War Solidifies Support for Hezbollah in Lebanon

Hezbollah is considered a terrorist organization by the United States, Britain and Israel. But efforts to undermine the Shiite militia have been blunted by Hezbollah's strong support within Lebanon, especially since this summer's 34-day war with Israel.

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Now, Iran also provides support to the Shiite militia in Lebanon, and that's one of many reasons the U.S., Israel, and others consider Hezbollah a threat. But efforts to undermine the group have been blunted by Hezbollah's strong local support within Lebanon.

That support is especially strong after this summer's war with Israel. And the support extends well beyond the southern areas that saw much of the fighting. NPR's Peter Kenyon visited one pro-Hezbollah village in the north of Lebanon.

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PETER KENYON: Hermel, a village on the Assi River in northeastern Lebanon, is known simply as a Hezbollah village. The municipality is dominated by Hezbollah supporters, and evidence of Hezbollah money is everywhere.

Here, the river tumbles past a Hezbollah-funded fish farm, which used to provide fresh trout to the cafes and restaurants that line the river. A local man says it was bombed by the Israelis, but there's no sign of an air strike. The facility may have been abandoned for lack of business.

Hezbollah is revered among Lebanon's Shiite population, and since the war has strong approval ratings among Lebanon's Sunni and Christian communities as well. Before the war, many Lebanese grumbled about Hezbollah's state within a state. But now, many Lebanese unhappy with the government's response to the war are applauding Hezbollah's efforts at reconstruction.

High up a steep slope near the top of the village, municipal leader Jamal Hezhal(ph) sits with family members and discusses Hezbollah's tricky relationship with the Lebanese state and its citizenry. He believes the heavy damage inflicted by Israeli warplanes on civilian industries and infrastructure was partly due to frustration at their inability to target Hezbollah fighters.

Mr. JAMAL HEZHAL (Municipal Leader, Hermel, Lebanon): (Through translator) And because of the way that Hezbollah works, as a resistance it works on a gang warfare and not a traditional warfare, as you know. With Israel being seen as the greatest army in the region, it would be very difficult for it not to have any victories. So in order to have victories, it had to hit targets.

KENYON: More than 1,000 Lebanese were killed in the war - according to the Lebanese government - most of them civilians. The war also claimed the lives of more than 150 Israelis, most of them in the military. Israel accused Hezbollah fighters of hiding among civilians to launch its rockets into northern Israel. Hezhal rejects the implication that Hezbollah recklessly endangered noncombatants, but he readily agrees that the fighters are mixed in with the civilian population.

Mr. HEZHAL: (Through translator) It's the shopkeeper and the mechanic and the schoolboy. These are people who have normal lives, and when there is an invasion, when there is an attack, they come together and they fight against the aggressor.

KENYON: Although he's a proud Hezbollah supporter, Hezhal also holds views that might surprise those who think of the organization as purely focused on anti-Israeli terror. He says if the world was to disarm Hezbollah and change it into a purely political organization, there's a way to do it by resolving the land dispute over the Shebaa Farms - still occupied by Israel - and by dealing with Lebanese detainees in Israeli prisons. Then, he says, there would be no need for Hezbollah militiamen.

He also echoes Prime Minister Fouad Siniora in saying that those who want to end Hezbollah's state within a state should focus on strengthening the Lebanese government.

Mr. HEZHAL: (Through translator) If Israel felt that Lebanon was a strong and a sovereign country, and a country to be reckoned with, then we could talk about the issues that we need to do. But however, Israel believes that Lebanon is a weak country, and this is why it does what it does.

KENYON: Western and Israeli analysts tend to treat such comments skeptically. They point out that Hezbollah policy isn't made at the village level, but by a Hezbollah leadership with longstanding ties to Iran, which has an agenda quite different from simply settling the Shebaa Farms issue.

But the view from the village of Hermel suggests that support for Hezbollah, even among Shiites, is tied to specific Lebanese issues that are difficult but not impossible to address.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Beirut.

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