Hezbollah seizes initiative as Israel is racked by doubt

Soon after 34 days of ferocious fighting in Lebanon came to a sudden halt last Monday, Salim al-Tayeb made his way cautiously to the edge of his village in the south of the country to retrieve the bodies of three Hezbollah comrades-in-arms from beneath a heap of rubble.

His friends had been among the last of more than 1,300 people to die in the war and al-Tayeb wanted to make sure they were not left to rot where they lay, as so many others had been.

One by one, he hauled the bodies into the sunshine. Then he bowed his head as a Red Crescent ambulance drove them away.

It was two days before he allowed himself to share in the exultation that swept through Hezbollah ranks at the end of a conflict that many of the men had not expected to survive.

Yet for al-Tayeb, 40, there was a special reason to savour the moment. “I haven’t even seen my newborn baby boy,” he explained with a smile when I found him feasting on kebab sandwiches at a “victory” lunch laid on by the mayor in Taibe, their village two miles from the border.

Al-Tayeb had just telephoned his wife in Beirut. It was the first time they had spoken since the birth and he admitted shyly that he had said he missed her, loved her and yearned to see her. He had held back tears, he said, for fear of seeming weak to his other children, a girl of eight and a five-year-old son. “All they know is that their father is away working.”

A different type of work now awaits al-Tayeb. He is not one of Hezbollah’s 2,000 or 3,000 full-time military elite, but serves in its reserves, estimated at between 8,000 and 13,000 strong. For 20 years, he has fought when the need has arisen. But in civilian life he is an engineer and his skills are in urgent demand as Hezbollah launches a new battle to lead the reconstruction of the group’s shattered Shi’ite strongholds in south Lebanon and the southern suburbs of Beirut.

The campaign was getting under way in earnest this weekend. Fighters exchanged rocket launchers and military fatigues for bulldozers and brooms as they confronted the destruction they had brought down on Lebanon when they captured two Israeli soldiers during a cross-border raid on July 12.

Far from resenting Hezbollah’s provocation, most of those returning to their ruined villages seemed to admire the fighters’ resilience in having prevented the mighty Israeli army from rolling effortlessly through south Lebanon as it has in the past.

Despite their grief for family and friends who died and their shock at the heart-stopping scale of the devastation, Hezbollah is rallying them to its cause by offering cash, comfort, professional expertise and slick organisation that less efficient government officials can only marvel at.

In these critical first days after the war, Hezbollah and its financial backers in Tehran have seized the moment. They are appeasing those who might have been expected to denounce Hezbollah from the wreckage of their homes. And they are entrenching their support among a growing army of sympathisers.

Iran’s money is crucial. Estimates vary widely, but one Hezbollah source said as much as $1 billion had been made available by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president; another that the Iranian leader had placed no limit on the money pouring in.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has promised the Lebanese government $500m and Kuwait another $300m. But Hezbollah is giving Iran’s money directly to the people — a year’s rent for a homeless family here, a bundle of notes for some new furniture there, up to $12,000 per family within 48 hours of registration. The money buys loyalty to the “Party of God” as well as the basic necessities.

The peace, like the war, is shedding new light on the organisation. Hezbollah has been widely portrayed in the West as a ragtag army of terrorist hotheads. Yet it has withstood the Israeli onslaught that was intended to crush it.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader that Israel set out to kill, has not only survived but has also resurrected Hezbollah’s operations on the ground within days of the ceasefire. Nasrallah is being praised in Lebanon and across much of the Middle East for having achieved the simple objective he set his group at the start of the conflict: to remain viable.

Nasrallah’s declaration of “historic victory”, though derided by Israel, has raised questions about the feasibility of enforcing the United Nations resolution that ended the conflict — and about Hezbollah’s future role in Lebanon and the wider Middle East.

Security council resolution 1701 envisages that Hezbollah will remove its fighters from southern Lebanon and allow the Lebanese army and a beefed-up UN force to take their place; and that it will surrender its weapons. “Anything less would mean that the resolution is not being implemented,” said Mark Regev, Israel’s foreign ministry spokesman.

Yet last week Nasrallah vowed that his group would not be disarmed by “intimidation or pressure”.

The Lebanese army pressed on with an operation to establish 15,000 soldiers in towns and villages south of the Litani river, an area that has been Hezbollah’s preserve for the past 24 years.

But nearly 60% of the soldiers are Shi’ite. Many of them are from the same southern villages as Hezbollah’s fighters and support them. Some have brothers and cousins in the organisation.

Mindful that any confrontation would split the army and raise the spectre of civil war, Elias Murr, the defence minister, has declared emphatically that his soldiers have no intention of disarming Hezbollah. “The army is not going to the south to strip Hezbollah of weapons and do the work Israel did not,” he said.

Instead, a compromise of “hide and not seek” has been reached: Hezbollah will keep its weapons out of sight so that the army is not obliged to confiscate them.

The United Nations is trying to assemble a force of 15,000 but only the first 3,500 are expected to arrive within the next 10 days and some might take up to a year to arrive. Hezbollah perceives no greater threat from the UN force than it does from the Lebanese army.

Officials point out that it has lived with UN forces for years and expects to cohabit just as comfortably with this one. Apart from Italy, which has offered 2,000 to 3,000 soldiers, the biggest contingents pledged so far are from Muslim Indonesia and Malaysia which, like Hezbollah, do not recognise Israel’s right to exist.

The Israelis have protested and the UN’s deputy secretary-general, Mark Malloch Brown, called for more European countries to send troops in the first wave. Although 50 French troops arrived yesterday, Malloch Brown expressed disappointment that France, which originally offered to lead the force, had promised only 200.

Nor does there appear to be any imminent prospect that Hezbollah will release the Israeli soldiers Ehud Goldwasser, 31, and Eldad Regev, 26. Nasrallah said no power on earth would make him set them free unless Lebanese and other Arab prisoners held in Israeli jails were released in return.

As for the demand that Hezbollah be removed from southern Lebanon, the reunions of fighters with their families in villages south of the Litani river last week emphasised the practical difficulties.

On his return to Taibe, Haider Fayad, a lean fighter aged 27 with sparkling green eyes, was embraced first by his mother Hajeh Zainab. In her elation after 35 days apart, she kissed his head, shoulders and chest, crying: “My love, my heart, my eyes.”

Then Fayad’s wife Fatima appeared, dressed in a black chador. She hugged him fiercely from behind, kissing his back again and again in an unusual display of intimacy. “I love him to bits. I love him to death,” she said.

Fayad’s four brothers are also in Hezbollah and their mother is proud of what they do. Many of the organisation’s fighters are men like these who grew up in the southern villages. They live and work there when not fighting. Their families have been rooted in these villages for generations and intend to remain for generations, whatever any UN resolution might say.

From interviews with fighters in the past few days, three reasons emerged as to why they feel no pressure to leave southern Lebanon, let alone lay down their arms.

The first is their euphoria over what they regard as the triumph of the military tactics they deployed to resist Israel’s offensive. They had prepared meticulously, stockpiling ammunition and training highly mobile units of ambush and anti-tank specialists to evade Israeli ground forces while maintaining contact with their commanders. These units proved particularly elusive from the air.

“Every step we made, every rocket we fired was following specific orders from the leadership,” said Abu Mohammed, a Hezbollah medic who took part in anti-tank operations. “The Israelis forgot that this is our land. We know every contour of the landscape.”

The second reason for Hezbollah’s defiance is the reaction of 1m people to having been driven from their homes. Thousands streamed back last week to find entire areas flattened and their houses pancaked and pulverised. Many wept and railed, yet their anger was directed not at Hezbollah for picking the fight with Israel, but at the Israeli forces for wreaking such devastation.

Children summed up the mood as eloquently as anyone. Hassan Mussa, 14, and his 11-year-old brother Hussein, searched the debris of their home in vain for their PlayStation and a new bicycle. “The Israelis must pay us back,” Hassan said angrily.

I accompanied Yunis Awdeh, a 47-year-old father of three whose flat in Beirut’s southern suburbs had been destroyed, on his journey back to the town of Khiam, where he found the family home in ruins.

Scrambling over the stones, he squeezed himself into what had been the sitting room. “Where are my mother’s sofas, where is the bedroom, where are the beds? Look, that was my favourite blanket,” he said, pointing to a blue rug outside.

Then he intoned a phrase which is strange to western ears but was repeated over and over again by people who had lost everything: “The sacrifice is worthy of the resistance and Nasrallah’s shoes.”

The loyalty commanded by the belligerent yet humble Nasrallah constitutes the third reason for Hezbollah’s air of resolution. Some fighters cried during a broadcast in which he said he kissed their feet in honour of their bravery on the front lines.

Hezbollah’s ability not only to withstand the Israeli attacks but to create mayhem in northern Israel has earned Nasrallah stellar status in much of the Arab world. Babies are being named after him, jewellery stamped with his face is suddenly in fashion and mobile ringtones can be heard of songs in praise of him.

Hezbollah’s performance has emboldened the leaders of Syria to talk of retaking the Golan Heights from Israel and Iran to dismiss the latest international demands for a halt to its nuclear programme. Little wonder that Nasrallah shows no sign of yielding to critics at home or abroad.

One such critic, the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, warned that Hezbollah, which controls 14 of Lebanon’s 128 parliamentary seats and two cabinet posts, had achieved a dangerously disproportionate influence that could condemn the south of the country to remain a battleground.

“We don’t want Lebanon — or south Lebanon specifically — to be a testing ground for pre-emptive wars by America and Israel against Iran and Syria or the other way around,” he said.

For now the fighters’ families are celebrating reunions. But if the violence returns, they will not stand in Hezbollah’s way. “Our wives understand the men they are married to,” said al-Tayeb, the engineer. “In general they are women who have been brought up with the same mentality and ideology: Israel is our enemy, fighting the enemy is a religious and moral duty and martyrdom is an honour.”