BEIRUT, LEBANON — The turbaned Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Hizbullah, is known in the halls of the US State Department as a "Specially Designated Terrorist." Officials say he is a threat to any Arab-Israeli peace, and cite his alleged links to grabbing American hostages in the 1980s; and bombings, like the one in 1983 of the US Marine barracks in Lebanon that left 241 dead. Mr. Nasrallah consistently denies any role in those events.
But in an exclusive interview inside tightly secured offices in the southern suburbs of Beirut, the Muslim cleric is far more concerned with Hizbullah's place in history and its "victory" here.
"This victory is extremely significant, since from the beginning, Israel gave the impression that it can't be conquered and ... [that Arabs should] not even contemplate fighting," says Nasrallah, who despite his fiery rhetoric in public, is softspoken in person. "And now in south Lebanon, Israel has no choice but to withdraw. The great Israeli Army is weaker than people thought."
Israel has vowed to withdraw its 1,500 troops from Lebanon by July - regardless of any peace agreement with Syria. Though, any official indication from Hizbullah that it would not pursue its fight across the border into Israel might help jumpstart peace talks.
But Hizbullah refuses to say whether it will give up its long-term vow to "liberate" Jerusalem. Nasrallah prefers a policy of ambiguity, thereby reserving the right to derail any accord.
"Keeping this issue unknown - which means there is a possibility for [cross border attacks] to happen, or ... not - is strong for both Lebanon and Syria.
"In the end, this is an extremely important card to play, and the Israelis know that."
Deemed to be more moderate and pragmatic than previous Hizbullah chiefs, Nasrallah is credited with reorganizing the movement when he took control in 1992, after his predecessor, Sheikh Abbas Mussawi and his family were assassinated in an Israeli helicopter gunship attack.
More than a few Israeli analysts say that Hizbullah has turned Israel's 22-year presence in Lebanon into a humiliating defeat not unlike America's in Vietnam.
Hizbullah is as secretive as it is effective on the battlefield. And its core, anti-Israel beliefs haven't changed, Nasrallah says. His young-looking face is framed by square-rimmed glasses, and his full beard is jet black, though a few gray hairs emerge from under the rolls of a black turban, which denotes his kinship with the Prophet Muhammad.
Another point was proved, too, in his view: "Everybody knows that without the sacrifices of the resistance, there is no way to achieve this result. Negotiations alone would not make Israel withdraw."
"The reason behind our strength these past years, is that we do more than we speak," says Nasrallah.
The folly of replacing armed struggle with negotiations - one of the risks of the Syria-Israel track, he says - is already evident in the compromises made at the peace table by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
"They are giving so little to Arafat and humiliating him," the cleric says. "In the best of cases, there will be a tiny, fragmented state, with all borders dominated by Israel, with no returning refugees, no Jerusalem [as a capital], no army - even the Palestinian police will be members of Israeli security."
The result, Nasrallah says, will be a backlash. "Now they will know that negotiations are not the right way.... I believe that future resistance in Palestine will be even more violent and more strong."
Nasrallah - after the October 1999 Wye Plantation Accord - called on Palestinians to take "a knife, a hand grenade, a gun ... or a small bomb ... to kill the Israelis and the Accord."
Will Hizbullah support such a resistance? "This has to do with the future," he says, with an enigmatic smile. "We will study this."
But the Hizbullah chief shrugs off the American view that making such calls amount to terrorism. "The accusation of terrorism is illegal," he says. "International law and all religions allow anyone subject to occupation to ... fight their occupation forces.
"In 1982, the Israeli army invaded and occupied a huge part of our land, killed thousands and destroyed buildings and the economy," Nasrallah adds. "The US never said that what the Israelis did was terrorism. But we who carry arms to get rid of the occupation are considered terrorists."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society