BEIRUT — The continuing Israeli bombing of south Lebanon and south Beirut might just have strengthened the Hezbollah.
The bombings appear particularly to have strengthened the hand of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the charismatic Hezbollah leader.
Hezbollah has over the years gained a strong following in Lebanon primarily on the back of its engagement in social services, taking on infrastructure projects, and looking after its followers. The Israeli assault is giving Hezbollah scope to gain more such power.
Hezbollah now controls, for example, more than half of about 100 schools in Beirut that have been converted into refugee shelters.
“These attacks show the true force of Israel,” a young man told IPS at a refugee camp in a city park. “I was with Hezbollah before, but now I want to join them so I can fight the Israelis, who only want our land, and want to attack Islam.”
A Hezbollah member in charge of a group of fighters in southern Beirut claimed that support for Hezbollah has increased dramatically since the Israeli attacks began two weeks ago.
“People are afraid, and in need, and we are protecting them and helping care for the refugees created by this Zionist aggression,” he told IPS. “The longer this fight continues, the more support we will have. We are prepared to fight to the very end.”
Support for the Hezbollah appears to be stronger among younger people. And some Christians too are speaking in support of Hezbollah. Ramzi Semaan, a 21-year-old Christian told IPS that “Hezbollah was defending this country, and the Israeli response was being planned months in advance. So Hezbollah is helping to defend Lebanon from the Zionists.”
But most of the Christian population seem to blame Hezbollah. Of the 3.8 million people in Lebanon, about 60 percent are Muslims, mostly Shia, and most of the remaining 40 percent Christian.
Views on the Hezbollah fall largely, though not entirely, along religious lines. Most of the large Shia population obediently follow every word of Nasrallah.
Many who have their doubts about Hezbollah still speak of their need for Hezbollah protection against Israeli aggression. And most agree that Hezbollah is a strong political force, and will have to be negotiated with. It is clear that there can be no peace in the region without including Hezbollah in any process towards cease-fire and further, any lasting solution.
The widespread destruction of infrastructure has been decisive in turning popular anger against Israel, rather than Hezbollah.
“Israel is protecting itself because Hezbollah made their operation against her soldiers,” said Fuad Rashed, 33-year-old Christian owner of an electronics store in the capital. “Their reaction is too strong though, because now they are destroying our country.”
A 50-year-old Christian, Nassan Hanin, said “Hezbollah was wrong to carry out their operation, and Israel is wrong in their extreme reaction. I’m happy that Hezbollah was hit for what they did, but this has been at too great a cost for us now.”
Many who lived through the worst of the civil war in the eighties blame both.
“We can barely believe there is war here again,” a 52-year-old waiter in the Hamra district of Beirut told IPS. “We thought we were finished with it 1990. I believe it was wrong for Hezbollah to kidnap the Israeli soldiers, but this level of reaction from the Israelis, of destroying all of Lebanon, is completely unjustified. It is insane.”