Among Militia’s Patient Loyalists, Confidence and Belief in Victory
There were no cars in the winding streets of this southern Lebanese village. Not many people, either. The signs of life were the buzz of Israeli surveillance drones overhead and, below, a gaggle of Hezbollah loyalists, sitting in a small storefront along an abandoned street. There was a walkie-talkie, bottles of water and, according to the half-dozen or so men, patience.
“We are waiting,” said Jamal Nasser, a burly man in civilian clothes. “We are here, and we’re not going anywhere.”
Three weeks into its war with Israel, Hezbollah has retained its presence in southern Lebanon, often the sole authority in devastated towns along the Israeli border. The militia is elusive, with few logistics, little hierarchy and less visibility. Even residents often say they don’t know how the militiamen operate or are organized. Communication is by walkie-talkie, always in code, and sometimes messages are delivered by motorcycle. Weapons seem to be already in place across a terrain that fighters say they know intimately.
“On the ground, face to face, we’re better fighters than the Israelis,” said Hajj Abu Mohammed, a bearded, 44-year-old militiaman in the small village of Srifa, whose walkie-talkie crackled and cellphone rang with a Hezbollah anthem.
Israel has claimed to have destroyed Hezbollah’s infrastructure in a 22-day campaign that has driven hundreds of thousands of civilians from their homes and wrecked village after village along valleys sometimes charred by fires.
Hezbollah admits to having suffered losses, but in the fighting so far, it has demonstrated its detailed planning since the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, ending an 18-year occupation. Fighters appear to exercise a great deal of autonomy, a flexibility evident along the region’s back roads: ammunition loaded in cars, trucks in camouflage, rocket launchers tucked in banana plantations.
Analysts say the militia could probably hold out a month without serious resupply. Fighters and supporters suggest that time is their advantage in a war that most suspect won’t have a conclusive end. In conversations in southern Lebanon, the militia’s supporters seem most adamant in trying to deprive either Israel or the United States of political gains from the military campaign.
“We’ll never submit to oppression, whatever the force applied, whatever the time it takes,” one of the group gathered in Jwayya said Tuesday. “You won’t find any difference between 21 days and 121 days. The difference is solely a matter of time.”
Village after village south of the Litani River, the region of Lebanon that Israel has threatened to invade, are like ghost towns. Traffic rarely plies roads that pass often spectacular destruction, rubble spilling into sun-drenched streets. In Sidiqin, the wall of a home was sheared off to show a table still set with dishes, as if the family had fled in a moment. In Srifa, where villagers say 35 bodies remain buried under rubble from a bombing in the war’s first week, the wiry Abu Mohammed was one of the few people left.
“We’re in a defensive position,” he said, wearing a black shirt and black pants and standing on a curb at a warehouse where tobacco was drying.
The smell of decomposing bodies hung in the air. Overhead were the contrails of Israeli jets.
“There will still be a lot of big surprises,” he said.
Hezbollah appears to have hewn to a twofold strategy so far in the war. Strategically, it has calibrated the barrages of its short- and longer-range rockets, trying to match what it views as each Israeli escalation with its own response. In a relative lull in fighting Monday and Tuesday, when Israel suggested it would halt air attacks for a time, only a few rockets were fired into Israel. As Israel renewed its offensive Wednesday in a string of villages, Hezbollah fired the most missiles of the war.
“Our missile capacity is still untouched,” Mahmoud Qomati, the deputy head of Hezbollah’s political bureau, said in an interview in Beirut. “It is sufficient at two levels, in quantity for the missiles they know of, and in quality for those they still don’t know about — the type or the range.” He added: “We have enough missiles for months.”
On the ground, its fighters appear eager to draw Israel deeper into the country, stretching supply lines, or to see troops hunkered down in villages where they would be more vulnerable to the guerrilla tactics that Hezbollah used in Bint Jbeil, where eight Israeli soldiers were killed in an ambush. Israeli forces seem wary of falling into a trap and have, so far, moved exceedingly slow through Lebanese territory — on the ground, just a few miles inside the country.
“They are trying to get Hezbollah to come out and meet them, and Hezbollah is trying to lure them deeper into Lebanon,” said Timur Goksel, a former spokesman and senior adviser to the U.N. force in Lebanon and an expert on Hezbollah.
“From now on, it depends on who’s more patient,” he added.
Among the fighters and grass-roots loyalists of Hezbollah — especially on the ground level, in villages where they are often defending their homes — views are hardened and expressed bluntly. They contend that Israel was planning the attack long before two of its soldiers were seized last month. To them, it fits seamlessly into their narrative of Israeli ambitions in Lebanon — invasions in 1978 and 1982 and campaigns against Hezbollah in 1993 and 1996.
In that view, today’s fighting is more another battle than a war in itself. In its ideology, Hezbollah does not recognize Israel as a legitimate state. Yet the words today are more brittle, defensive, even visceral. Israel’s existence is rarely mentioned; rather, the fighters talk about fighting for their own survival.
Even Lebanese critics remark on the devotion of Hezbollah’s fighters, sometimes with a sense of awe.
“The most important element about this war is its moral dimension. Hezbollah has prepared itself for this war, its fighters have been indoctrinated to fight until victory,” said Nizar Abdel Kader, a military analyst and retired Lebanese army general.
“This type of indoctrination creates a mood of competition among fighters — competition over bravery, over performance and over who is going to be a martyr first,” he said. “This is a key element to combat performance.”
The men in Jwayya, a small town in the hinterland above Tyre, gathered around a small plastic table, sitting on white chairs. They deferred to an older man they addressed as Sayyid Abu Ali, who smoked a cigarillo. Cars passed by occasionally, and a few terse words were exchanged. The rest of the time conversation revolved around their confidence about a war that, at least for now, Hezbollah believes it is winning. While the war outside may have inflated the rhetoric, no one seemed to have any doubts.
“The aggression gives birth to resistance,” Abu Ali said.
Another man nodded. “Every civilian killed, his children, when they get older, will join the resistance,” he said.
The 1982 Israeli invasion often comes up in conversations. Then, thousands of Palestinian fighters were forced to evacuate Lebanon, and an ill-fated agreement was signed with Israel. Whether or not Israel plans to advance deeper into Lebanon than it already has, the men here boasted that they had scored a victory by simply keeping its forces close to the border so far. They were unlike the Palestinian fighters Israel faced then; they said they had popular support and were fighting in villages where they grew up.
“In 1982, Israeli tanks arrived all the way to Beirut, basically in safety. It didn’t face resistance,” one of the men said.
“Israel is not able to play the game of geography that it played in 1982,” another added.
The ideological discipline of Hezbollah is often evident in interviews: The outlines of positions come in the speeches of Hezbollah’s leader, Hasan Nasrallah, and they are often repeated verbatim by the rank and file. The men here said Hezbollah would keep its arms, whatever the sacrifices, until Israel frees Lebanese prisoners it holds and relinquishes Shebaa Farms, Israeli-occupied territory that Hezbollah claims is Lebanese and Israel views as Syrian.
Still, Abu Ali said he was not opposed to a cease-fire, at a time when Hezbollah has emerged, politically at least, even more powerful than it was before the fighting started.
But Abu Ali framed this struggle in broader terms, drawing on the deep anger among many in southern Lebanon over lack of support from Arab governments and, more sharply, the perception that the United States has encouraged the Israeli attacks.
“We’re now fighting a war against America, not just Israel,” he said. “We see these are American decisions being carried out.” Asked what that meant, he paused, then answered: “There are no borders to our self-defense.”
Along the streets into Jwayya, the destruction was everywhere — from cratered roads to collapsed buildings.
“They’ll destroy, and we’ll rebuild,” he said.
Special correspondent Alia Ibrahim in Beirut contributed to this report.
Hezbollah, twenty years of resistance and victory