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The sheikh behind Hizbullah

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has made Hizbullah a potent military and political force.

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Adding to his guerrilla credentials, Nasrallah is reported to have been wounded during fighting against Israeli troops in the 1980s. But it was the 1997 death of his own son, Hadi, while fighting in southern Lebanon, that did most. "That was the first event that catapulted Nasrallah's personality into the hearts and minds of so many Lebanese, including Christians and Sunnis, many of whom cried when he refused to negotiate with the Israelis to get his son's body back," says Mr. Noe, speaking from Kuwait City. "That brought half the country to tears."

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But more tears have come, in the wake of Hizbullah's cross-border raid on July 12, which netted two Israeli soldiers. The aim was to trade them for three Lebanese prisoners – a decades-long practice in the Mideast, which Israel and Hizbullah had conducted as recently as 2004 – but it came just two weeks after Hamas militants abducted an Israeli soldier.

Hizbullah officials have admitted surprise at the ferocity of the Israeli response.

"Anytime [Hizbullah] launched an operation, they always had a checklist: What does it mean for Hizbullah? For Shiites? For Lebanon? For Syria and Iran?" asks Timur Goksel, a 24-year veteran adviser of UN forces in south Lebanon.

"Based on that criterion, as a result people were uprooted, houses were damaged, people got killed, and people [now] live in miserable conditions," says Mr. Goksel, who teaches at the American University of Beirut. "Hizbullah actually hurt the interests of its own people, which is very unusual."

"Hassan Nasrallah is not a good strategist, but he is a man of wisdom: He knows what's right or what's wrong," says Nizar Abdel-Kader, a retired Lebanese general and military columnist.

"[But] don't judge the man based on this strategic mistake," says General Abdel-Kader. "Because he did not foresee that the Israelis were waiting for him ... to free their war machine against Lebanon."

"Where they went wrong, they did not think of the humiliation element," adds Goksel, noting that Israeli commanders have sought to "set the record straight" after their 2000 pullout from Lebanon was branded a defeat.

"This perception of Israeli invincibility was a key asset, and they wanted to get it back," he says. "The misjudgment was not only on the Hizbullah side, but a bad one on the Israeli side, too. They did not realize that Hizbullah is not afraid of them."

Battling Israel for 18 years in southern Lebanon, under Nasrallah's guidance, taught Hizbullah that "these are people who can be hurt, people who make mistakes, and can be blown up and forced to retreat," says Goksel. "I've seen four [Israel wars in Lebanon], and I've never seen the Israeli army move so slow, so shy."

One reason is improved tactics and a thorough commitment to security that starts at the top.

"Even Nasrallah's life and daily activities are under the microscope of Hizbullah's security," says Hamzeh of AUK. "Nasrallah's daily life is scripted all the way from delivering his speech to going to bed. He is protected by people who can't be penetrated."

All Nasrallah's experience underlines his certitude and calm, despite the violence engulfing Lebanon and northern Israel.

The same care is applied to evolving tactics, even in peacetime, in preparation for possible war.

"Even the fight on the border is not a classical guerrilla [action], but modified in a certain way that fits the terrain, and depends on the mood of the conflict," says Hamzeh. "So there is always a triangle, with three to five people. You may get to [the southern village of] Bint Jbail, only to find two other angles coming at you; then they regroup and reform."

Nasrallah's "measured tone since the beginning of this conflict has really struck me, because it does reflect in the field," says Noe, who is editing a book of key Nasrallah speeches. "They are a very calculating group; they're not crazy. They're not going to use their whole arsenal, [but] ramp things up in a very specific, proportional response.

"Ultimately, this is why Hizbullah is considered a very politically savvy and responsible actor" by many in Lebanese politics, says Noe.

Goksel notes that one of Nasrallah's achievements has been to give Hizbullah a "monolithic appearance," when in fact there are serious political and religious rifts rarely aired in public.

"What if the Israelis kill Nasrallah?" asks Goksel. "[They] would start looking for a new one.... Hizbullah will probably go to four or five different pieces, but everybody will keep their guns with them.

"Now, there is definitely a sense of control over the firing of those guns," says Goksel. "But look at that force that is fighting: Do you want [it] to be without a leader?"