A hero to some, a dangerous militia to others. The bloody fight Hizbullah picked with Israel has aggravated the longtime split in Lebanon over the guerrilla group - and raised worries about whether Lebanon's Western-backed government can survive.
The division runs through the Lebanese Cabinet itself, which is dominated by anti-Syrian politicians - some sharp critics of Hizbullah - but also includes two ministers from the Shi'ite Muslim terror group.
"The government is helpless," said former President Amin Gemayel, a longtime critic of Hizbullah. "Hizbullah took a unilateral action, but its repercussions will affect the entire country."
"Hizbullah is playing a dangerous game that exceeds the border of Lebanon," Druse leader Walid Jumblatt said in comments published Friday. But Jumblatt, a leading anti-Syrian figure, also denounced the Israeli attacks on Lebanon, calling them completely unjustified.
US President George W. Bush expressed worries the Israeli assault could cause the fall of the government, whose formation after elections last year Washington hailed as a major step for Lebanese democracy after years of Syrian control.
But on Friday, he rejected Lebanon's appeals for pressure on Israel for a cease-fire. In a phone conversation with Prime Minister Fouad Saniora, he only reiterated that Israel should limit the impact on civilians.
"The president is not going to make military decisions for Israel," White House press secretary Tony Snow said. He said it was unlikely that either side would agree to a cease-fire now.
Lebanon's government has refused international pressure to disarm Hizbullah and move the army into the south near Israel's border, where the guerrillas have near autonomy. The government has insisted Hizbullah is a legitimate resistance group against Israel.
And with pressure mounting for it to act, emergency Cabinet sessions this week were torn by bickering. It only managed to agree on a statement Wednesday insisting the government did not condone Hizbullah's actions.
With the political divisions in mind, Hizbullah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah warned domestic opponents against "acting in a way that encourages the enemy against Lebanon."
The harder Israel hits Lebanon, the more the division grows among the Lebanese public as well. While hard-core Hizbullah supporters celebrated in the streets, other Lebanese were furious at being dragged into an open and costly confrontation with Israel through a unilateral Hizbullah decision.
"I don't support Hizbullah's operation at all because it gives a pretext for Israeli aggression on Lebanon," said Ibrahim al-Hajj, owner of a shoe shop in the southern Lebanese village of Qleia. "As long as Hizbullah has its weapons and acts according to its leader's whims, there is pretext for Israel to keep on destroying Lebanon," said the 50-year-old Christian Maronite.
A taxi driver in Beirut kept up a tirade against Hizbullah as he drove through the capital's near empty streets.
"Why did you do it now Sayyed Nasrallah?" he asked, refusing to give his name, fearing repercussions. "Why now? Couldn't you have waited a couple of months? Just two months until the tourists had left? Is this resistance? Ruining your country?"
As in everything else in this country, the split was mostly along sectarian lines, with Shi'ites largely supporting the Hizbullah action while Sunnis - whose leadership turned largely anti-Syrian following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri - Christians and Druse, largely opposed to the group. But that divide is not clear-cut.
"Even if all our homes are destroyed, we will continue to support the resistance," said Mohsem Musulmani, a grocer in the southern port of Sidon, a predominantly Sunni city. "The resistance will always be the pride of the Arab and Islamic nation," he added.
Chibli Mallat, a professor of international law, wrote in an editorial published by The Daily Star Friday that "Hizbullah cannot go it alone and expect the government and the country as a whole to accept the sacrifices that all are suffering.
"Moderates among us will be unable to prevent this divisiveness from developing into an unbridgeable gulf within the nation," he said.
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