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Lebanon's 'A-Team of terrorists' valued for social services

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / May 19, 2003


Lebanon's Hizbullah organization may be ranked high on the US list of terrorist organizations, but analysts and diplomats here believe that Washington is seriously misguided in delivering sweeping demands for the elimination of the group.

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They say such calls ignore the realities in Lebanon, where Hizbullah is regarded as a resistance group and praised for the important social role it plays in bringing low-cost healthcare and education to the poorer areas of the country. Even Hizbullah's battle-hardened fighters deployed in south Lebanon have been cited as a source of stability rather than a threat to peace along the traditionally volatile frontier with Israel. Furthermore, Hizbullah's enormous appeal to Shiite Muslims makes it politically impossible for the Lebanese and Syrian governments to forcefully dismantle the organization without risking a civil war, they say.

"My experience has shown it's a big mistake to ignore local realities," says Timur Goksel, senior adviser to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, who has served in south Lebanon since 1979. "Pushing Lebanon too hard to make a radical move might have very negative results for this country. If it is not done without care for the country's internal checks and balances, we might all live to regret it."

Hizbullah has long been associated with terrorism, including suicide bombings against Western targets and kidnappings in war-torn Lebanon during the 1980s. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has described Hizbullah as the "A-Team of terrorists," deadlier than the Al-Qaeda network of Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden.

Yet such accusations win little sympathy here. Take Bassem Sidawi. As a Christian doctor once paid by Israel, Dr. Sidawi would appear an unlikely supporter of Hizbullah.

"It makes me very angry when I see Hizbullah being described as a terrorist organization," he says. "It's a manipulation of what is happening here. Hizbullah is not a terrorist group."

Sidawi is an employee at a Hizbullah-run hospital in this dusty hill town two miles north of the Lebanese border with Israel. His former employer was the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army militia, which controlled the hospital during Israel's 22-year occupation. Hizbullah took over the hospital after the withdrawal of Israeli forces three years ago, renaming it in honor of Saleh Ghandour, a 26-year-old Lebanese who drove an explosives-laden car into a squad of Israeli soldiers in May 1995, killing nine.

The hospital is part of Hizbullah's vast network of social services, which include schools, clinics, centers for higher education, orphanages, research institutes, and centers for the handicapped. A construction wing called Jihad al-Bina won wide respect during Hizbullah's resistance war against the Israeli occupation, swiftly repairing war-damaged infrastructure and private homes in south Lebanon. The group has 11 representatives in the 128-strong parliament where it champions the cause of the dispossessed members of Lebanese society.

"Hizbullah is the only Lebanese party of the Western type," says Judith Harik, a political scientist at the American University of Beirut and author of an upcoming book on the party. "At election time, it can stand on a record of concrete achievements."