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Hezbollah's rise fuels rifts inside Lebanon

Hezbollah's rise fuels rifts inside Lebanon
A polarizing war empowers Shi'ites

By Thanassis Cambanis, Boston Globe

BEIRUT, Lebanon - In the capital's battered Shi'ite Muslim neighborhoods, Hezbollah supporters crow about their ``divine victory" over Israel, celebrating to raucous and martial songs amid piles of rubble.

Across town, however, well-heeled Christians are lining up for American and Canadian visas, more eager than ever before to immigrate after a war they see as a disaster. Sunni Muslims and members of the Druze sect, meanwhile, say they need weapons of their own to counter Hezbollah's.

The war between Hezbollah and Israel has further divided this already fractured country. Sectarian groups that grumbled about Hezbollah before the conflict now talk openly about civil war, which would be a cataclysmic setback for a country barely back on its feet. A devastating civil war raged in Lebanon from 1975 to 1990, and Syria ended its 29-year occupation last year.

For the United States, another internal conflict in Lebanon would wreck a showpiece for its campaign to bring Western-style democracy to the Middle East. And for Israel, such a conflict would exacerbate the power vacuum on its northern border, where a half-million Palestinian refugees live.

Since the war between Israel and Hezbollah ended two weeks ago, angry Lebanese have begun blaming the Shi'ite militant group for reopening the dangerous sectarian rifts.

``Hezbollah made this war and ruined the whole country. We paid in blood, in young men," said Maggie Haddad, 48, a snack bar owner who prominently signals her Christianity with a diamond-encrusted cross hanging over her shirt and by her uncovered head. ``As long as Hezbollah exists, and has weapons, there will be war."

There are as many conflicting views of the war with Israel as there are sects in the tangled ethnic and religious patchwork of Lebanon.

The United States has invested its political capital in the governing coalition of Christians, Sunnis, and Druze. But it is the Shi'ites, led by Hezbollah, who command the biggest power bloc in Lebanon, and who by force of their allied militias have sidelined the government from decisions of national import, like the war with Israel.

Lebanon's arcane constitution strives to preserve a fragile balance of power among the country's 17 recognized religious sects. Under the constitution, political posts are allocated by sect, meaning that groups like the Shi'ites -- who make up as much as half the population, by some estimates -- get far fewer government positions than their share of the population.

The ethnic tapestry shifts wildly from village to village, and from neighborhood to neighborhood, a testimony to the polarization of this strained society.

During the heaviest Israeli bombing in July and August, Beirut's Christians relocated their favorite nightclubs to the mountain resort of Broumana, where they could dance the nights away out of earshot of the explosions.

The Druze -- an insular sect led by Walid Jumblatt, who rules his mountain territory like a hereditary warlord -- loudly blamed Hezbollah for starting the war. But the Druze sheltered hundreds of thousands of Shi'ite refugees in the Chouf Mountains, on the condition that they kept their Shi'ite politics quiet while they were guests.

Sunni Muslims say they feel more estranged from the Shi'ites, accusing them of wrecking the prospects of Sunni empowerment through destructive alliances with Iran and Syria.

Just a year ago, Hezbollah was under pressure from all quarters in Lebanese politics to surrender its arms and became a political rather than military movement. Now, however, flush with a sense of power, many Shi'ites say it's time for Lebanon to join its destiny to that of the Shi'ites, rather than Shi'ites submitting to the rest of the country, as they have done historically.

``The war is still on. Hezbollah is still ready," a civil defense ambulance driver named Abdullah, 25, said recently as he toured the ruins of the Khiam Prison in southern Lebanon, a mile from the Israeli border.

Khiam is a morbid museum that commemorates the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon from 1982 to 2000. It lists by name all accused Lebanese collaborators and torturers who worked at the prison. Hezbollah fighters staged attacks from the prison, and in July Israeli bombs pulverized it.

Now, smiling Shi'ite housewives pull up in buses labeled ``The Divine Victory" to sightsee, traipsing over rubble and antiquated Israeli military equipment left over from before 2000.

Many of them repeated the confident declarations of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah that make so many other Lebanese nervous.

``If Hezbollah wanted to interfere inside Lebanon, it could have done so a very long time ago," Abdullah said.

Outside the Shi'ite orbit, everything about Lebanon feels different. Most women don't wear bulky black abayas or cover their heads. Men are clean-shaven instead of bearded. Political posters and graffiti are on public walls, rather than the ubiquitous oil paintings of ``martyrs" and posters of Iranian clerics and Nasrallah.

``Hezbollah loves death. That's why they win," said Khalil Bou Azzedine, a Druze man who runs a dry-goods shop in the mountain town of Bakleen. ``We are different. We like life. We like to educate our kids. We like to grow old."

Jumblatt presides over the Druze -- who make up maybe a tenth of Lebanon's population but were fierce and independent fighters during the civil war -- from a stone castle that looks as if it came straight out of a fairy tale. He has been the loudest detractor of Nasrallah, accusing Hezbollah of serving foreign masters in Iran and Syria at the expense of the Lebanese people.

He said Hezbollah poses an undeniable threat; the main factor preventing civil war, he said, is that all the factions opposed to Hezbollah were disarmed in 1991, after the earlier conflict ended, and have no weapons stashes.

Historically, the Christians, and to a lesser extent the Sunni Muslims, held Lebanon's purse strings. French colonialists promoted the Christians, and Sunnis evolved into a thriving merchant class.

Lebanon's president, under the constitution, must be a Christian and the prime minister a Sunni. The two sects together are the driving engine of the reformist movement that forced out Syria in 2005 after the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafik Hariri.

Now, however, the once-dominant groups are watching the Shi'ite ascendance with frustration.

In the small southern border village of Kfar Chouba, members of the Sunni minority complain in private about Hezbollah's growing power. Kassim al-Kadri, 25, swears angrily about the Hezbollah flags hanging in his village.

``When the Lebanese Army gets here, we'll take down the Hezbollah flags and throw them away," Kadri said, referring to the planned deployment of government forces as part of the UN agreement that halted the war.

But Kadri and his neighbors say they feel trapped and powerless. They are surrounded by Hezbollah villages, and most of their fellow Sunnis who could afford it left for the north long ago.

Members of the dwindling Christian population, concentrated in a handful of Beirut neighborhoods and a few tiny enclaves of the south, voice their anxiety even more vociferously.

``We didn't want war. Only one group wanted war: Hezbollah. They are not fighting for Lebanon; they are fighting for Syria," said Georges Abou Zeid, 31, manager of a clothing boutique in the Christian neighborhood of Matan.

Christian politicians and religious leaders publicly plead with their followers not to leave the country. But by some estimates, the Christian share of population has fallen from nearly 50 percent before the civil war to less than 30 percent today.

Another Christian, Grace Habib, 36, has applied to immigrate to Canada or the United States, where she has relatives, with her husband and two sons. She fears the day when Muslims, outnumbering Christians, will ``march into our areas and smash us."

``If the war erupts again, where shall we go? Where can I take my children and hide?" Habib said. ``I have to give them a better future than we were given."