Hizbullah's star wanes in one Lebanese town

Before last summer's devastating war between Israel and the militant Hizbullah organization it would have been difficult to find anyone in this Sunni Muslim village who did not support the group's Shiite guerrilla fighters.

But a successful six-year effort by Hizbullah to win the hearts and minds of the residents here is now falling victim to mounting tensions in Lebanon between the two main branches of Islam.

"Before [the war] we were with the resistance completely, but after recent events we don't support them anymore. Now we are 99 percent with the Future movement," says resident Jamal Nabaa, referring to the leading Sunni political body.

The shift in loyalties in Shebaa illustrates the political risks to Hizbullah's reputation as a champion of anti-Israel resistance as it spearheads a campaign by the Lebanese opposition to topple the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. The political struggle has soured sectarian relations between the country's Shiites and Sunnis.

"Hizbullah is seen by Sunnis as leading a campaign against the Sunni prime minister and the Sunni community, therefore it's no surprise that the Sunnis of Shebaa and other villages in the south have begun waking up and dropping their support for Hizbullah," says Timur Goksel, university lecturer and former United Nations officer in south Lebanon.

Shebaa clings to the sides of a steep rocky valley in a remote corner of southeastern Lebanon, known as the Arqoub. Towering above the village to the east are the snowcapped peaks of Mount Hermon, which mark the northernmost limit of the Shebaa Farms, a 12-square-mile mountainside captured by Israel in 1967. Lebanon claims the territory as its own although the UN has judged it belongs to Syria. It is subject to peace talks between Israel and Syria.

In October 2000, Hizbullah's guerrillas launched a sporadic campaign of attacks with rockets, mortars, and roadside bombs against Israeli troops occupying the Shebaa Farms. Inevitably, several residents of frontline villages were killed and wounded and homes damaged by Israeli retaliatory bombardments.

Because the frontline villages of the area are Sunni, Hizbullah invested money and political effort to assure local support for its military operations. Ambulances were donated, and in the winter months Hizbullah men would use bulldozers to keep the winding mountain roads clear of snow. The party also involved itself in municipal politics, helping allies get elected to the local council.

The local people willingly backed Hizbullah's attempt to liberate the farms, believing that Hizbullah's mortars and rockets stood a better chance of regaining their former farmland than negotiations.

But that staunch support for Hizbullah tailed off following the end of the month-long war last summer as tensions between Lebanese Sunnis and Shiites worsened. Hizbullah accuses Mr. Siniora and his Western-backed allies of tacitly supporting Israel's bid to crush its military wing during the conflict and has launched a campaign of street protests and strikes to bring down the government.

The political confrontation last week degenerated into the worst sectarian violence since the end of the 1975-90 civil war. At least four people were killed and dozens wounded when an argument between Shiite and Sunni university students spread into Muslim neighborhoods of Beirut.

A recent battle in Shebaa over political posters symbolizes Hizbullah's waning popularity here. Eight months before the war, Hizbullah supporters erected a large poster of the group's leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah Nasrallah on the side of a valley facing the village. After the war, local residents tore it down and put up one of Rafik and Saad Hariri. Hizbullah returned and put up another picture of Nasrallah three times the size of the original.

"People thought it was provocative, so we tore it down 15 days ago and Hizbullah hasn't come back," says Bassem Hamdan, a medical doctor and the coordinator of the Future movement in the Arqoub.

The Future movement has capitalized on Hizbullah's declining fortunes by pumping cash into the historically neglected Sunni villages of the Arqoub. Residents have received food parcels and heating oil and the Hariri Foundation charity has awarded university grants to students. A new clinic, run by Dr. Hamdan, was opened last month offering free or discounted medical aid. A huge poster of Rafik Hariri covers one wall of the building.

"We had a small presence before the war, but after the war the main input of social assistance here has been from the Future movement," Hamdan says.

Hizbullah's few remaining allies in Shebaa attempt to put a brave face on the political turnaround.

"This is politics. We are fighting for Shebaa," says Qassem Hashem, a local parliamentarian and member of the Pan-Arab Baath Party. "The Future movement is playing on sectarian tensions and giving people money. We don't use these means. We use the strong trend of Arab nationalist ideology."

But Arab nationalism alone is unlikely to reverse falling support for Hizbullah in a village that has long been neglected by the state.

"Only the Future movement is helping us," says local resident Bassem Ghadir. "It's all a question of money and livelihoods. We don't deal with sects and politics, we just want to survive."

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