From his hilltop home on Mount Lebanon, Abbas Halabi reviews the destruction in nearby Beirut. Smoke billows from burning buildings and the once bustling streets now echo with sounds reminiscent of the country's civil war that began in 1975 and finally ended in 1990. The banker, judge, and president of Lebanon's Arab Group for Muslim-Christian Dialogue mourns the destruction of his country's decade-long renaissance and the piles of debt incurred for a dream that seems to be disintegrating before his eyes-roads and bridges destroyed, buildings toppled, and ports demolished.
Across the border in the northern Israeli town of Tiberias, Hava Bausch takes her dog for a walk through her own empty town, typically buzzing with tourists from around the world. Her bed and breakfast is now vacant, and neighboring hotels have received one cancellation after another-and for good reason.
On July 15 a barrage of Hezbollah rockets sailed into Tiberias. One landed in a sports field just a few blocks from where Bausch lives near the Sea of Galilee, another in an area commonly used for weddings, and a third just 100 yards from a gas station. A fourth narrowly missed a hotel packed with Israelis, hitting an empty apartment building instead.
Tourists and many residents packed their bags, and those remaining have retreated to bomb shelters. "The whole city is frozen. It's like a ghost town," Bausch said.
But this conflict involves much more than grievances between Israel and Lebanon, technically at war with each other since 1948. The greater divide resides among moderates and extremists in the region and has resulted in much suffering-Lebanese included-at the hands of Hezbollah. Although Hezbollah has been anything but dormant since Israel's withdrawal of southern Lebanon in 2000, this latest incursion-the cross-border raid that resulted in the death of eight Israeli soldiers and the kidnapping of two others-awakened a sleeping giant and launched the region into a precarious state some fear could escalate into an all-out regional war.
Four nations-the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Israel-have categorized Hezbollah as a terrorist group, while the European Union rides the fence on a designation. Like its militant counterpart in Gaza, Hezbollah is savvy when it comes to public relations. The group has built hospitals and schools in Lebanon, has its own magazine, television station, and radio station, and most persuasively, takes all the credit for Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000. As a result, it is the only faction in the country permitted to be armed for the alleged purpose of protecting Lebanon from Israeli incursions.
But those deadly weapons have been a point of contention for others in Lebanon and across the international community who want to see Hezbollah disarmed. The United States holds Hezbollah responsible for a series of deadly terrorist attacks in the 1980s, including the Beirut truck bombings in October 1983 that killed 241 U.S. Marines, the April 1983 and September 1984 U.S. embassy bombings in Beirut that killed a combined total of 85 people, and the 1985 hijacking of Rome-to-Athens TWA Flight 847.
Despite the criminal record, Hezbollah maneuvered its way into Lebanon's political system, milking outrage at Israel's last incursion and bombardments of Lebanon, and holds 23 seats in the 128-member Lebanese Parliament. The government has not revoked its status as the army of the south, despite repeated warnings from the UN Security Council.
Halabi would like to see Hezbollah disarmed in accordance with UN Resolution 1559. But he acknowledges the difficulty of ousting a faction that has become integrated into Lebanese politics, gaining approval from not only fellow Shiites, but other factions as well: "It is not the same as 1982 when we told the Palestinians to go from Lebanon. Hezbollah is part of the Shiite community. They are part of Lebanon and the Lebanese community," Halabi said.
Hezbollah fighters also brandish a bigger stick. With backing from Iran and Syria and a stockpile of weapons that has grown considerably since 2000, they are an entity to be reckoned with. During Israel's occupation of the south, soldiers of the South Lebanese Army sided with Israel in its assault against Hezbollah and a Southern Lebanese Army colonel was assassinated during the conflict. Many Lebanese foresaw their reign of terror when Israel evacuated the area, and thousands fled southern Lebanon for the northern towns of Israel. Unable to return safely to their homes in Lebanon, they now take refuge in Israel where Hezbollah rocket fire is threatening their lives once again (see "Casualty of peace," March 24, 2001).
Now Lebanon is paying the price for this southern-grown time bomb. Israel sent its jets and gunboats to Lebanon, destroying power grids, crippling Beirut's airport, damaging key transportation routes, and killing more than 300 Lebanese in the process. Much of southern Beirut-a Shiite district home to Hezbollah headquarters-was damaged. Subsequently, the Israeli military ordered ground troops into the south July 18 in search of tunnels and weapons.
Halabi says Israeli leaders were waiting for an excuse to pounce on their northern neighbor and believes the damage and suffering is disproportionate: "The international community saw only the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers. They should also be just and see what is going on in Lebanon."
But Israel appears to be in no hurry to end the bombardment of Lebanon. While the intensity of attacks raises some international eyebrows, defenders of the action argue that Hezbollah's strategic location among civilians leads to unavoidable casualties.
Hezbollah also has been wreaking cross-border havoc for years with numerous casualties along the way. When Hezbollah engaged in its recent assault against Israeli soldiers on July 12, Bausch had flashbacks to October 2000, months after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. Guerrilla forces crossed the border and captured three soldiers, one from Tiberias. All three died during the incursion.
She hopes this outcome will be different: "The leader of Hezbollah declared war, so everyone is saying that the government has to do something and try to get the soldiers back. It's very important in Israel to get our soldiers back."
It's a defining moment for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, both considered warfare rookies. Olmert, elected on a platform of instilling peace through further West Bank withdrawals and unilaterally drawing Israel's borders by 2010, is now plunged into a harsh reality: Not everyone respects borders. A recent poll, however, shows both leaders receiving high approval ratings among the Israeli public for the action in Lebanon.
As fighting entered its second week, Hezbollah continued to rain down Katyusha rockets in northern Israel while Hamas launched its Qassam counterparts from Gaza from the south. Israel removed troops from the northern part of the strip, but a day later sent tanks back into central Gaza where the capture of an Israeli soldier last month triggered an assault now taking backstage to the northern front. Meanwhile, dozens of Israelis have died from rocket attacks across the north and as far-reaching as Haifa.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has called on Arab nations to help deal Israel a "historic defeat," while Iranian Hezbollah's spokesman Mojtaba Bigdeli warned, "If America wants to ignite World War Three . . . we welcome it." The international community is cautiously watching for the emergence of a visible alliance among Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah that could spark a regional war.
President Bush took a step back during the first full week of fighting: "Everybody abhors the loss of innocent life," the president said. "On the other hand, what we recognize is that the root cause of the problem is Hezbollah. And that problem must be addressed . . . by making it clear to Syria that they've got to stop their support to Hezbollah." He pledged his support for the Lebanese government and encouraged Israel to be committed to its survival.
Meanwhile, Hava Bausch and her neighbors have set up camp in their apartment building's bomb shelter-a requirement in all new Israeli residential housing-waiting and hoping for a resolution that returns the captured soldiers and deals Hezbollah a crippling blow. Abbas Halabi knows war well enough not to let it cramp his livelihood-a trademark Lebanese trait-and continues to commute to his office in Beirut. Despite their differences, both await Hezbollah disarmament in order to win back what only weeks ago were normal lives.