Features

Sounds of silence

Middle East | Rocket launches and bombings have given way to Ramadan and New Year's feasting in Lebanon and Israel-but Hezbollah is far from finished

Issue: "Autumn books," Oct. 7, 2006

In Israel, the shrill summer sound of Katyusha rockets has been replaced by the blasts of the shofar horn, signaling the start of the Jewish New Year and the subsequent Ten Days of Repentance. In Lebanon hostile fire is gone, and the streets and alleys are full of vendors peddling dates, sweets, and nuts as the Muslim population begins the holy month of Ramadan.

And just in time for the festivities, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has reemerged as an iconic hero. A Sept. 22 rally in Beirut drew hundreds of thousands of supporters as a fiery Nasrallah-in his first public appearance since the war began-proclaimed a "divine and historic victory" over Israel and touted his resolve to remain armed, despite a UN resolution against it.

Many seem to have all but forgotten the leader's July orders to kidnap two Israeli soldiers, the catalyst that plunged the region into war, killing more than 1,000 people and demolishing much of Lebanon's infrastructure. Even the season's choice dates have been nicknamed "Nasrallahs" in parts of the Arab world.

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Rami Khoury, executive editor of Beirut's Daily Star, says although there has been a surge of accolades, Nasrallah's popularity is tied to years of resistance against Israel. The leader garnered significant support in 2000 when Hezbollah initiated a series of attacks in the south that resulted in the eventual withdrawal of Israeli troops from south Lebanon, and the group's recent show of strength rallied his followers once again.

"They are impressive. They did push the Israelis out of southern Lebanon and they were able to fight them for over a month," Khoury told WORLD. "But it's certainly not a situation where everyone is in love with Nasrallah."

Critics charge that Hezbollah is a tool of Iran and Syria and argue that he is igniting an Islamic trend that could jeopardize the delicate religious balance among Christians, Druze, and Muslims. Fadi Khairallah, director of the Beirut-based Middle East Lutheran Ministries, says Christians in the predominately Shiite south are struggling under regional influences, and only a few small churches remain: "Many have left their houses, and they are very insecure. There is no sense of stability or security."

In response to Nasrallah's massive gathering, Christian leader Samir Geagea held his own rally Sept. 24, echoing the sentiment of many Hezbollah critics: "The majority of the Lebanese people do not feel victory," Geagea told tens of thousands of his followers. "Rather, they feel that a major catastrophe had befallen them and made their present and future uncertain."

Nasrallah's track record of resistance and crowd-engaging charisma isn't the only factor generating followers. Hezbollah's social arm is organized and efficient, funding many of the basic needs in the poorer communities of the south and leading much of the region's reconstruction. Israel destroyed or damaged more than 100,000 homes during the war, and Hezbollah representatives were first on the scene in several towns, dispersing up to $12,000 to each qualifying family.

Hezbollah is also known for providing government representatives who are free from corruption, Khoury said. He predicts Hezbollah will seek more seats in Parliament, the Cabinet, and at local levels.

As 10,000 Lebanese soldiers and 5,000 UN soldiers make their way south to the Lebanon-Israel border, Hezbollah has warned troops against snooping around for caches of weapons. Although both the Lebanese government and the UN have called for Hezbollah to disarm, the group refuses to relinquish its weapons, and even Hezbollah's worst critics are reluctant to suggest disarmament be done forcefully.

For now, Hezbollah has put down the Katyushas and picked up the two-by-fours, but the debate continues over Hezbollah's future intentions and the group's ties to countries for whom the welcome mat no longer exists in Lebanon.

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