[Marxism] NYT: "Arab world finds icon in leader of Hezbollah"

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Mon Aug 7 03:33:56 MDT 2006

August 7, 2006

Arab World Finds Icon in Leader of Hezbollah 


s/syria/index.html?inline=nyt-geo> , Aug. 6 - The success or failure of
any cease-fire in Lebanon
s/lebanon/index.html?inline=nyt-geo>  will largely hinge on the opinion
of one figure: Sheik Hassan
rallah/index.html?inline=nyt-per> Nasrallah, the secretary general of
bollah/index.html?inline=nyt-org> , who has seen his own aura and that
of his party enhanced immeasurably by battling the Israeli Army for
nearly four weeks. 

With Israeli troops operating in southern Lebanon, Sheik Nasrallah can
continue fighting on the grounds that he seeks to expel an occupier,
much as he did in the years preceding Israel
s/israel/index.html?inline=nyt-geo> 's withdrawal in 2000. 

Or he can accept a cease-fire - perhaps to try to rearm - and earn the
gratitude of Lebanon and much of the world.

Analysts expect some kind of middle outcome, with the large-scale rocket
attacks stopping but Hezbollah guerrillas still attacking soldiers so
that Israel still feels pain.

In any case, the Arab world has a new icon. 

Gone are the empty threats made by President Gamal Abdel Nasser's
official radio station during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war to push the Jews
into the sea even as Israel seized Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and the
Sinai Peninsula.

Gone is Saddam
sein/index.html?inline=nyt-per> Hussein's idle vow to "burn half of
Israel," only to launch limited volleys of sputtering Scuds. Gone too
are the unfulfilled promises of Yasir
at/index.html?inline=nyt-per> Arafat to lead the Palestinians back into

Now there is Sheik Nasrallah, a 46-year-old Lebanese militia chieftain
hiding in a bunker, combining the scripted logic of a clergyman with the
steely resolve of a general to completely rewrite the rules of the
Arab-Israeli land feud. 

"There is the most powerful man in the Middle East," sighed the deputy
prime minister of an Arab state, watching one of Sheik Nasrallah's four
televised speeches since the war began, during an off-the-record
meeting. "He's the only Arab leader who actually does what he says he's
going to do."

Days after the current war started, he ended a speech by quietly noting
that Hezbollah had just attacked an Israeli warship off Lebanon, a feat
considered inconceivable for his group. Those who rushed outside saw a
glow visible from the damaged vessel offshore, setting off celebrations
around Beirut. 

The departure represented by Sheik Nasrallah - his black turban marking
him as a sayyid, a cleric who can trace his lineage back to the Prophet
Muhammad - has been particularly evident in those speeches. He makes no
promises to destroy Israel with its superior military might, but to make
it bleed and offer concessions.

"When he says to the people: I am your voice, I am your will, I am your
conscience, I am your resistance, he combines both a sense of humility
and of being anointed for the task," said Waddah Sharara, a Lebanese
sociology professor and a descendant of Shiite clerics. "He's like the
circus magician who pulls the rabbit out of his hat and always knows
exactly who is his audience."

Some call it his "Disney touch."

In many ways, this war is the moment that Sheik Nasrallah has been
preparing for ever since he was first elected to run Hezbollah at age 32
in 1992, after an Israeli rocket incinerated his predecessor. 

In his broadcasts he appears tranquil, assured, sincere and well
informed, in command of both the facts and the situation, utterly
dedicated to his cause and to his men. He is aloof yet tries to lend his
secretive, heavily armed organization an air of transparency by sharing
battlefield details.

On Thursday, he offered to stop firing missiles if Israel halted its
attacks, saying Hezbollah preferred ground combat. Hezbollah's position
on any cease-fire, echoed by the Lebanese government, is that none is
possible as long as Israeli soldiers remain inside the country. 

"He has all the power; the government has no cards in its hand," said
Jad al-Akhaoui, the media adviser to a Lebanese cabinet minister. "He
keeps saying that he supports the prime minister, but there has been no
translation in the field, nothing has stopped. The decision is still
Hezbollah's decision."

It is not even clear how such decisions are formulated. Even though
Hezbollah has two cabinet ministers, proposals are passed through Nabih
Berri, the head of the Amal Party and Hezbollah's onetime rival as the
voice of the Shiite Muslim working class. 

Lebanese officials said that once Mr. Berri passed on the proposals,
nobody was quite sure what happened. Hezbollah officials are either
unreachable or mum. 

But Sheik Nasrallah is definitely in touch. He gloats over the evident
confusion reflected in the Israeli news media about their military
offensive. He is known to have read the autobiographies of Israel's
prime ministers. He always calls Israel "the Zionist entity,"
maintaining that all Jewish immigrants should return to their countries
of origin and that there should be one Palestine with equality for
Muslims, Jews and Christians. 

In the past, when Israel advanced into Lebanon against Palestinian
fighters, the Palestinians would defend fixed positions, then retreat
toward Beirut as each line fell. 

Analysts say Sheik Nasrallah's genius was to train hundreds of
grass-roots fighters - school teachers and butchers and truck drivers -
then to use religion to inspire them to fight until death, with a
guaranteed spot in heaven. 

Sheik Nasrallah outlined some tactics in Thursday's speech.

"It is not our policy to hang on to territory; we do not want all our
mujahedeen and youths to be killed defending a post, hill or village,"
he said, sitting in a studio with the flags of Lebanon and Hezbollah
behind him. The idea is to lure elite Israeli soldiers into a trap by
having them walk into villages before his guerrillas open fire. 

In a world where fathers are known by the name of their eldest son,
Sheik Nasrallah is known as Abu Hadi or father of Hadi, after his eldest
son, who died in September 1997, age 18, in a firefight with the
Israelis. The name instantly reminds everyone of his personal
credibility and commitment to the fight. 

On that September day, Sheik Nasrallah was scheduled to deliver a speech
in Haret Hreik, the unkempt southern Beirut suburb dense with apartment
houses that Israel has just turned largely to rubble. But he said
nothing of his loss until the crowd started chanting for him to speak
about the "martyrs." He eulogized Hadi as part of a great victory.

In interviews, he said that he would not give his enemies the
satisfaction of seeing him weep publicly but that he mourned privately. 

He has a daughter and two surviving sons. The eldest, Jawad, around 26,
is believed to be fighting in southern Lebanon. 

Sheik Nasrallah takes obvious pride in standing up to Israel on the
battlefield. All his wartime speeches have been laced with references to
restoring lost Arab virility, a big sell in a region long suffering from
a sense of impotence. He called the three southern villages where the
fiercest clashes erupted "the triangle of heroism, manhood, courage and

He can be by turns avuncular and menacing. 

Walid Jumblat, the chieftain of the Druse sect and one of Sheik
Nasrallah's more outspoken critics, said he found the combination
unsettling. "Sometimes the eyes of people betray them," Mr. Jumblat said
in an interview in his mountain castle. "When he's calm, he's laughing.
He's very nice. But when he's a little bit squeezed, he looks at you in
the eyes fiercely with fiery eyes."

In the hierarchical rankings of Shiite Muslim clergy, Sheik Nasrallah is
a rather ordinary hojatolislam, one step below an ayatollah, and far
below being a mujtahid, or "source of emulation" to be followed as a

Yet the Shiite faithful in Lebanon revere him, both as a religious
figure and as a leader who gained for them a modicum of respect in the
country's sectarian political system long dominated by Christians and
Sunni Muslim barons. Families who evacuated their homes in Beirut's
southern suburbs seemed invariably to leave behind an open Koran with
Sheik Nasrallah's picture propped up nearby, in the hope that the holy
verses would protect their homes and their leader. 

He is believed to live modestly and rarely socializes outside
Hezbollah's ruling circles. He avoids the telephone for safety reasons,
but has met thousands of constituents and dispatches personal messengers
to congratulate them for weddings and births. 

Aside from Hezbollah's secretive military operations, the state within a
state that he helped build with Iranian and expatriate financing
includes hospitals, schools and other social services.

Sheik Nasrallah is a powerful orator with a robust command of classical
Arabic, yet he makes himself widely understood by using some Lebanese
dialect in every speech. He has coined numerous popular phrases, like
calling Israel "more feeble than a spider's web." 

He comes across as far less dour than most Shiite clerics partly due to
his roly-poly figure and slight lisp. But he also - very unusually -
cracks jokes. 

Prof. Nizar Hamzeh, who teaches international relations at the American
University of Kuwait and has written a book on Hezbollah, recalled a
Nasrallah speech from last year, given while Secretary of State
a_rice/index.html?inline=nyt-per> Rice was in the region. A helicopter
happened to clatter overhead at some point while he was criticizing
United States meddling, and the sheik quipped, "You might be able to
catch a glimpse of her now; I hope she sees us as well." The crowd

He has never pushed hard-line Islamic rules like veils for women in the
neighborhoods that Hezbollah controls, which analysts attribute to his
exposure to many of Lebanon's 17 sects. 

Born in 1960 in Beirut, Sheik Nasrallah grew up in the Karanteena
district of eastern Beirut, a mixed neighborhood of impoverished
Christian Armenians, Druse, Palestinians and Shiites. 

His father had a small vegetable stand, but the 1975 eruption of the
civil war forced the family to flee to their native southern village.

The oldest of nine children and long entranced by the mosque, he
decamped for the most famous Shiite hawza, or seminary, in Najaf, Iraq
s/iraq/index.html?inline=nyt-geo> . He fled in 1978 one step ahead of
Saddam Hussein's secret police, returning to Lebanon to join Amal, then
a new Shiite militia. He became the Bekaa Valley commander in his early

But he considered the Islamic Revolution in Iran
s/iran/index.html?inline=nyt-geo>  led by Ayatollah Ruhollah
homeini/index.html?inline=nyt-per> Khomeini in 1979 to be the real model
for Shiites to end their traditional second-class status and moved to
Hezbollah as it coalesced in the early 1980's. He studied in a seminary
in Qum, Iran, briefly in 1989. 

How much a religious figure can appeal to Lebanon's generally
cosmopolitan population has never been clear, and it is particularly
murky now that he has provoked a war. Some Lebanese say he has sold his
soul to Damascus and Tehran. 

"I used to think of Nasrallah as the smartest politician in Lebanon, but
this last operation changed my mind," said Roula Haddad, a 33-year-old
administrative secretary, shopping at the upscale ABC mall in the
predominantly Christian Ashrafiyeh neighborhood. "It was a huge mistake
and he is solely responsible for all the destruction. He proved that he
does not care about Lebanese interests; he revealed his true Iranian

Political analysts said that Lebanon should have seen it coming, but
that Sheik Nasrallah proved a rather skillful hypnotist. "Lebanese
politics, especially since Nasrallah carved out his role, has become his
very own circus," said Professor Sharara, the Lebanese sociologist. "He
built this circus on a foundation of pageantry, lies, fear, crazy hopes
and unreal dreams.

"He sold Lebanese on the certainty that he would not abandon them, he
would not undertake anything that would cause them harm or destruction,
and at the same time he instilled fear, fear of himself," Professor
Sharara said. "He has known this was going to happen for the past 15
years. How can you believe someone who says, 'Don't worry, I won't do
anything,' even while he was building this hellish machine? He knew
people would be credulous, would be seduced."

Hassan M. Fattah contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon, for this

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