Pride at a terrible price

Israel's bombing spree in Lebanon has united a disparate country in an unlikely solidarity with Hezb

Amyoun is a mountain village some 80 kilometres north of Beirut. The villagers are Greek Orthodox and it is far removed from the fighting of the largely Shia south. The inhabitants, however, are now flying the flags of Hezbollah. Elsewhere, in the largely Maronite village of Baskinta, Christian youths have convinced their elders not to pull down the Hezbollah flags that refugees have brought with them.

A day after an Israeli air strike killed 56 unarmed civilians in the southern town of Qana, a young Druze nurse in Beirut said: "When Hezbollah captured those two Israeli soldiers, on 12 July, I cursed them. I never expected to change my mind. But today we are fighting for Lebanon."

In the west of the capital, a businessman who is spending $6,000 of his own money every day to help the displaced says: "I am really proud of this country."

But pride has come at a terrible price.

Almost a million Lebanese have been forced to flee from their homes and more than 700 civilians are dead - many of them children killed as their parents obeyed Israeli orders to leave southern Lebanon. Villages along the country's southern border have been pulverised, in the literal sense of the word, and swathes of Beirut's southern suburbs have been flattened. What remains says much about the nature of Hez bollah, 20 years after it first took root in Lebanon as a direct result of Israel's 1982 invasion in pursuit of the PLO.

Beside a Christian bookshop in Haret Hreik - originally a Christian village, now Hezbollah's headquarters in Beirut - a garish advert for wedding dresses, complete with girls with big hair and pouting lips, hangs crazily over a sign offering "Tattoos". A few blocks away, fires from the most recent air strike flicker inside a gym that once promoted itself through cardboard men with rippling muscles and acres of bare flesh.

In the wake of the Qana massacre - the single bloodiest attack of Israel's new war in Lebanon - armed resistance, public anger that crosses sectarian lines, and determined government have combined to produce a dynamic that some Arab analysts believe could prove a turning point not just in this war, but in the 58-year-old Arab-Israeli conflict.

Not only has little Lebanon defied the United States, but Israel's armed forces, which defeated the armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria in just six days in 1967, have been unable to defeat a militia - Hezbollah - in a country that is not yet fully recovered from 15 years of civil war.

The Israeli army first committed small, elite units, and then brigades. Now it demands whole divisions, but it has so far managed to capture - though not to hold - only two border villages, Maroun Ras and Bint Jbeil. Hezbollah's leadership is intact. Unable to give Washington the military successes against "terrorists" that it needs to justify continuing US support of this war, Israel is sending ground forces deeper into Lebanon, where they will be exposed to guerrilla attacks of the sort on which Hezbollah has built its popularity.

With every new attack, solidarity with Hezbollah grows, even if only temporarily, in the hope that continued resistance will make a negotiated settlement more likely. The more the Israel Defence Forces wreck Lebanon - its ports, airports, radars, bridges, roads and power stations, its milk and fish factories - the more the Lebanese align themselves with Hezbollah's demands for the release of Lebanese prisoners held in Israel and Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Shebaa Farms. Hezbollah's agenda is becoming the nation's agenda.

Heroic status

For the past 15 years, Hezbollah has, contrary to the impression that many outside the Arab world have, moved away from militancy, first under the leadership of Abbas al-Musawi, who ended hostage-taking despite internal opposition but was then killed in an Israeli helicopter gunship attack in 1992; then under Hasan Nasrallah, who took Hezbollah into government despite internal opposition.

Today, Hezbollah does not seek the establishment of an Islamic state in Lebanon and neither does it endeavour to impose Islamic morals, even in the areas it controls. The party is a complex, broad-based amalgam of many tendencies and cannot be wished, or blasted, away.

Israel and its western supporters have forgotten the lesson of the past half-century in the Middle East: that force resolves nothing - not in 1948, not in 1982, and not in 2006.

America's Arab allies are already running scared and shifting from criticism of Hezbollah to support for Lebanon - and, by extension, for Hezbollah itself. Protracted war in Lebanon will only enhance Hezbollah's increasingly heroic status in the region and entrench it as a proxy through which Iran and Syria will seek to gain regional ascendancy.

"The Israelis have put us in a position where we have nothing to lose," a Hezbollah activist tells me. "Do you know what 'destruction' means? We have to fight. We cannot lose. And we are no longer alone."

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