BEIRUT, Lebanon—Hezbollah guards armed with shiny machine guns reappeared at their posts at the mouth of Beirut's southern suburbs Tuesday, days after Israeli warplanes began bombing one of Lebanon's most densely populated enclaves.
Hezbollah watchmen tracked visitors through an elaborate lattice of young men who whiz through the rubble on scooters and trade intelligence on walkie-talkies, which run on batteries and are harder for the Israelis to eavesdrop on than cell phones or longer-range radios.
So far, locals say, the militant Islamic group has detained at least 33 suspects for offenses ranging from spying for Israel to looting television sets from the rubble. If anyone doubts that Hezbollah still rules its crumbling urban fiefdom, spokesman Hussein Naboulsi offers foreign reporters daily tours in defiance of the Israeli drones that hover overhead.
"Despite all the air raids, despite the destruction, despite the killing of civilians, we're still here," Naboulsi said triumphantly Tuesday from a patch of rubble. "We're still here, standing on our feet with our heads held up to the sky. And we will resist."
Hezbollah's ability to regroup so quickly in a place where acrid smoke is still rising from fresh targets illustrates the futility of Israel's initial aim of dismantling the militant network. Not only does Hezbollah field some of the region's most disciplined fighting forces and most dedicated suicide bombers, it's also a deep-rooted resistance and religious movement that flourishes among Lebanon's long-neglected Shiite Muslims and reverberates throughout the Islamic world.
In the past 24 years, Hezbollah has transformed itself from a radical band of Shiite Muslim militants into a sophisticated religious, political and social movement that gives voice to the frustrations shared by many of Lebanon's roughly 1.7 million Shiites. The United States and Israel list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, but it also has matured into a mainstream political force in Lebanon.
Politicians allied with Hezbollah have two seats in the Lebanese Cabinet, as well as 23 seats in the 128-member parliament. The successful campaign during last year's election was dubbed "the steamroller."
The group operates 14 schools, whose students typically fall in the highest percentile of standardized testing scores, and three major hospitals, and it funds several smaller clinics. The group reveres its martyrs, providing apartments, monthly stipends and university tuition for the children of some 2,000 fighters, suicide bombers and others who've been killed.
The Lebanese government, long led by Christians and Sunni Muslims, is keenly aware that Hezbollah's popularity is a reflection of its longstanding disregard of the country's Shiites, many of whom live below the poverty line. While Lebanese leaders call for the eventual disarming of Hezbollah, they know better than to back efforts to wipe out a group that fills a major social services gap for a volatile population.
"We cannot suppress Hezbollah, and that's not our aim. Hezbollah is Lebanese," said Nayla Moawad, Lebanon's social affairs minister. "We certainly want to reach the disarming of Hezbollah ... but we want Lebanese authorities to reach that point, not Israelis."
In the lopsided conventional military battle, Israel wins hands down. While Israeli intelligence estimates that Hezbollah spends as much as $100 million a year on its armed forces, four or five Israeli fighter jets cost that much. There's no definitive count of Hezbollah fighters; some estimates run as high as 25,000. Considered well trained and professional, the guerrillas still are no match for the Israeli Defense Forces.
But this isn't just a military battle, Israeli and Arab analysts are quick to note. Intensive air raids diminish Hezbollah's military capabilities, but they also bolster the group's popularity among Lebanese who consider the group their protector. For years, they've endured the humiliation of Israeli aircraft flying overhead and violating Lebanese airspace. Hezbollah, they say with pride, wore down Israel and forced it to withdraw from the south in 2000, after an 18-year occupation.
For Israel, getting rid of Hezbollah would require a far broader, deeper and costlier incursion into Lebanon. For Hezbollah, victory means its yellow-and-green flag still flies in southern Lebanon.
"If Hezbollah emerges standing—at all, no matter how beat up—they win," said Palestinian analyst Abed el-Majeed Sweilem. "They will have gained stature in the region for standing up to the great enemy of everyone."
Israeli officials who initially called for dismantling Hezbollah now appear willing to accept more modest goals. Israel is still pummeling Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon and punishing its supporters with devastating air raids around the capital. But once the fighting ends, many observers predict, the Israelis will settle for a larger buffer zone along the Israeli-Lebanese border and the return of two Israeli soldiers abducted by Hezbollah in the operation that triggered the conflict.
"Holding them accountable for what they've done and weakening them, that is feasible. But you don't kick them out," said Uri Dromi of The Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem-based research center. "They are part-and-parcel; they are the flesh of the flesh of the Lebanese."
Hezbollah's homeland includes three key swaths of Lebanon: hilltop villages dotted with cactus and olive groves in the south; the sprawling, gritty suburbs of south Beirut; and parts of the fertile Bekaa Valley in the east. In all three areas, Hezbollah's military, political and social offices have been sprinkled throughout residential districts, leading to charges that the group uses its supporters as human shields.
Few visible remnants of Hezbollah operations remain in the south, around Beirut or on the main highway that links the capital with Syria: The charity bureaus, the political offices, the homes used by the group's iconic leader, Hassan Nasrallah, are all gone. But two weeks of Israeli air raids also have killed 400 civilians, about half of them children, and uprooted hundreds of thousands of families whose neighborhoods fell under Hezbollah control.
Several residents returned to their homes in Beirut's southern suburbs this week, sobbing in front of their flattened apartments or delighting when they found scraps of furniture to salvage.
Without exception, however, they expressed confidence that Hezbollah, not the Lebanese government, would compensate for the damage and rebuild their areas. The wreckage, one young man said, was worth the dignity he felt at his countrymen standing up to Israel.
"The first goal of the Israelis is to destroy Hezbollah, and the second is to take away all our arms," said Hussein Hajj Hassan, a Lebanese lawmaker who belongs to Hezbollah. "For us, victory is Hezbollah remaining and keeping our arms. And I swear to God, Hezbollah will remain and so will our arms. No one can destroy Hezbollah."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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