Lebanon’s hypnotic icon

By Roula Khalaf

Financial Times

Published: August 18 2006

Confronting Israel is a ticket to stardom in the Arab world. Humiliated by repeated military defeats and persistent occupation, and disillusioned by political failures at home, Arabs are hypnotised when someone comes along to challenge the Jewish state and lift their dignity.

So it should come as no surprise that Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah’s leader, has achieved iconic status across the region over the past month. As his Shia militants eluded Israeli raids, fired rockets deep into Israel and inflicted heavy casualties on the ground, the aura around Mr Nasrallah grew, crossing the sectarian Shia-Sunni divide and reaching the mythical status of another hero, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Mr Nasrallah cleverly en­hanced his own standing with regular televised speeches from his hide-out. Calmly and rigorously, he detailed Hizbollah’s military operations and mocked Israel and its leaders. Describing his fighters as “heroes writing epics and creating miracles”, he reminded people last week that by defeating Israeli aims to crush Hizbollah, his group had succeeded where collective Arab armies had failed.

The devastation in southern Lebanon and beyond testifies to the colossal price Lebanon has paid for the war. Yet the 46-year-old Mr Nasrallah has emerged from the conflict emboldened and his leadership has been instrumental in building a disciplined and fearless guerrilla force.

A captivating figure who inspires fear as much as admiration and comfortably switches from funny, sarcastic comments to fiery rhetoric, Mr Nasrallah has long been revered by many of Lebanon’s Shia. Lacing his impressive classical Arabic with Lebanese colloquial speech, he projects a belligerent, over-confident face that motivates his fighters and a more humble, down-to-earth side that comforts their families.

When his own son, the eldest of four children, died in fighting in 1997, he went ahead with a scheduled speech, insisting that he would not show weakness in front of his enemy. “But when you’re alone with yourself or with your family, where the enemy does not see you, then you can give your emotions freedom,” he once acknowledged in an interview.

Yet Mr Nasrallah launched into the latest conflict with a serious miscalculation. He apparently expected the July 12 raid into Israel and the capture of two soldiers to provoke limited reaction from Israel and produce an exchange of prisoners. He faced domestic criticism for a unilateral decision to take Lebanon into a war that may serve the interests of Iran and Syria, Hizbollah’s backers, but not those of Lebanon. But Mr Nasrallah came into his own as he led the counteroffensive and watched people rally around Hizbollah. In one of the conflict’s most theatrical moments, he told the Lebanese at the end of a videotaped speech to turn to the sea and watch Hizbollah’s achievements. There was indeed drama over the Mediterranean, with flames rising from a damaged Israeli warship.

Throughout the war, he kept a close watch on the public mood in Lebanon and studied his political rivals’ every comment. When Walid Jumblatt, his fiercest critic, loudly wondered to whom Mr Nasrallah would “dedicate his victory” – a reference to Iran and Syria – the Hizbollah chief shot back the next day: “The victory will be for all of Lebanon, for every Arab, Muslim and honourable Christian, who stood with Lebanon and defended it.”

By the end of the fourth week of fighting, the chubby, black-  turbanned cleric donned his political suit and prepared for the aftermath of war. Sounding more like a president than a guerrilla leader, he focused his speech on Monday, the first day of the ceasefire, on Hizbollah’s leading contribution to reconstruction.

Mr Nasrallah has been as comfortable and efficient leading a political party as waging guerrilla warfare. The eldest son of a modest Lebanese Shia family with nine children, he entered politics at 15, when he joined the Amal movement. Amal was then the leading Shia party, championing Lebanon’s largest but socially dispossessed minority. In the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, the centre of Shia learning, he met Abbas Musawi, who would become his friend and mentor and would found Hizbollah after Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Rising quickly through the Hizbollah ranks, Mr Nasrallah was chosen to take over when Musawi was assassinated in 1992. His sisters are said to be active members of Hizbollah and one of his brothers is still with the Amal party.

He knew he was a target of assassination in recent years (and even more so now) but continued to give interviews from the party’s headquarters in Haret Hreik, the now razed area in the southern Beirut suburbs. He once told an Iranian newspaper that he had remained dedicated to his family life, turning his attention to his wife and children when he was home.

Under his leadership, Hizbollah developed on two parallel fronts: military and political. He led it through the resistance to Israeli occupation with attacks on Israeli military targets in southern Lebanon, making it an inspiration for Palestinian militants as well as Iraq’s Mahdi army, a Shia militia. He intensified the training and arming of his group after the 2000 Israeli withdrawal, as Hizbollah and the Lebanese state continued to claim a small strip of occupied land. At the same time, he expanded the organisation’s political role in Lebanon, participating in elections and joining the government last year as a minority partner. Hizbollah is considered the country’s most organised political party, although under Lebanon’s sectarian parliamentary quota system it has only 14 out of 128 seats in parliament.

As Lebanon emerges from the trauma of war, Hizbollah’s heightened political power brings pride to the Shia but fuels fear among other religious communities. The question being put to Mr Nasrallah is whether the pursuit of a strong and cohesive government could be reconciled with Hizbollah’s increasingly powerful “state within a state”.

“If the secretary-general of Hizbollah has become the president of Lebanon, he should let us know,” said Amine Gemayel, a former president, this week.

Mr Nasrallah has accepted the United Nations-brokered ceasefire and the national army’s deployment in the south of the country. But he has no intention of disarming, as demanded by UN resolutions, and has chastised politicians who have brought up the issue. Having revelled in commanding a war, however, the test he faces is to manage the peace and prevent another spasm of violence from erupting, this time within Lebanon’s own fractious society.