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(photo credit: AP [file])
In May 2000, things looked decidedly different for Hizbullah. Already dogged for retaining its militia despite the fact that Israel had just withdrawn from southern Lebanon, Hizbullah struggled to justify to the Lebanese people its continued menacing presence. And the movement's prominent pro-Syria stance attracted a great deal of pressure - and the public's loathing - in the aftermath of the UN's December 2005 report that blamed senior Syrian officials for the February 2005 assassination of popular former prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Then in July, while the IDF was busy hunting down Kassam rocket teams in the Gaza Strip, Nasrallah tested Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz - both new to their positions, both dovish and both relatively unschooled in the art of war - by executing a long-planned raid on Israel's northern border. The Israeli leaders responded with a furious aerial bombardment that caused billions of dollars' worth of damage to Lebanon.
"Nasrallah gambled that the kidnapping of the soldiers would end with a small skirmish, which he would win. But he gambled wrong," according to Marzuk. "Arabs said, 'What is this madness that has gripped him?'"
To be sure, Hizbullah initially absorbed sharp criticism from across the Arab world for what many decried as a capricious and ill-considered escapade. Even inside Lebanon, though, Shi'ites broke taboos by laying the blame for the country's suffering at Nasrallah's feet.
As Lebanon struggled under the weight of this summer's fighting, Lebanese University psychology professor Mona Fayad dared to defy Nasrallah and his network of Iranian-funded supporters. In an unusually scathing public attack, Fayad penned a lengthy essay that has been widely circulated in which she castigated Hizbullah for having imposed its agenda on the entire country and stamping out dissent, condemning hundreds of thousands to poverty.
"To be a Shi'ite now," Fayad noted sourly, "is to block your mind" and let Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei "command you, drive you, decide for you what he wants from the weapons of Hizbullah, and force on you a victory that is no different from suicide."
ISRAEL ALSO suffered during the month-long conflict. The cumulative effect of 162 deaths, the steady rain of thousands of long-range rockets that terrorized the North, the burning of thousands of acres of precious forests, the ineptitude displayed in the IDF's chain of command and the perception that Israel needed the UN-brokered cease-fire as a way out of the fighting allowed Nasrallah to declare "divine victory" over the Zionist enemy. The fact that Hizbullah was not delivered the decisive blow that Olmert promised is a cloud that hangs over his administration and a cause for deep concern within Israel's defense establishment.
Nonetheless, the losses to Lebanon were far more severe: more than 1,000 dead, several thousand wounded, vital industry and infrastructure destroyed. In July and August, Hizbullah went to great lengths to conceal its casualties, but in recent days, the group has admitted to losing some 250 fighters in battles with Israeli troops. (The IDF estimates that it killed at least twice that many.)
Many Lebanese are rejecting out of hand Nasrallah's self-congratulatory spin of the summer's war. But you can't blame him for trying, Marzuk explained, since the legend of "resistance" is what propelled Hizbullah into the spotlight in the first place.
"What Shi'ites see as their golden opportunity was the 1982 war with Israel," he said. "The establishment of Hizbullah was an opportunity to prove themselves. And by fighting the occupation, they won support from Sunnis as well, in Lebanon and around the whole Arab world. Hizbullah was sent money by Sunnis who saw the resistance against the Zionist occupiers. This united the Lebanese.
"Nasrallah knew this was his trump card," Marzuk continued. "That's why he goes to great pains to say that the victory belongs not just to him and his fellow Shi'ites, but to all Lebanese... This time, though, the Sunnis didn't buy the argument about 'liberating' the Shaba Farms and a few Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails. So now he is attacking in the internal arena of Lebanon, branding those who didn't support Hizbullah as collaborators with Israel and the West."