Hizbollah leader claims 'sad victory'

Exclusive: Robert Fisk in Beirut meets a guerrilla chief

The car they took us in had smoked glass windows and a black curtain in front of the rear passenger seat to obscure the route.

The driver backed into a garage whose door was closed before we were asked to leave the car. But I recognised the "Majlis es-Shura" - Hizbollah's central council headquarters, which the Israelis tried and failed to hit in Operation Grapes of Wrath.

Across the street, the wreckage of an apartment block - destroyed by an Israeli helicopter missile - still hung over the pavement. And the turbanned, bearded man who walked into the cold, over-air conditioned upstairs living room was unmistakable. Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the world's most ruthless guerrilla army, was in triumphant mood.

"If you search the world over, you will find no fighters like the young of Hizbollah who spent 16 days in the south [of Lebanon] under hundreds of air raids and thousands of shells," he boasted. "They didn't have shelters or military installations and not one of them ran away. This is the secret of our strength."

It was President Clinton, he claimed, who personally decided that Israel should launch its offensive against Lebanon after the "anti-terrorist" summit at Sharm el-Sheikh on 13 March. And if we wanted to know the Hizbollah's views on America, Sayed Nasrallah added, we could attend this week's commemoration service in Beirut's southern suburbs for the 14 Hizbollah "martyrs" who were killed in the Israeli offensive. Thirteen had been killed during the war, another died of his wounds two days after the 26 April ceasefire.

Sayed Nasrallah appeared confident but tired during his 90-minute interview with me, repeatedly removing his heavy-framed spectacles and rubbing his eyes, insisting that he would welcome the "martyrdom" that Sayed Abbas Moussawi, his friend and predecessor as Hizbollah leader, underwent in March 1992, when he and his family were killed by an Israeli helicopter- fired missile.

Indeed, Sayed Nasrallah's black beard, turban and spectacles made him look like a mirror image of the assassinated secretary general of the Hizbollah whose place he was elected to fill immediately after Moussawi's death.

Hizbollah's retaliation against Israeli occupation troops for the Qana massacre of 18 April, when up to 120 refugees were killed by Israeli artillery, would fall within the terms of the truce agreement, he said. But he was uncertain if the ceasefire would be successful.

"It prohibits both sides from shelling civilians under any circumstances but we have heard that [Israeli Chief of Staff Amnon Lifkin] Shahak said that he would respond to Hizbollah 'anywhere'. And I feel that the military people in Israel are not satisfied with this understanding and will not respect it. As for us, we are going to comply because it protects our civilians."

Even if Israeli artillery killed Lebanese civilians, the Hizbollah was not permitted to retaliate with Katyushas into Israel, he said: the incident would be referred to the ceasefire committee for investigation. But what, we asked, if Hizbollah attacked an Israeli occupation patrol and the guerrillas returned to their wives and children? Couldn't Israel attack them at home?

"Under the agreement, the Israelis are prohibited from doing this," he replied. "That's why I say it's difficult for the Israelis to comply with the agreement. Because the people fighting are Lebanese. When they come back from an attack, they will not go to military bases and barracks like the Palestinians did [in Lebanon]; they will go back to their homes."

Sayed Nasrallah insisted several times that it was the United States rather than Israel which initiated last month's offensive in Lebanon. "I believe that Grapes of Wrath was not an Israeli military operation with an American green light - it was an Israeli operation decided by America. I believe they [the Americans] took the decision when Clinton went to Tel Aviv after Sharm el-Sheikh ... There has never been a time when the Americans backed the Israelis as much as now."

After the Qana massacre, he said, the Americans were condemning the victims, and rewarding the killers - "I don't believe we can have a worse time than now."

Nasrallah said that he had expected Israel to launch an offensive between the Sharm el-Sheikh summit and the 29 May Israeli elections. "I know those people very well and I know their capabilities very well. That's why on the first day of the aggression, I stated publicly to [Prime Minister Shimon] Peres that he could not stop the Katyushas through military actions. After 16 days, [Ehud] Barak [the Israeli foreign minister] and Shahak stood up and said: 'You cannot solve this problem of the Hizbollah militarily.' That's why this war was a failure [for Israel]."

It was this theme of failure which animated Nasrallah most. "Israel's basic goal was to destroy the infrastructure of the resistance and to destroy the will of the resistance, to kill as many fighters and leaders as possible... By killing civilians, the Israelis wanted to terrorise civilians so that they would demonstrate on the streets to demand the disarming of Hizbollah. They wanted a clash between the resistance and the government in Lebanon. And when they bombarded installations like the electricity station, they wanted to exert more pressure on the government.

"They wanted to... stir up the internal situation so that [US Secretary of State] Warren Christopher could come and say: 'If you want a solution, let Israel and Lebanon sit at the negotiating table.' So [Lebanon] would have sat humiliated, weak and sad at the table and given Israel everything it wanted. Secondly, Syria would be isolated and lose all its strong cards. Had Peres been able to achieve any of these goals, he would have won votes in the elections. Neither of these goals were achieved. The failure of our enemy is our victory... Had it not been for the massacre of women and children, we would have had the right to rejoice over our victory. But because of them, we have to say this is a sad victory."

Israel, Sayed Nasrallah said, had wanted to "reinforce the label that Hizbollah are terrorists". The guerrilla leader did not mention the 1985-90 kidnapping of western hostages in Lebanon by Hizbollah's satellite groups , but he claimed, with reason, that Lebanon had not experienced such national unity in 30 years. "The resistance," he said, "is now more popular than ever."

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