Lebanon Rebel Fighters Gain Stature, but for How Long?
By DOUGLAS JEHL
BEIRUT, Lebanon -- By any available measure, Hezbollah represents only a minority even of Lebanon's Shiite Muslims. Its core fighting force probably numbers just a few hundred men, and it depends heavily on support from Iran, which gave it birth after Israel invaded Lebanon 14 years ago.
With each Israeli bomb that has fallen on a Lebanese target over the past 10 days, Hezbollah has certainly gained in stature here as a symbol of resistance to Israeli's continuing occupation of southern Lebanon. But the strong consensus in Lebanon -- supported even by some remarks from Hezbollah leaders -- is that the group's days as a disruptive force are likely to be numbered.
"I don't see any chance that Hezbollah won't surrender their arms after Israel withdraws from the south, Iran or no Iran," said Nassib Lahoud, a independent member of Lebanon's Parliament and a former ambassador to the United States.
Officially, Hezbollah, Arabic for Party of God, does not accept Israel's right to exist, and it remains a champion of the Iranian revolution.
But its leaders no longer talk about driving Israel into the sea or establishing an Islamic state. Instead -- with a television station, representatives in Parliament and a broad social service network -- it has laid the groundwork to play a more modest, political role.
The reason, diplomats and Lebanese officials say, is that the realities of power here allow Hezbollah no other choice.
It is Syria, with more than 35,000 troops in Lebanon, that has allowed Hezbollah to thrive by allowing periodic shipments of Iranian weapons to pass through its borders and checkpoints and by defending the guerrillas' campaign against Israeli occupation.
But it is also Syria that has pledged to help keep the peace after any Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, an area Israel says it occupies as a "buffer zone" against attacks. An Israeli withdrawal is the precondition to any settlement between Syria and Israel. And should Hezbollah's leaders refuse to disarm even then, both Lebanon and Syria have said they would do it for them.
In an interview last week, a senior Hezbollah official vowed that the group would "continue the resistance, no matter what the external pressure, as long as there is a single Israeli soldier on our soil."
But the official, Mahmoud Koumate, deputy chief of Hezbollah's political bureau, said that once the Israelis leave Lebanon, any further effort to drive Israel from Arab territory should be left to the Palestinians. And he said that Hezbollah no longer advocated transforming Lebanon into an Islamic state.
"There's a difference between your ideological beliefs and your political stands," Koumate said.
At the height of its power in the mid-1980s, in the midst of Lebanon's 15-year civil war, Hezbollah portrayed itself as a champion of Iranian-style Islamic revolution. It collected more than $150 million a year from Tehran, and its fighters trained in Lebanon's Bekaa region at camps run by thousands of Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
Iran remains the group's principal source of money and military support, and faded portraits of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the late Iranian leader, hang even today in the southern suburbs of Beirut, where Hezbollah has its strongest support.
But the group has recast itself since 1991, when Syrian troops intervened to put an end to Lebanon's civil war and reestablish order across the country.
Under the leadership of Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, who displaced the more radical Sheik Subhi Tufeili as Hezbollah's secretary general, it has adopted so moderate a public face that callers put on hold by its information office this week were treated not to Koranic verses but to a recording of Scott Joplin's Ragtime classic, "The Entertainer."
Nasrallah has remained vague about whether Hezbollah would continue its war against Israel after Israeli troops leave, and some experts believe that the group's more militant elements -- some of whom still look to Tufeili for guidance -- might resist orders to lay down their arms.
At times -- last weekend, for instance, in a broadcast aired on its own television station -- Hezbollah has warned that it is ready to carry out attacks on American targets, a reminder of its long record of involvement in acts of terrorism, including the kidnappings here in the late 1980s of more than a dozen U.S. citizens.
With Iran still bitterly opposed to any peace with Israel, Western diplomats say Tehran may now be seeking alternate routes for supplying arms to Hezbollah guerrillas, circumventing the international airport in Syria's capital as well as the roads in Lebanon controlled by Syrian troops.
In January, authorities in Turkey intercepted a weapons shipment that had originated in Iran and that was bound for Lebanon in an Iranian attempt, diplomats said, to avoid Syrian scrutiny.
But Syria, which once used its influence over Hezbollah to put an end to the hostage-taking, has also demonstrated its capacity to relieve Lebanon's warring militias of their weapons, and most people here are convinced that the power it wields will leave Hezbollah guerrillas with little choice but to go along.
"Once our territory is liberated, the government will deal with Hezbollah -- in coordination with Syria," said Elie Firzli, a Christian who is the deputy speaker of Lebanon's Parliament.
"Syria sets the rules in Lebanon, and by all indications will continue to do so for a long time," a Western diplomat said. "If Hezbollah wants to play a role here, it is going to have to play by those rules."
Iran now provides about $60 million a year to Hezbollah, according to Western diplomats. But it has withdrawn all but a few of its Revolutionary Guards, and most of its aid provides for the schools, hospitals and other social services in poor Shiite Muslim communities that represent the most visible element of Hezbollah's operations.
In a country shattered by civil war, that private charitable network has won Hezbollah a deep gratitude among many Shiites, as has the generous support that it provides to the families of young guerrillas killed in its cause.
Yet in its only test of political strength, Hezbollah managed in parliamentary elections four years ago to claim only eight of the 28 seats reserved for Shiites under the rules that apportion control of Lebanon's 128-member Parliament.
Its political clout lags well behind that wielded by its Shiite rival, the Amal movement, whose leader, Nabih Berri, is speaker of Lebanon's Parliament.
But Hezbollah has gained glory here in the past 10 days in the stepped-up fighting with Israel. With Lebanon's 60,000-man army barely even defending its positions, the rockets Hezbollah has rained back on northern Israel have served as the country's only effective means of resistance, earning it bows of respect from across Lebanon's fractured political and religious spectrum.
For now, Western diplomats say that Hezbollah has enough Katyusha rockets to maintain steady attacks on northern Israel for weeks, if a lasting cease-fire is not achieved.
Its fighters, many of whom are drawn from Shiite villages in the Bekaa region, remain an able and committed force capable of inflicting still more casualties on the Israeli and allied Lebanese forces that occupy one acre in 10 of Lebanese territory.
But interviews with well-informed Lebanese found few who expected that Hezbollah's influence over events here would increase in a substantial way.
"Hezbollah is shining now because no one else is fighting Israel," said Arda Ekmekji, a member of the board of directors of the Armenian Evangelical College, a private coeducational high school in Beirut. "But when a political solution is found, Hezbollah will fade away."
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company