Israeli strikes may boost Hizbullah base

Hizbullah support tops 80 percent among Lebanese factions.

The ferocity of Israel's onslaught in southern Lebanon and Hizbullah's stubborn battles against Israeli ground forces may be working in the militant group's favor.

"They want to shatter the myth of Israeli invincibility," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a leading Lebanese expert on Hizbullah. "Being victorious means not allowing Israel to achieve their aims, and so far that is the case."

Still, the intensity of the Israeli bombing campaign appears to have taken Hizbullah aback. Mahmoud Komati, the deputy head of Hizbullah's politburo told the Associated Press, "the truth is – let me say this clearly – we didn't even expect [this] response ... that [Israel] would exploit this operation for this big war against us."

When Hizbullah guerrillas snatched two Israeli soldiers from across the border, it appeared to be a serious miscalculation. In the days that followed the July 12 capture, Israel unleashed its biggest offensive against Lebanon since its 1982 invasion, smashing the country's infrastructure, creating 500,000 refugees, and so far killing more than 400 civilians.

Thursday, Israeli air and artillery strikes continued in southern Lebanon and the International Committee of the Red Cross said bodies were laying in the streets of some Lebanese border villages where fighting has trapped civilians. Also Thursday Al Qaeda's second in command, Ayman Zawahiri, called in a televised video for Muslims to join fighting in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon in a holy war against Israel. While al-Qaeda is a Sunni Muslim group which in general views Shiites, who make up Hizbullah's ranks, with disgust and not even as Muslims, they share a common hatred of Israel and the US.

In a televised address Tuesday, Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah's secretary general, said the Israeli onslaught was an attempt by the US and Israel to "impose a new Middle East" in which Lebanon would be under US hegemony.

"Our fate is to confront this plan ... we are waging a war for the liberation of the remaining occupied lands and the liberation of our detainees," Mr. Nasrallah said.

Ms. Saad-Ghorayeb says that Hizbullah's goals have changed, "assuming a wider strategic importance" in which the party is at the forefront of opposition to the Bush administration's agenda of transforming the Middle East into a series of pro-Western democracies.

"Hizbullah is in a unique position to confront the US agenda which if successful will be, by extension, a victory for Syria, Iran and Hamas," she says.

Hizbullah's top guerrilla fighters are mounting a stubborn campaign against the region's most powerful army in and around Bint Jbail, the largest Shiite town in the border district where support for the party runs high.

Hizbullah has had six years – ever since Israel withdrew from south Lebanon – to prepare for this climactic showdown. Instead of storing weapons and ammunition in vulnerable stockpiles, they are scattered throughout the south in natural caves, tunnels, and homes. Hizbullah officials say they have sufficient ammunition and high morale tofight for months.

Hizbullah's frontline fighters are battle-hardened veterans after fighting Israeli forces in the 1990s. They are armed with advanced Russian antitank missiles, which have proved deadly against Israel's vaunted Merkava tanks and use classic hit-and-run guerrilla tactics.

"Hizbullah is doing what it does best, harassing the enemy," says Timur Goksel, who served 24 years with the UN peacekeeping force in south Lebanon.

Indeed, Nasrallah has announced the launch of the "second phase of our struggle" in which his long-range rockets would "go beyond Haifa," Israel's third–largest city. Israeli officials have been bracing for possible rocket attacks on Tel Aviv, which would mark a major escalation in the conflict.

"If Hizbullah hits Tel Aviv, I think that Israel will totally wipe off the map Bint Jbail, Khiam, Tyre and Nabatieh," says Nizar Abdel-Kader, a columnist for Ad-Diyar newspaper and a retired Lebanese army general.

The stakes are high for Hizbullah, but it seems it can count on an unprecedented swell of public support that cuts across sectarian lines.According to a poll released by the Beirut Center for Research and Information, 87 percent of Lebanese support Hizbullah's fight with Israel, a rise of 29 percent on a similar poll conducted in February. More striking, however, is the level of support for Hizbullah's resistance from non-Shiite communities. Eighty percent of Christians polled supported Hizbullah along with 80 percent of Druze and 89 percent of Sunnis.

Lebanese no longer blame Hizbullah for sparking the war by kidnapping the Israeli soldiers, but Israel and the US instead.

The latest poll by the Beirut Center found that 8 percent of Lebanese feel the US supports Lebanon, down from 38 percent in January.

"This support for Hizbullah is by default. It's due to US and Israeli actions," says Saad-Ghorayeb, whose father, Abdo, conducted the poll.

The most favorable outcome for Hizbullah, analysts say, is to keep harassing Israel until there is a cease-fire agreement that essentially leaves Hizbullah intact. If Israel establishes an occupation zone along the border to police the area, Hizbullah will likely continue fighting, unhindered by a weakened Lebanese government and backed by a radicalized Shiite community. That growing radicalization is palpable in this laid-back coastal town where support for Hizbullah traditionally has been arbitrary.

Ghassan Farran, a doctor and head of a local cultural organization, gazes in disbelief at the pile of smoking ruins which was once his home. Minutes earlier, an Israeli jet dropped two guided missiles into the six-story apartment block in the centre of Tyre.

"Look what America gives us, bombs and missiles," says this educated, middle–class professional. "I was never a political person and never with Hizbullah but now after this I am with Hizbullah."

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