Adrian Hamilton: The cost of this war is the hope for a wider peace

If Nasrallah is a hero it is because he's shown that a Muslim can give as good as he gets
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The worst thing about the war in Lebanon is that it will eventually end on terms not so very different than the agreement that could have been reached three weeks ago, before the exchange of rocket-fire began. Whether the war lasts a week more or several depends on the appetite of generals, the subtlety of diplomats and, above all, America's sense of when enough is enough.

But by now it is clear that neither side can "win" the war in the terms they hoped. Israel cannot root out Hizbollah as it wished, and stands to lose what little international support it has if it goes on bombing civilian areas. If a UN force can be agreed, the Lebanese army patrols the border and the rockets cease for the moment, it can claim a victory of sorts.

Hizbollah can also claim that it has successfully resisted Israel and gained support from the Middle East public. But even it can see that continued fighting will do nothing to help its own population or relations with other groups in Lebanon. In so far as they can influence events - and the degree to which do has been much exaggerated - neither Iran nor Syria have much to gain from a prolonged war either.

The primary victims, of course, will be the civilians, a thousand or more killed by the time it is all over, 90 per cent Lebanese and a third children. But no one should take too seriously the crocodile tears shed by the participants and their backers. War, as they say, is like that. Which is one reason why any state claiming to be civilised is supposed to avoid it unless absolutely necessary.

The larger victim is Lebanon, whose fate has always seemed to be the plaything of outsiders. It's not just the direct damage but the timing of the war that has been so destructive. It happened just as the Lebanese were gaining a new sense of themselves, a fresh confidence after the expulsion of the Syrians. It will take a decade and more to recover from this, as it did after the civil war, by which time many of the brightest and the best will have left (as they have Palestine) leaving the young and the angry behind.

Which is where the real damage of this terrible act of deliberate destruction will be felt. It is hard for anyone who doesn't know the Middle East to understand just how strong is the sense of humiliation in the streets of the Muslim world, how angry the ordinary Arab and non-Arab feels when watching the exercise of Israel and America's limitless military superiority, raining down smart bombs on the people below.

If Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah is now hailed as a hero throughout the Middle East, it is not because he is a Shia in the religious division so beloved of western politicians and commentators, nor because he is "terrorist". It is because he has stood up to the might of American arms as exercised by Israel and shown that a Muslim can give as good as he gets.

That, not fanaticism or propaganda, is why the Arab street cheers the sight of Hizbollah rockets forcing Israeli citizens to cower in cellars and why all the talk of the battle between "reactionary fundamentalism" and "moderate muslims", of the "struggle", as Blair put it in Los Angeles, "for the soul of the region" has no resonance in the region itself. The British Prime Minister is simply ranting in the rain as far as the Middle East is concerned.

True, the Israelis and President Bush saw this act of retaliation against Hizbollah's act of gross aggression as a means of rallying the Sunni pro-western states against Iran's supposed drive to regional hegemony through its leadership of the Shia.

And for a moment it seemed they might have cause as America's long-time allies, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, rushed to condemn Hizbollah. But the West, and Jerusalem, have always misunderstood - partly for domestic political reasons - the Sunni-Shia divide in the Middle East, just as they have misinterpreted what drives the Middle Eastern populace. The overall effect of this war has been to radicalise further an already radicalising Middle East, drive Shia and Sunni together and leave the pro-western government of Egypt, the Gulf, Jordan and North Africa ever more isolated from public opinion.

The grimmest comment of the whole war, and the least reported, came a week into it when the Saudi government implicitly retracted its previous statements against Hizbollah, roundly condemned the continuation of the bombing and said that if it went on the Saudi Arabian-organised peace plan, offering full Arab recognition for Israel in return for a Palestine based on the pre-1967 borders, would be made redundant. That peace plan - still the best hope for an overall settlement in the Middle East - was proposed after a meeting of Arab states in Beirut in 2002. Now Beirut is in ruins and so are the hopes of a lasting peace.