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

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.

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."

Fuad Taha, the US-educated director of the Saleh Ghandour hospital, says Hizbullah took over the hospital when the Lebanese government showed no interest in it. With funds from Iran, Hizbullah's main backer, and donations, the group spent some $1.5 million to upgrade facilities. The 42-bed hospital treats an average 250 people per day regardless of faith, charging about 25 percent of standard Lebanese fees.

Dr. Taha cheerfully admits that last year the hospital lost about $27,000 a month, but insists that making money is not the point. "It is the duty of every Muslim to step in and help," he says. "We are very honest in what we are doing. We are not here to make a profit."

Critics may dismiss Hizbullah's social efforts as nothing more than an operation to win backing of the Shiite population for the organization's militant activities against Israel. But Professor Harik says it is much more than that.

"According to Islam, there is more than one way to participate in jihad [holy struggle]," she says. "The collection and disbursement of financial donations [to social services] is extremely important to the overall image of Hizbullah as a believable and credible Islamic group."

Hizbullah's presence in south Lebanon is palpable - from the yellow party flags snapping in the warm breeze and the billboards glorifying suicide operations against Israeli occupation troops to the handfuls of plainclothes Hizbullah fighters monitoring the border fence from small posts.

Hizbullah has been stockpiling weapons and ammunition in south Lebanon since the Israeli troop withdrawal and threatens to use them should Israel attack. The party has provided support - both material and moral - for Palestinian militants. But its overt military activities have been limited to periodic mortar bombardments of the Shebaa Farms, a remote mountainside occupied by Israeli troops running along Lebanon's southeast border.

Israel has warned it cannot tolerate Hizbullah's military presence along the frontier indefinitely and the US has repeatedly demanded the group's withdrawal from the area and the full deployment of Lebanese troops to the border. Some 1,000 Lebanese soldiers and military intelligence agents provide security in the southern frontier district, but they are not deployed along the border fence.

Yet according to Mr. Goksel, the UN official, Hizbullah's pervasive presence in south Lebanon and its coordination with the Lebanese military has deterred cross- border attacks into Israel by rogue Palestinians and Islamist militants fired up by the intifada and the war in Iraq.

"Today's calm in south Lebanon is due to the Lebanese Army, Lebanese intelligence and Hizbullah," Goksel says. "Hizbullah's local intelligence-gathering has no match. Their input [to maintaining calm] cannot be ignored at all."

Goksel, who retires this month, says that the US "misunderstands the Hizbullah reality." "Hizbullah is very much a local force in south Lebanon. They are dedicated and motivated ... but also realists who are not going to jeopardize their own people here by starting a war with Israel," he says. "Why do people keep wanting to impose a reality [on Lebanon]? There's already a reality here, and it needs to be listened to."

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