JERUSALEM, Sept. 16 (JTA) – Hezbollah, the highly trained guerrilla force that has made life miserable for the Israel Defense Force in southern Lebanon, could not have received praise from a better source. The IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak, said this week that the Islamic organization has very good fighters. Although he added that Israel’s soldiers are better, Shahak’s statement reflected the high level of respect felt by many in the IDF for the military skills of Israel’s bitter enemy across the Lebanese border. It is an enemy that has cost much Israeli blood. As a result of its hit-and-run skirmishes – and its latest favorite tactic, roadside bombs – Hezbollah has claimed the lives of 33 Israeli soldiers since the start of the year. At least four Israelis were killed this week alone. The continuous war of attrition in southern Lebanon – which has been called the Israeli version of the Vietnam War – has renewed an internal debate over the need for the IDF to maintain a presence in Lebanon in order to defend Israel’s northern communities. The debate has cut across the traditional party lines of Israeli politics. In an unusual alliance, Labor Knesset member Yossi Beilin is in the same camp with Ariel Sharon, the hawkish infrastructure minister who orchestrated the controversial invasion of Lebanon in 1982 by calling for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon. In contrast, the leader of the left-wing Meretz Party, Knesset member Yossi Sarid, maintains that there should be no withdrawal until Israel reaches a comprehensive agreement with Syria, the real power-broker in Lebanon. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai declared this week that the IDF would not make a unilateral withdrawal. Neither wants to take the chance that Hezbollah would start launching raids on northern Israel the day after the IDF pulls out. Israel created the nine-mile-wide security zone in southern Lebanon in 1985 to protect Israel’s northern flank from terror attacks. But by a curious twist of history, that military decision also created Hezbollah’s main reason for existence – to drive what it described as the Israeli occupiers from Lebanese soil. Hezbollah was born in 1982, the same year that Israel launched Operation Peace for Galilee, its invasion of Lebanon aimed at driving the Palestine Liberation Organization out of the country. Hezbollah drew its followers from the Shi’ites in southern Lebanon, traditionally one of the country’s poorest communities. Prior to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the main Shi’ite organization was Amal, a secular, socially minded movement that regarded the Palestinian exiles in Lebanon as its rival. Because of this, Amal was at the time a natural ally for Israel. Amal “very much wanted to develop the area and did not want the PLO to return to its power bases” after Israel drove the Palestinians out of southern Lebanon, Clinton Bailey, a former adviser on Shi’ite affairs at the Ministry of Defense, said in an interview. The paths of Israel and Amal diverged when Israel installed Lebanese Christian commander Sa’ad Haddad as the warlord in charge of the Christian enclave in southern Lebanon. “We ignored Amal all the way,” said Bailey, who was at the time Israel’s liaison officer with Amal in Lebanon. A small Amal splinter group known as Islamic Amal, which had consistently opposed the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, gradually formed. Islamic Amal later became known as Hezbollah, Arabic for the Party of God. Unlike the pro-Syrian Amal, Hezbollah derives its power from Iran, both in terms of arms and spiritual support. The Iranian-backed militia lures recruits with the promise that they will enter the fast track to heaven if they fall in battle. This appeal to religious fervor, along with the steady flow of armaments that arrive from Iran with tacit Syrian approval, has made Hezbollah an implacable enemy. The depth of this fervor was on display last weekend, when the leader of Hezbollah, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, offered a public reaction to the death of his 18-year-old son, Hadi, in a clash with the IDF. “I thank Allah for having made my son a martyr,” Nasrallah said at a rally in Beirut. He appeared completely impassive, as if the deceased had not been his own flesh and blood. Reaction to Nasrallah’s death reflected the deep differences between Israel and its enemies to the north – differences that are not only military and political, but also cultural. The IDF, which faces deteriorating morale among some of its soldiers, is confronted with a belligerent, unified movement in which the life of the individual is secondary to the good of the community. Nasrallah was overwhelmed with thousands of messages congratulating him on the death of his son, a phenomenon that Western observers find difficult to understand. “Israel’s raison d’etre is the preservation of life,” Na’im Kassem, deputy secretary-general of Hezbollah once explained, “whereas ours is the preservation of our principles. Because what good is a life of humiliation?” Internally, Hezbollah faces its own opposition, but Israel has not gained from Hezbollah’s divisions. The organization recently faced the opposition of Subhi Tufaili, the former secretary-general of the organization, who in July declared a “war of the hungry” against the central government in Beirut, which he said had adopted a policy aimed at starving the Shi’ite community in the south. While the rivalry between Tufaili and Nasrallah has not yet created an open rift in Hezbollah, events are moving in that direction. But Hezbollah’s response to its internal challenges has been to intensify its guerrilla war against Israel. No one in Israel knows whether Hezbollah would lay down its arms once Israel withdrew from Lebanon. But given the depth of the movement’s fervor, there seems to be more than a grain of logic to those who believe that Hezbollah would not rest until it has entered Jerusalem. When asked last week what would happen if Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon, Nasrallah replied, “Everything is possible.”
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