Hizbullah winning over Arab street

Key Arab leaders condemn the Shiite group, despite its popularity with their citizens.

With Israel's confrontation with Hizbullah and Lebanon lurching closer to all-out war, winds of anger are blowing through the Middle East that are likely to strengthen the political hand of radical Islamists from Egypt to Saudi Arabia.

Since the fighting began, at least 24 Israelis, 12 of them civilians, have been killed and at least 175 Lebanese, nearly all civilians. In recent weeks, about 200 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed in a separate showdown between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group who won power in elections earlier this year.

The confrontation – coupled with the rising civilian toll – also poses a serious threat to US interests in the region.

Islamists who are hostile to Israel and the US – and to their Arab allies who have criticized Hizbullah – are shoring up support, increasing the chances they will seize power if the elections President Bush has urged for the region take place.

Iran is making new friends, as is Syria. And if history is a guide, a new wave of outrage could bring new recruits to terrorist groups, much as Israel's occupation of parts of Lebanon in 1982 fueled the rise of Hizbullah.

Last Friday, Mr. Bush called Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia – America's closest Arab allies – and urged them to help defuse the crisis. Those calls, and the attitudes of those countries' people, served to emphasize the ways in which this crisis could hurt Israeli and American interests far beyond Lebanon and the Palestine territories.

Jordan's King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak responded with a joint statement condemning Hizbullah for "adventurism that does not serve Arab interests." Soon after, a Saudi spokesman also blamed Hizbullah "adventurism" as "exposing Arab nations ... to grave dangers without these nations having a say in the matter."

But countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia have little influence over the militant Shiite group and its backers Iran and Syria, so their statements may be of little practical value. Instead, their comments emphasize the widening gap between these regimes and their people.

"These events put pressure on Arab governments to take action, and they haven't," says Nadia Hijab, a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies in Washington. "Shouldn't they be recalling their ambassadors? That's what the people on the street would be thinking."

That gap, fed by support for Palestinians, hatred of Israel, and anger at its close alliance with America, is already being exploited by the region's Islamist movements, turning TV images of dead civilians into political opposition to their own regimes. In particular, the peace deals signed by Egypt and Jordan with Israel make these governments less popular with their people.

"The Arab leaders are traitors who work for the Americans and the Israelis.... [Hizbullah leader] Hassan Nasrallah represents Arab and Islamic dignity," says Ahmed, an Egyptian mechanic who asked that his full name not be used.

"The regime claimed that peace with Israel would create prosperity and jobs. But we have been at peace for over 20 years and have not seen any prosperity. We can't watch our Palestinian and Lebanese and Iraqi brothers be slaughtered every day and do nothing."

In Saudi, too, the regime's position isn't shared by its public. "I don't think the Saudi government's statement is in tune with how most Saudis feel about the Lebanese situation," says Bassem Alim, an activist lawyer based in Jeddah, and frequent government critic.

"The way they said it was extremely damaging to their reputation in the Islamic world."

Anger at Saudi Arabia's close relationship with the US, and by association Israel, has long generated support for Al Qaeda among many Saudis, so the government has taken a risk by speaking in a manner that jihadists view as supporting Israel.

But he and other analysts say that Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia's history of animosity with Shiite Iran, which sought to challenge the Saudi monarchy's position of leadership among world Muslims after its Islamic revolution, has left the regime more nervous about Iran's nuclear program than about flareups of terrorism that, while dramatic, have never challenged the regime.

"The Saudis are trying to make sure that the United Nations and the Security Council will be involved in the region as a way of controlling Iran,'' says Saudi political analyst Adel al-Toraifi.

The escalating confrontation between Israel and Lebanon is also helping Syria and Iran gain influence and prestige among Arab populations for their strong support of Hizbullah and Hamas.

"Iran will certainly benefit from Hizbullah strikes in some ways,'' wrote Anthony Cordesman, a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Washington. "They distract from its nuclear activities. They show the Arab and Muslim world that Iran is a government willing to strike at the Israeli enemy... [and] Israel's reprisals build Arab and Muslim anger against the US."

Meanwhile, Hizbullah, with its status as the most organized force in the region willing to oppose Israel, is likely to deepen its support among Lebanon's Shiite community and at the same time exacerbate the sectarian tension in the country that fed its 16-year civil war, which ended in 1990. In Egypt thousands have protested what they're terming "Israeli aggression."

The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's strongest and most popular opposition movement, stated its strong support for Hizbullah and Hamas and condemned Arab governments for passive support of Israel. Hamas is an informal offshoot of the Brotherhood.

"The position of the Arab regimes has ... [become] one of silence toward Israeli crimes and probable collusion of some regimes with the enemy," Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mahdi Akef said last week about the fighting in Lebanon.

In an interview with Al Jazeera on Monday, he lashed out at Arab leaders again, and then went further, comparing Israel with Nazi Germany and praising Hizbullah. "The Lebanese who kidnapped the Zionist soldiers are true nationalists led by a great man. These regimes continue to serve foreign interests completely ignoring and repressing the demands and hopes of their people," he said.

In Jordan, a protest of a few hundred citizens over Israel's strikes into Lebanon Saturday also focused on the restrictions on political organization and speech inside the country. Many Jordanians say the repressions of their own regime are tolerated by the US in exchange for Jordan's peace deal with Israel.

And as the crisis has spiraled, even Arab leaders close to the US and Israel, have warned of the potential for blowback. "Israel will not emerge as a victor in this war. It will only create more enemies," Egyptian President Mubarak said Monday. "The war will only inflame Arab animosity toward Israel (and) many anti-Israel extremist forces will surface."

On Monday, at least 17 Lebanese were killed in Israeli bombings, and the Israeli military confirmed a raid into Lebanese territory the previous day. Eight of the dead were Lebanese soldiers. Hizbullah responded with another volley of rockets at Haifa, which exploded without causing casualties.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Monday that Israel would pursue its offensive against Hizbullah until two captured soldiers were returned and Lebanese Army troops controlled all of southern Lebanon.

The fighting led to calls from British Prime Minister Tony Blair and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for the insertion of an international peacekeeping force into southern Lebanon, though that's an option that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert staunchly opposes.

Whether Syria or Iran has the ability to force Hizbullah leader Nasrallah to release two Israeli soldiers his forces kidnapped a week ago, precipitating the crisis, is unclear. Nasrallah, a fiery Shiite cleric, has vowed to release the soldiers only in exchange for three Lebanese and a much larger group of Palestinians in Israeli jails.

Rasheed Abou-Alsamh from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and wires contributed to this report.

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