BEIRUT, Lebanon, Sept. 22 — Hundreds of thousands of people stood Friday and chanted “God, God, protect Nasrallah.” It was the moment they had waited for: Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, in person, declaring that his militia was stronger than ever and that no army in the world could force it to disarm.
This was Sheik Nasrallah’s first public appearance since the war with Israel started in July, and it was steeped in defiance: at Israel, the United States, Arab heads of state and those political forces in Lebanon aiming to clip Hezbollah’s political and military power.
If there was any thought the war weakened Hezbollah, Sheik Nasrallah had a different message: “It is stronger.” Even after Israel’s 34-day bombardment of Lebanon, Hezbollah, he said, still has more than 20,000 missiles. “Not a single army in the world will be able to dismantle our resistance,” Sheik Nasrallah said, as he stood beneath a big banner that read “The Victory Rally.” “No army in the world will be able to make us drop the weapons from our hands.”
The crowd was mammoth, packing every corner of the 37-acre square in the southern suburbs of Beirut. There was a plastic chair for nearly everyone, and a baseball cap for protection from the sun. Hezbollah’s martial choir belted out chest thumping music. The crowds waved flags, wildly cheering for Sheik Nasrallah, who has become a folk hero to many here and throughout the Arab world. The audience came on foot, by car and by bus from the south and the north, and in every case, people said they came because Sheik Nasrallah asked them to.
“Whatever Sayid Hassan wants Sayid Hassan gets,” said Hossain Zebara, 29, using a title reserved for descendants of the prophet Muhammad. Mr. Zebara said it took him 24 hours to walk from his home in the southern part of Lebanon to be at the rally. “We came to show the American administration, the British administration, the French administration, that the resistance population is increasing, not decreasing.”
That was exactly Sheik Nasrallah’s point — a show of strength to those who would challenge him from abroad, and those who would challenge him at home. In a country of about four million, turning out hundreds of thousands of people in a disciplined, highly orchestrated event, is a sign of strength.
But the rally also highlighted some of the deep divisions among Lebanon’s different factions, as the crowd at times chanted slogans calling the Druse leader, Walid Jumblatt, a “worm” and “Jew” and calling for the prime minister to leave office.
Sheik Nasrallah sought to overcome some of that by calling for unity in a speech that tried to define him as leader who is not just a local force, but a regional force as well. He gave voice to one of the primary feelings that has fueled anger throughout the Muslim world: a sense that Muslims are being victimized in places like Iraq and Gaza, and the world does not care. “How long will it go on that the world keeps quiet?” he asked.
And he aimed hard at Arab leaders, criticizing them for not being willing to fight Israel. “These Arab leaders prefer to protect their thrones as opposed to protecting Palestine,” he said, taking a shot at the traditional power brokers, like the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak.
In Israel, Sheik Nasrallah’s speech was condemned as defying the international community by refusing to disarm.
Sheik Nasrallah had multiple messages to deliver: He said that Hezbollah would not disarm because the state was too weak to protect the people against Israel. He warned the international force deploying along the border with Israel not to spy on the “resistance.” He castigated Arab heads of state who recently asked the United Nations Security Council to help restart the peace process with Israel. He cautioned the Lebanese people about allowing political differences among sectarian leaders to become sectarian differences that might tear the country apart. And he repeatedly criticized the American-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, saying it needed to be replaced by a national unity government, which would in turn give Hezbollah even more power.
No one knew if Sheik Nasrallah would appear. People here talk about his assassination by Israel as though it is not just a matter of if, but when. The rally, billed as a celebration of the “divine victory,” presented him a chance to re-energize his supporters, to enhance his standing as a pan-Arab leader, and to try to buttress Hezbollah’s domestic political position. When he entered, he stood on a platform and appeared almost regal in finely tailored religious robes and a black turban. He was taken to the stage where he was protected by a wall of blastproof glass. He said that up until 30 minutes before the rally there were still discussions going on over whether he would attend.
“I couldn’t talk to you from afar,” he said. “I insisted to be with you.”
Israel began the war after Hezbollah crossed the border and captured two Israeli soldiers. The Israeli onslaught caused heavy damage to the mostly Shiite areas in the south and the north, and cost more than 1,000 lives, mostly civilians. But Hezbollah’s fighters never stopped, shooting hundreds of rockets into Israel, destroying Israeli tanks, an Israeli naval vessel and killing many Israeli troops.
Judging from the size of the rally, and the remarks of the participants, Hezbollah’s base did not blame Hezbollah for the death and destruction. They blamed Israel and the United States. “This is good, good,” said Fatima Saad, 50, whose son, Kasem, was killed. There was no hint of sadness in her bearing. “I am very proud,” she said as she patted a picture of her son pinned to her chest. He was 20 when he was blown up.
Ahmed Hussein, 78, made the trip to Beirut from his southern village of Kafr Kila. He said his house and most of his neighbors’ homes were destroyed, but that Hezbollah gave them tents and water tanks to help them get by. “All of us whose houses were destroyed we came here for Nasrallah, to tell him what we lost is nothing,” Mr. Hussein said.
While Hezbollah and Sheik Nasrallah have been hailed as heroes throughout the Arab world, the group’s position in Lebanese politics is more complex. They have been attacked by opponents who fear that an empowered Hezbollah would exert even more influence over the country. Some of Sheik Nasrallah’s opponents said they thought the rally might help undermine his chance of reaching out beyond his Shiite base because he said he was comfortable being aligned with Syria and Iran. For his part, Sheik Nasrallah seemed to try to both embrace his benefactors in Syria and Iran and to distance himself from them. He said it made him angry when his detractors charged that the battle with Israel was a proxy war for Iran, or Syria. “We are with the Iranians, we are with the Syrians, but this was our war,” he said, as he thrust his right hand into the air, and the crowd cheered.