Hezbollah replaces PLO in nightmares of the West


AARAB SALIM, Lebanon -- The Israeli big guns thunder regularly from the hilltops above this town; the whistle of their artillery shells cuts the air. Sometimes the slow rat-tat of machine gun fire follows.

These are warning shots mostly, the huff and puff of prefight threats. At night, the Hezbollah will reply. They emerge from tunnels dug into the hard ground of a nearby hill, steal along the foliage of a babbling stream and launch their small hand-held rockets toward the Israeli posts or beyond, into Israel.

It is a mismatch, but the Hezbollah sometimes score.

"In spite of all the Israeli capabilities, we are able to hit them and harm them," said Sheik Naim Kassem, deputy general secretary of Hezbollah. "That's why they keep requesting to stop Hezbollah."

The determined band of zealots who fight in the name of Allah is once again the focus of international frustration. Israel has blamed it for helping to organize -- along with its sponsor, Iran -- bombings in Buenos Aires and London.

And the persistent skirmishes in southern Lebanon complicate the search for peace by U.S. Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher.

The name Hezbollah (Party of God) and the scowl of its mullahs have replaced the image of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Western nightmares about the Middle East. The West sees Hezbollah as dogmatic, fanatic, perplexingly hostile terrorists.

Interviews by a U.S. reporter with top leaders of the group do little to soften that image. They mimic the rhetoric of Iran. America still is the "Great Satan" and Israel the "Little Satan." They vow to extinguish Israel and extend Islamic rule.

Yet to a large extent, Hezbollah was the creation of its main targets.

The Shiite Muslims who now flock to Hezbollah cheered and threw flowers at Israeli troops who came to rout the troublesome Palestinians from Lebanon in 1982. But Israel's often-brutal occupation quickly turned the Shiites against them, and the Israelis stayed on.

The United States, too, interfered on the side of the Christians in the fractious Lebanese civil war. The Muslims were embittered; the angriest created Hezbollah.

Hezbollah joined the shadowy world of other terrorists -- Palestinians, Iranians, Libyans, Syrians -- as suspects in major crimes: bombings of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in 1983 that killed 63, and of the French and U.S. military bases that year that killed 288; the kidnappings of about 70 Western hostages.

Hezbollah denies operating outside of South Lebanon. But it makes clear its targets.

"Our first enemy is the American government, because it supports Israel," said Sheik Kassem. "Israel is the occupying enemy, and the U.S. government is the sponsor."

Baalbek is an ancient city, condemned in the Bible for Phoenician worship of the sun god Baal. It was conquered by the Romans, who built temples to Jupiter, Venus and Mercury. Now it belongs to Hezbollah.

After a parade through Baalbek in February by hundreds of armed Hezbollah fighters, Syrian and Lebanese authorities persuaded Hezbollah to be more discreet and not scare away the tourists.

Encampment at Baalbek

But their presence is hardly hidden. A major encampment of Hezbollah is on the edge of town; locals prudently look away as they pass. At the Khomeini Hospital, the staff speak Farsi, the Iranian language. In a building below the Iran Export Bank, a supermarket founded with Iranian funds offers products not available in Beirut, 40 miles away.

"We consider Iran as our state," said the store's manager, Mohammed Dika. "The Hezbollah are our brothers, our friends. The Lebanese government has neglected us."

Stretching from Baalbek is the Bekaa Valley, a fertile and narrow cradle where the Romans grew poppies and the opium trade still thrives. Syrian troops flooded into this valley in 1976 after the start of the Lebanese civil war. They remain, their World War II-vintage anti-aircraft guns amid cornfields.

The Syrian troops give Hezbollah broad license, as the attacks against Israel continue to suit Syrian President Hafez el Assad.

"Assad considers the resistance a crucial [weapon] that needs no pullback," said Sheik Subhi Tufayli, chief of Hezbollah in the Bekaa Valley. "The pressure it puts on the Israelis makes it a vital element."

He rejects stories that Hezbollah has a hidden training center in the valley for international terrorism. Some of the Western hostages held in the late 1980s were said to have been kept in the Bekaa, but Sheik Tufayli denies involvement in that, too.

"We are against these acts," he said. "Kidnapping hostages tarnished the image of Islam."

Hezbollah claims that the Koran impels the fight against Israel. Such statements give Islam a bad name, say some other Islamic leaders.

"Hezbollah is aimed at gaining power under the flag of Islam," said Sheik Ali al-Amin of the rival Amal Shiite Muslim group in Tyre. Indeed, the secular government in Lebanon is wary that it could be next on Hezbollah's menu.

"They want to replace us with an Islamic government," said one top official.

Hezbollah is estimated to have only 3,000 to 4,000 soldiers. But they are equipped by Iran with effective, Soviet-made rocket launchers, mortars, ample automatic weapons and plenty of money.

Their front line is the rough, rock-scrabble region of southern Lebanon. In 1985, Israel pulled back from Beirut into a 9-mile-wide strip in southern Lebanon that Israel calls its "security zone."

The small, watchful villages near that zone are adorned with oversized posters of "martyrs," as well as big cardboard cutouts of Iran's late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Hezbollah figures, including Sheik Abbas Musawi. Sheik Musawi was incinerated by rockets from Israeli helicopters that ambushed him, his wife and their son as they drove along a rural road in February 1992.

It is an odd war in the south, filled with unwritten rules.

Israel operates with impunity deep in Lebanon. Its intelligence is good: It has a record of kidnappings, assassinations and pinpoint bombing to prove it.

Yet it has not stopped Hezbollah. If anything, the guerrilla group is better armed and more effective lately.

Hezbollah's attacks on army posts and its frequent use of bombs alongside the twisting roads here have taken a toll. The losses are said to have demoralized the Israeli-financed South Lebanese army and caused Israeli soldiers to take up the front-line positions in the zone.

The rules dictate that combat should be within the security zone. When the rules are broken, events can spiral viciously.

The worst such flare-up came in July last year.

After seven soldiers were killed, Israel unleashed its artillery fury on southern Lebanon for seven days, crushing thousands of homes and killing more than 150 people, most of them civilians. Locals now call it the "Seven Day War."

Aarab Salim is a town of 8,000 pressed into the hillsides with Israeli gun posts dead above. The house of Mayor Hassan Ali Farhat was one of 18 destroyed in the shelling.

As he rebuilds, shells still whistle overhead each day. The townsfolk have lived for years with "that music," the mayor said. They know the shells are aimed at trails on the hills used by Hezbollah -- usually.

The residents revile the Israelis. But they also are not pleased with the Hezbollah attacks that sometimes turn the Israeli guns on the town in retaliation.

'Enough living in a fantasy'

"I don't know what good they do," said one woman disgustedly.

Added another: "Most of the people get annoyed at the Hezbollah. They just bring problems."

The mayor is more blunt. Can the Hezbollah succeed, he is asked? "That's just rubbish. Enough living in a fantasy."

The guerrillas do not talk of quitting, even if peace comes and Israel withdraws from southern Lebanon.

"The Islamic resistance will stop only when withdrawal take place from Palestine," said Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah. That includes present Israel.

Iraqi-born Sheik Fadlallah is the spiritual patriarch of the Islamic resistance in South Lebanon. He stridently insists that he is not part of Hezbollah, rather that Hezbollah follows his theories.

"The American administration is more pro-Israeli than the Israelis themselves," said the sheik. "America's policy is one that moves in the line of Satan."

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