Israel driving southern Lebanese into Hizballah’s arms

MAROUN AL-RAS, Southern Lebanon, 22 August (IPS) - It has been especially difficult for Ali Nasrallah to tend to his garden this time of year. Nasrallah, a 40-year-old construction worker from Taybeh in southern Lebanon, lost his mother, father, brother and sister during last year’s war between Hizballah and Israel.

“Every time I water my garden, I remember the atrocity that happened to my family,” he says. “It is a deep wound on my soul.”

Almost exactly a year ago, Israeli soldiers arrived at the Nasrallahs’ modest two-floor home. As Ali’s sister stood near the small garden that marks the home’s entrance, the soldiers tossed a grenade at the house, killing her instantly, Nasrallah says.

The soldiers then shot his brother at point-blank range and severed his father’s arms and feet as the rest of the family watched, he says. Finally, the soldiers emptied cartridges into his mother. The bodies and limbs lay there, at the foot of the garden, for almost two weeks. When villagers returned to Taybeh after the end of the war they found the decomposed bodies and a slick of congealed blood on the marble patio.

Ali Nasrallah, a muscular figure with a bronze tan, can barely contain his emotions. “My father and mother were 81 years of age. What was the purpose? I no longer believe in God. I don’t believe in religion.” At his feet, a cantaloupe-sized crater, where the grenade fell, mars the otherwise smooth marble around the garden.

“Who cares about my family?” he asks, his voice shaking. “The UN? World opinion? Does anyone among the millions of Americans care?” Nasrallah, who like the rest of his family was a civilian, adds: “My aim in life now is to stand against Israeli aggression if it ever happens again. I promise, I will become a member of the resistance.” In southern Lebanon that means Hizballah.

In every village and town in the south of the country — the area most heavily bombed by Israel — Lebanese tell similar tales of deceased loved ones and destroyed homes. Many who never took up arms before are now pledging to join Hizballah and fight Israel.

While some analysts point to Hizballah’s heavy losses and weakened infrastructure because of last year’s hostilities, most Lebanese here view the war as a victory for Hizballah, and insist that many have been drawn to the group due to their experience of the war. “There were 2,000 resistance fighters before,” Ali Nasrallah says, “but now there are ten times more.”

Abbas Fares, mayor of Maroun al-Ras, a border town that was the scene of heavy fighting during the war, declares that “there is no comparison; the resistance is much, much stronger now.”

Fares’ sister and brother-in-law, both civilians, were killed when Israeli ordnance hit their home at the edge of town. Almost every house in Maroun al-Ras was damaged in the war, and 82 houses were destroyed outright. Fares says that many here who fled during the war now insist that they will remain in their homes and fight should hostilities flare up again.

“I am an old man, but even I will fight like the young people,” Fares says. “I have a son who lost an arm and a leg. I thank God I now have five sons in the resistance. I encouraged my sons to join the resistance.”

In all 1,280 Lebanese, mostly civilians, were killed and more than 5,000 were wounded in last year’s conflict. Shia Muslims, most of whom support HIzballah and are in large numbers in the southern and eastern areas of the country, bore the brunt of the violence. Hundreds of thousands were left homeless. Lebanon’s infrastructure was heavily damaged. According to a UN estimate, the war cost Lebanon nearly 15 billion dollars, and has left a devastated economy in its wake.

Hizballah and foreign governments like Iran, Qatar and Kuwait have undertaken to rebuild the destroyed areas of the south, and construction crews have become almost as ubiquitous as the posters of martyrs that dot the landscape. But crumbled bridges and piles of rubble still blot the countryside.

Everywhere in the south, the Shia praise Hizballah for preventing further destruction and for what they term the “divine victory” over Israel. Thousands recently gathered in Dahiyeh, a poor, predominately Shia suburb of Beirut, to hear Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah commemorate the one-year anniversary of the end of the war.

As Nasrallah spoke from a giant screen, rows of yellow Hizballah flags were raised, and the crowd chanted victory slogans. Nearby, Hizballah has established a museum that displays Israeli booty and a re-created wartime bunker. The museum offers a video game for the willing to have a go at defeating the Israelis.

In a country historically fraught with violence, many Lebanese fear that they are merely living in a brief interlude between wars. The Lebanese army is mired in a fight with Fatah al-Islam, a militant Sunni Islamist group, and in the course of fighting the Palestinian refugee camp Nahr al-Bared has been completely destroyed.

Two members of parliament were assassinated in the months since the end of the war, and a Hizballah-backed general strike brought the country to a standstill in early January.

The US has poured economic, political and military support to the Lebanese government led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, in an effort to create a counterweight to Hizballah and the support it garners in the south.

Karam Karam, analyst at the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies, an independent think tank, says “we are dancing at the mouth of a volcano. We don’t know when it will erupt.”

While a pall of trepidation hangs over Beirut and much of Lebanon, many Shia of the south remain inspired by the “divine victory,” and are angry with the governments they feel are responsible for killing their loved ones. “America is not helping the Lebanese people, it is helping the Siniora regime,” says Fares.

“Israel’s aim is to occupy my land,” he says. “I will resist with everything I own. I have bought arms — and I don’t have any problem using them.”

Others, like Ali Nasrallah, have decided to resist in their own way until the next war. “I decided not to leave here. I stayed, and I fell in love with a woman. I tied the knot because I want to start a family.”

He pauses for a moment, and then adds quietly, “I won’t let the Israelis wipe out my family name.”

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