How Israel's bombing turned Hizbollah leader into a symbol of Muslim pride

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The Independent Online

A year ago he seemed a rebel without a cause. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbollah, was an important figure in Lebanon but seemed destined to remain on the sidelines of Middle East politics. He was the most important leader of the 1.4 million-strong Shia community in Lebanon and nobody doubted the efficiency of Hizbollah as a paramilitary organisation. He was intelligent, charismatic and experienced but he seemed to have reached the peak of his influence.

Nasrallah's great moment had apparently come and gone in May 2000 when Israel had unilaterally withdrawn its troops from southern Lebanon after years of harassment by Hizbollah guerrillas. He returned in triumph to reconquered Lebanese territory and, if the military victory over Israel was small in scale, it was still an accomplishment not enjoyed by many Arab leaders over the past half century. But the departure of the Israelis from Lebanon also robbed Hizbollah of its raison d'être and excuse for forming a state within a state. No doubt its leader, Nasrallah, would remain a power within Lebanon but it seemed increasingly unlikely that he would be anything more.

It was Israel that decided otherwise. By launching a massive military campaign in retaliation for the kidnapping of two of its soldiers on 12 July it made Nasrallah into a symbol of resistance to Israel in the Muslim world. Arabs conscious of their own leaders' inertia, corruption and incompetence hailed the resolution of Hizbollah's fighters. Nasrallah's blend of nationalism and religion was shown to be as potent in Lebanon as it had been against the Americans in Iraq.

His spokesmen admitted that Hizbollah had miscalculated the ferocity of the Israeli response to the kidnapping, but then few in the world forecast that Israel would play so directly to Hizbollah's strengths as a guerrilla organisation capable of surviving an Israeli military attack. Nor had it seemed likely that Israel, after extricating with such difficulty from the Lebanese morass after 18 years, would plunge back into it with such enthusiasm.

Nasrallah's entire career has been shaped by Israel's repeated interventions in Lebanon from the civil war in the mid-1970s up to the present time. If an Israeli helicopter had not assassinated Nasrallah's mentor and predecessor, Abbas Mussawi, as head of Hizbollah in 1992, he would not have led the organisation over the past 14 years. The Israeli air force has made every effort to kill him by bombing his home and office - but all he has to do now is survive to become a hero across the Arab world.

Nasrallah was born on 31 August 1960 in east Beirut's Bourj Hamoud district. His father was a vegetable seller originally from south Lebanon. He was the eldest of nine children and aspired to be a cleric from an early age but it was war which shaped his upbringing. The outbreak of the civil war sent his family back to their ancestral village of Bassouriyeh, not far from Tyre. It was from here that the local clergy sent him to the great Shia theological centre in Najaf in Iraq where he studied for two years and met Moussawi, of whom he was an early follower.

Saddam Hussein was suspicious of Shia religious enthusiasts and in 1978 he expelled foreign religious students from Najaf. The next important event in Nasrallah's career was the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which he vigorously opposed, becoming a guerrilla commander. He was also known to oppose an increase in Syrian influence in Lebanon and to have advocated fighting the Israelis in the south of the country. He was only 31 years old when the killing of Moussawi by the Israelis made him leader of Hizbollah.

Nasrallah has well-honed political skills. He was able to extend Hizbollah's influence within the Shia community and played down its differences with other communities and leaders in Lebanon. His son Hadi was killed at the age of 18 fighting the Israelis in southern Lebanon in 1997.

Hizbollah, financed by Iran in the 1990s, was increasingly able to raise its own funds after 2000. It also had an extensive network of schools and medical centres. As with Hamas in Gaza, the ineffectiveness of Middle East governments in providing for their poor makes even moderate social achievements of a movement such as Hizbollah stand out.

There are limits to what any communal party can achieve in Lebanon because of the difficulty of winning support outside one's own religious community.

But Nasrallah and Hizbollah enjoyed high prestige after 2000.

The party won more seats in the 2005 election following the departure of Syrian troops 29 years after they first arrived.

But not everything was going Hizbollah's way. It might have two cabinet posts but the US was backing the new Lebanese government as a foil to Syria and Iran, Hizbollah's old supporters.

There is no doubt that Nasrallah thought this summer was an opportune moment to heat up the border with Israel. But he can hardly have expected Israel and the US to forget their own grim experiences in Lebanon after the invasion of 1982 and play so completely into his hands.

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