Lebanon’s Hezbollah fighters aren’t running scared after the attack on Israeli soldiers; they’re just getting warmed up.
QABRIKHA, Lebanon — The road to this south Lebanon town winds through picturesque mountains and small, squat villages strewn with green Hezbollah insignia. Almost every available wall in this area, which lies just a stone’s throw from the Israeli border, is decorated with images of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, and posters of young, serious-looking men are almost as prominent. These are the south’s martyrs — fighters for the Shiite militia who were killed battling Israeli forces.
The United States has officially designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization, but here in the south, the most powerful armed force in the country is known simply as the muqawama, or resistance. Following decades of armed conflict between Israel and Lebanon, Hezbollah has become fully entrenched here — as much a part of the south as the mountains themselves. Today, the villages are practically deserted. The day after Hezbollah’s Jan. 28 anti-tank missile strike on an Israeli convoy, in which two Israeli soldiers were killed, the south held its breath, waiting for the next move in this long and bloody fight. The attack came in retaliation for an Israeli strike in Syria’s Golan Heights on Jan. 18 that resulted in the death of five Hezbollah members and an Iranian general — an incident one prominent local Hezbollah official, who goes by the name Hussein, says could not have been tolerated by the group.
“When the incident in Syria took place, as a son of the south, I felt very depressed,” he says. “After what happened yesterday, we are satisfied for now. But Hezbollah did this attack as news flash No. 1 for the Israelis. There will be more. We won’t stop here.”
Hussein defends Hezbollah’s military involvement in the Syrian civil war on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad, a move that has cost the militia dearly in Lebanese popular opinion. The Shiite group has openly fought alongside Syrian regime forces since the summer of 2013, and has provided Assad’s army with crucial tactical and offensive support. It’s unclear why the group struck by the Israelis was in the Golan, although anonymous Israeli officials have maintained it was plotting a terrorist attack against the Jewish state.
“The Syrians stood by us in good times and bad,” Hussein says with a shrug, when asked if he supports what’s been widely condemned by the West as Assad’s massacre of innocent civilians. “Nasrallah is a loyal man. He can’t just walk away from Assad. Besides, now daesh [the Islamic State] is crawling all over Syria. Someone needs to fight them.”
Asked if he worries about an Israeli response to the missile strike, Hussein smiles grimly. “They are cowards and they’re not going to hit us. But even if they do, the people of the resistance are ready. Let them come.”
He gestures at his bedroom, where he keeps his machine guns in a closet. “My weapons have been getting dusty.”
In a fiery speech Friday, Nasrallah maintained that same defiant stance. Hezbollah’s leader warned Israel that his group would not tolerate further attacks against its forces in Syria or Lebanon. “You tried us once,” he said. “Don’t try us again.” But he was careful to state that Hezbollah would only respond to further Israeli aggression, and none of his rhetoric seemed to indicate that it would escalate the current round of violence.
A little further west, in the harbor city of Tyre, white armored vehicles belonging to the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), the international mission charged with keeping the peace along the Blue Line that divides Lebanon from its hated neighbor, line the streets. But even here, in what is generally a busy port, few people are out this evening. Things are especially tense in the UNIFIL hub, given that a Spanish peacekeeper was killed Wednesday by an Israeli mortar, which was fired in response to the Hezbollah attack. Both Israel and the U.N. have promised an inquiry into the incident, but despite signals from both Israel and Hezbollah that neither seeks to escalate hostilities further, it doesn’t appear that UNIFIL troops are relaxing just yet.
Timur Goksel, former head of UNIFIL during the Lebanese civil war, says casualties are an occupational hazard of the peacekeeping mission.
“This is not the first time a peacekeeper has been caught in the crossfire,” he says. “It appears that the Israelis, fearing there might be an ambush or a kidnapping, were firing all over the place. They didn’t seem to care whether it was Hezbollah, Syrians, Lebanese, or U.N. … and that’s not the first time that’s happened.”
In another café by the sea in Tyre, two Hezbollah fighters — we’ll call them Ali and Musa — are relaxing over a narghile, or water pipe. Upon closer inspection, though, they’re not exactly off their guard. Ali is packing a pistol in his windbreaker, and both are whip-tense as they speak.
“We have our weapons ready in the car,” Ali says. “We’re only waiting for the moment we need to use them.” He pulls out a cell phone to show a picture of what appears to be several charred bodies strewn across a ruined tank, which he claims are the soldiers killed by Wednesday’s attack on the Israeli convoy. “They say we killed two of them?” he asks. “Does this look like two? We killed six. We hit them like this and they’re saying they want peace? No way. I think they’re waiting for us to relax so they can hit us.”
“You need to know our hearts here in the south,” says Musa suddenly. “They think they’re strong, but we’re stronger because we love our country, our land. My brother died for this country; my friends were martyrs for Lebanon. We’re happy to die, if only we can hold our heads high and keep our pride.”
Asked why he thinks the situation between Lebanon and Israel remains so hostile, Musa sighs. “We want peace,” he says. “I want my children to go to school; I want my sister to get married. I don’t want to live in worry that they’ll be blown up. We all want to make money, do business, and put food in our mouths. But we know this will never happen unless we fight now, because they don’t want peace. These people feed on war.”
Not everyone agrees with this assessment of the situation, though. In Beirut, far from the perilous Blue Line, some are seething at Hezbollah’s behavior, believing that it is largely responsible for dragging Lebanon closer to a disastrous war.
“Hezbollah is wrecking the country,” says Elio, a young man in his 20s who works for a tourism company. “That’s why I have a problem with them. They’re thinking of themselves, not the whole of Lebanon. If Israel comes, they’re going to fuck Lebanon up beyond recognition. This country can’t take more of this…. I don’t think Israel would have a problem with us if there were no Hezbollah. They’re the only reason Israel fights Lebanon.”
For the Hezbollah loyalists living in the shadow of the Blue Line, however, their decades-long conflict with Israel will not be resolved so easily. In his home, which is perched on a hill in Qabrikha, Hussein explains why he believes the group must continue fighting.
“Our superiors are saying, ‘No more running away from the Israelis,’” he says. “We stand our ground … and they won’t leave us alone. There is no government in Israel. Only the army and the people…. Actually, we don’t believe there is such a place as Israel, only Palestine, which they stole. I was taking my daughter to the mountains one day, and she pointed across the border and said, ‘That’s Israel.’ So I slapped her. ‘Don’t ever say that word,’ I told her. ‘That’s Palestine.’”
Hussein scoffs at the suggestion that, with so many fighters in Syria, the militia’s legendary military resources might be stretched too thin to withstand another Israeli assault.
“We’re having a nice picnic in Syria,” he laughs. “It’s a small game for us. We have highly trained special forces here dedicated to fighting Israel, and they’ve never seen Syria in their lives.”
“Don’t mistake me,” Hussein says seriously. “Here in the south, we are calm. We are not afraid. We have become accustomed to chaos.”
JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images