three decades of trying. "This is not just a war about survival and borders--not so far even a strategic one," says Saad-Ghorayeb. "This is the decisive battle for the region. ... If he succeeds, then it will reverberate throughout the region." And, if he loses, it may reverberate just the same--and just as violently.

(Annia Ciezadlo is a Beirut-based writer.)


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