US-Style Culture Erodes Lebanon's 'Party of God'

Support wanes for anti-Israel Hizbullah

A POSTER of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini looks out over traffic in Beirut's mostly Shiite Muslim southern suburbs. Half-forgotten among the palm trees and billboards, his grim features recall a day when Islamic revolution and the Hizbullah movement ruled this city.

Today, most Lebanese worry about inflation and rebuilding, not revolution.

"People work three jobs just to feed their families," says Ahmed Abboud, a shopkeeper who lives in the suburb of Ouzai. "No one has time to worry about Islamic revolution."

While the West frets about the Islamic extremism, Hizbullah looks more and more like a small but vocal minority within Lebanese society, despite its continuing military activities in southern Lebanon. (In the past three weeks, Hizbullah guerrillas have killed six Israeli soldiers and wounded more than 20 in the nine-mile wide Israeli "security zone" inside Lebanon.)

Hizbullah, backed by both Iran and Syria, draws its remaining public support from the poor among Lebanon's 1.3 million Shiite Muslims and from those hurt by Israel's occupation of the south.

Repeated threats by Hizbullah to step up suicide attacks against Israel are also seen by observers as part of a strategy to increase the group's nuisance value.

"Syria wants to reach a peace settlement with Israel, but not on any conditions," says the editor of one major Beirut newspaper who asked not to be named. "Hizbullah is one of the few ways Syria has left to put pressure on Israel, and Damascus is encouraging its activities for the time being."

Ibrahim Moussawi, a spokesman for Hizbullah, insists that his group is stronger than ever: "The end of civil war [in 1990] has caused all Lebanese to unite around Hizbullah in its struggle. Everyone wants to end the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon."

But much of this support is only surface deep and stems from the government's inability to improve living conditions, says Zouheir Obeid, a journalist with Radio Lebanon. "Most Shiites who support Hizbullah were once communists or socialists. Now, they believe Hizbullah best serves the interests of the little people. But that will not last if [Shiites begin to] earn a good living."

After Lebanon's civil war ended in 1990, Hizbullah formed a political party to go along with its military wing. Opinion polls indicate that only 1 out of every 5 Shiites in Lebanon supports the party. Hizbullah has just nine seats in the 128-member parliament.

"Hizbullah is no longer the revolutionary movement it once was," says Nizar Hamzeh, chairman of the political science department at the American University of Beirut. "The group only has a hard core of several thousand supporters."

"Today," he says, "Hizbullah has turned itself into a giant corporation, performing social services for a sector of society largely ignored by the government." In most Shiite Muslim neighborhoods, Hizbullah maintains a high profile. It builds low-cost housing, runs health clinics, and pays to educate children. It even provides free electricity and drinking water to many not served by the government.

But despite its social role, Hizbullah no longer sets the rules in neighborhoods it once controlled. "People are no longer afraid to drink or play cards in public," says Shiite journalist Nagy Hamdan of Lebanon's National News Agency. "Such un-Islamic behavior was unthinkable just a few years ago."

Today, much of Lebanon is a haven for American culture, which provides a strong contrast between Hizbullah's Islamic ideology and everyday life. Streets are full of late-model American cars, shops have American products, and English-language classes are oversubscribed.

Large crowds no longer seem to turn out for Hizbullah rallies. Fewer than 3,000 people showed up for a recent protest near Beirut.

Hizbullah, which means "Party of God" in Arabic, was founded in 1982 by Iran's then-Ambassador to Syria, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Mohtashemi. That year, Israel invaded Lebanon to halt Palestinian guerrilla attacks, and Iran sent 1,500 "revolutionary guards" to train Hizbullah in guerrilla tactics. "Now," says Professor Hamzeh, "Iran appears to have cut back by about 90 percent on its support."

Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati told the French Press Agency in March that his country had withdrawn all of its revolutionary guards from Lebanon. One Western diplomat, who requested anonymity, agreed that most are probably gone. "You certainly don't see any Iranians floating around [the Hizbullah stronghold of] Baalbek anymore," he says. "But ... Hizbullah people are already well-enough trained not to need them anymore."

But it appears that Iran has not stopped sending arms to Hizbullah. Beirut's al-Nahar newspaper reported in February that an arms shipment destined for Hizbullah was seized by Turkey while en route to Lebanon.

Whatever its political strength, Hizbullah appears to thrive militarily. The "Islamic resistance," as it calls itself, fights a guerrilla war to drive Israeli troops out of the border zone. The dogged courage of Hizbullah's fighters has brought consternation in Israel and a begrudging admiration by many Lebanese.

A good deal of support for Hizbullah appears to come from Syria, which has 35,000 troops in Lebanon. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad regularly defends Hizbullah activities, telling visitors, according to the Beirut daily al-Saffir, that "every people has the right to resist occupation."

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, its youthful leader, directs the campaign against Israel with an air of self-confidence.

"We do not take orders from Syria or Iran," he recently told Lebanese television. "Our strength comes from the many young men prepared to be [Islamic] martyrs."

Hizbullah draws recruits from the poor villages of southern Lebanon caught in the fight against Israel's occupation. Most of its small band of fighters are willing to die for their cause.

HIZBULLAH first came to the attention of the West in 1983, when suicide bombers from the group blew up 261 United States Marines and 74 French paratroopers in Beirut.

Although Hizbullah appears to have lost its fervor, not everyone is convinced that it will eventually wither. Some, like Joseph Bahout, a researcher for the French Center for Middle East Studies, say Hizbullah may be biding its time before reasserting itself.

"Many in Hizbullah think that the increasing population of Shiites will strengthen their community in the long run," he told the Monitor. "It remains to be seen if Hizbullah can build on that."

Israel remains a catalyst for resentment that is not about to disappear soon.

The most hard-line factions within Hizbullah say they are prepared to continue fighting the Jewish state until it is dismantled or destroyed.

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