Many Lebanese fear next conflict will be with Hezbollah
By Hannah Allam and Leila Fadel
BEIRUT, Lebanon - Glossy new billboards touting Hezbollah's "divine victory" over Israel line Beirut's highways. The capital's famed nightspots are full again with scantily clad students drinking to make up for a month lost to war. Leaders of the country's political dynasties appear nightly on live television, urging their weary constituents to rebuild, forgive and move on.
But this rosy image of resilience, a week after a U.N.-brokered cease-fire brought a halt to Israeli airstrikes, masks a growing realization among Lebanese that the next battle Lebanon faces probably will be among its own.
From beautifully appointed salons in Beirut to the scorched villages of the south, there is blame, aimed at Hezbollah and its Iranian and Syrian patrons as well as Israel and its American backers. There's also concern among Lebanon's disparate ethnic and sectarian groups about Hezbollah's newfound power after the 34-day conflict.
"What's happened in the last month and a half has polarized Lebanon even more and caused people to speak out a little more radically," said Rami Khouri, a political analyst and columnist for the Daily Star, Lebanon's main English-language newspaper. "The war we just had heightened the concerns of people. None of these are new concerns."
Even before Hezbollah provoked the latest conflict by capturing two Israeli soldiers July 12 in a deadly operation, Lebanon had been mired in a thorny national dialogue over putting to rest resentments from its 15-year civil war and divvying up power in the vacuum left last year by Syria's withdrawal. There was excitement over the pro-democracy movement known as the Cedar Revolution and talk of national reconciliation, but both were fizzling long before Hezbollah's raid. Israel's broad attacks finished them off.
In Lebanon's latest war-ravaged landscape, age-old tensions that were never properly addressed are more raw and public than ever. Many Christians grumble aloud that Israel should have "finished the job." Sunni Muslims are caught between satisfaction at seeing Israel taken down a notch and the terror of being sidelined by Hezbollah, an Iranian-bankrolled Shiite Muslim force. Shiites, who form the backbone of Hezbollah's support base, were the conflict's biggest victims, losing relatives, homes and jobs.
Many Lebanese from all backgrounds fear that Hezbollah, now the most powerful political and military force in the country, will inch back to its early goal of establishing Islamic rule over Lebanon.
Misbah Ahdab, a Sunni legislator from the ruling parliamentary bloc, said Hezbollah was creating "a parallel system" instead of making overtures to back the central government. Fear of angering Hezbollah is keeping many politicians silent, he said, even though they fret privately over the future of a country led by a militant Islamist group.
"It's totally ridiculous to begin rebuilding again when it's going to be destroyed in two years," he said. "And people are talking about unity."
Already, the militant Shiites of Hezbollah effectively rule the country: They alone have the power to keep the Lebanese end of the cease-fire, endless piles of dollars for reconstruction and the vast support of regional Arabs, who were so thrilled to see Israel bloodied that they overlooked non-Arab Iran's financing of their triumph.
In Lebanon, many non-Shiites are watching to see how Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah deals with the new power he's been handed. Nasrallah, keenly aware of the concerns over his stature, quickly set about portraying his militia's battlefield success as a point of national pride that transcends Lebanon's strictly drawn ethnic and sectarian lines, but not everyone is persuaded.
"I can understand that people, the fanatics, support Nasrallah," Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said in an interview. "OK, he's saying he did well, and he did well. But will he offer this victory to a Lebanese state or will he offer this victory to himself? I want the state."
The Lebanese state, however, is plagued by infighting and a weak military that one government official privately described as "a bunch of Boy Scouts." Nasrallah, whose televised addresses became more presidential as the fighting raged on, overshadows the embattled Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, best remembered during the conflict for crying on camera during a speech to Arab foreign ministers.
Since the introduction of a fragile truce, Saniora and his allies in the Western-backed ruling bloc known as the March 14 Forces have struggled to reclaim power. The Lebanese military was deployed in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah's heartland, but most acknowledge that its presence is cosmetic. The army is outgunned by Hezbollah militants and doesn't have the authority to search for the militia's weapons.
There's also growing concern that Hezbollah's gloating - on multilingual billboards, in official statements and on Arabic-language satellite TV - not only will invite Israeli retaliation but also will aggravate Lebanon's internal strife. Lebanese don't want another round of Israeli airstrikes and most don't seem to have the stomach for another civil war, though both possibilities can't be discarded as Lebanon faces an uncertain future.
"Hezbollah is claiming victory at halftime," said Hilal Khashan, an expert on Hezbollah who teaches at the American University of Beirut. "The war is not over yet."