Hezbollah is still there

Once the ceasefire took hold in southern Lebanon, Western reporters entered the town of Khiam, perched on a hilltop less than a mile from the Israeli frontier. As Hezbollah fighters emerged from the rubble, one succinctly summed up the situation: “We’re still here.”

After a month of fighting and hundreds of casualties on both sides, those words reflect an enduring truth about life along the border. Hezbollah might be diminished by the ferocious Israeli assault but they have not been destroyed. Their fighters are still entrenched, village by village, house by house. One guerilla casually showed journalists what he had stashed in his car trunk: five AK-47 assault rifles.

President Bush refuses to recognize this reality. He claims that Hezbollah “suffered a defeat in this crisis” because the United Nations passed a resolution creating a “new power in the south of Lebanon.” That combination of homegrown Lebanese troops and a “robust international force” is supposed to move into the border region and eliminate the “root cause of the problem,” the guerillas’ unchecked military power.

We fervently hope he’s correct. Hezbollah is indeed an evil element that cynically uses civilians as shields in Lebanon and targets in Israel. But it’s hard to take the president seriously. The scene in Khiam tells a very different story. The “root cause of the problem” is not going anywhere.

In fact, the president’s over-heated rhetoric about Lebanon – see his repeated references to the “advance of liberty” – sounds disturbingly like the misstatements and miscalculations he’s made for years about Iraq. This is the man, after all, who declared “mission accomplished” thousands of bodies ago in a country that even his own generals now fear is headed for civil war.

How can he have any credibility left when he boasts about a “new power” in Lebanon? Why should anyone believe his Secretary of State when she proclaims the “birth pangs” of a “new Middle East”?

Hezbollah has many enemies, and for good reason. Arab capitals from Cairo to Riyadh fear their fanatical brand of Islam, their refusal to disarm, their links to devious leaders in Iran and Syria. Many ordinary Lebanese – in private, anyway – surely resent Hezbollah’s reckless seizure of two Israeli soldiers and the widespread devastation that ensued.

But those voices of doubt have fallen silent. Hezbollah’s surprisingly tenacious resistance to Israeli military power has turned the guerillas into heroes. This mood was captured by Anthony Shadid, a correspondent for the Washington Post, who speaks Arabic: “There was a word repeated time and again ... in Khiam, by both fighters and the residents who chose to stay through the war. It was karama, or dignity.”

In the past, that word has been badly abused by feckless Arab leaders. “But in Khiam,” Shadid reported, “it was uttered so often, so fervently, that it felt different. ‘This is our land,’ said Bilal Ali Saleh, a 42-year-old beekeeper. ‘Can we leave our land? Would you leave your land?’”

The power of karama could be heard as well in the comments of Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah. While he accepted the United Nations’ call for a ceasefire, he rejected all suggestions for disarming his fighters as “immoral, incorrect and inappropriate.” They were needed, he insisted, to protect villages like Khiam and people like Bilal Ali Saleh from another Israeli offensive.

Israeli and American leaders shared a hope: that Lebanese citizens would blame the damage caused by the fighting on Hezbollah (which certainly deserves the blame) and turn against the guerillas. But the reverse happened. In an ironic twist, the destruction provides Hezbollah with an opportunity to win new friends by helping to rebuild the ruins.

So what should happen now? First all, President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice need to avoid unrealistic and unreachable claims. A “new Middle East” is not being born. This is the same old Middle East, with the same grudges, the same memories, the same history.

But the deployment of a Lebanese force, backed by well-equipped U.N. troops with a clear mandate to do more than just patrol the border, is a hopeful sign. If Hezbollah is blocked from launching more rockets or raids into Israel, that would be progress.

Meanwhile, diplomats need to work hard on the outstanding issues that continue to roil relations between the two sides: from prisoners of war to Shebaa Farms, a small slice of disputed land claimed by both Lebanon and Syria.

An uneasy peace is possible. Normal life can resume on both sides of the border. But the dream of destroying Hezbollah is dead. They’re still there.

Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at stevecokie@gmail.com.

Copyright 2006, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.

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