- The Washington Times - Monday, August 14, 2006

BEIRUT — Sheik Hassan Nasrallah’s face filled the television above the bar, and the upscale, secular crowd at Lina’s shushed itself into silence.

For 30 minutes, young and fashionable Beirut listened intently to his address, nodding from time to time and even applauding when the head of Hezbollah threatened to retaliate against Israel with strikes on Tel Aviv.

Before the war, or even in its early days, this well-heeled audience would have paid Sheik Nasrallah scant attention. But after weeks of fighting, the leader has won over new supporters, far from his usual power base among Lebanon’s poor and rural Shi’ite Muslims.

The development is especially troubling to Christians and Sunni Muslims who believe Hezbollah provoked an unnecessary and devastating war without the support of the government or the people.

Yet even among these communities, which have struggled to escape the political stranglehold of Hezbollah’s close ally Syria, there is an undeniable admiration for the militia’s monthlong stand against the Israeli Defense Forces.

“Israel has proved it is an aggressive neighbor, and it’s proven the logic of Hezbollah’s resistance,” said political analyst Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a professor at the Lebanese American University in Beirut.

“The resistance was the only capable source of confronting Israel. No single Arab army has been able to win against Israel militarily.”

Fawsi Issa is frightened by what he is seeing.

“It alarms me, that they can do this,” said the retired carpenter who lives in Ashrafiya, the Christian section of Beirut. “I do not like Israel, what they have done to us? But why did Hezbollah have to wake the beast?”

Hezbollah, which controls two Cabinet ministries and 14 of 128 seats in the parliament, has already leveraged its military strength into political power.

Although the government agreed after a five-hour session on Saturday to ratify a cease-fire, it was unable to agree yesterday on how to deploy the Lebanese Army along the border or to divest Hezbollah of its heavy weapons.

Mr. Issa and others like him say the government has been impotent during the crisis, unable to join the fight militarily and ineffective in securing international support to end it.

It has not even been able to help many of the hundreds of thousands displaced by the fighting, with most of the relief help coming from college students, Hezbollah affiliates and foreign organizations.

Most here expect Hezbollah will refuse to disarm, delaying or even derailing the deployment of an international stabilization force to buttress an expanded U.N. peacekeeping mission.

The right of resistance to Israeli occupation in the south or in the contested eastern hillsides called Shebaa Farms is enshrined in Lebanese law. Hezbollah is unlikely to lay down its arms while Israeli soldiers still hold border towns and Marjeyoun.

A few weeks ago, the talk was of what would happen if Hezbollah was vanquished by Israel, its missiles destroyed and its supply lines compromised. Some projected a civil war in which rival militias tried to cut into its turf and claim its mantle of resistance.

Today, the same people are talking about the problems posed by Hezbollah’s increased popularity for other Arab nations, which have their own sectarian divisions and armed Islamic groups.

“Hassan Nasrallah has won militarily and politically and has become a new leader like [Gamal Abdel] Nasser,” Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a harsh critic of Hezbollah’s alliance with Iran and Syria, said in a television interview. He was referring to the former Egyptian president, who became a hero to many Arabs with a failed attack on Israel in the Sinai Peninsula in 1967.

Jordan, Egypt and Bahrain all joined Saudi Arabia in denouncing Hezbollah’s “unexpected, inappropriate and irresponsible acts” in kidnapping two Israeli soldiers on July 12.

But last week, they joined other Arab League powers at the United Nations in demanding changes in the original cease-fire resolution to make it more favorable to Lebanon.

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