Inside Hezbollah, Big Miscalculations

Posted in Broader Middle East | 08-Oct-06 | Author: Anthony Shadid| Source: Washington Post

Hasan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, told Lebanese lawmakers in speeches before the war that the militia was a deterrent to Israel, which would not risk a Hezbollah missile attack.

Militia Leaders Caught Off Guard By Scope of Israel's Response in War

BEIRUT -- The meeting on July 12 was tense, tinged with desperation. A few hours earlier, in a brazen raid, Hezbollah guerrillas had infiltrated across the heavily fortified border and captured two Israeli soldiers. Lebanon's prime minister summoned Hussein Khalil, an aide to Hezbollah's leader, to his office at the Serail, the palatial four-story government headquarters of red tile and colonnades in Beirut's downtown.

"What have you done?" Prime Minister Fouad Siniora asked him.

Khalil reassured him, according to an account by two officials briefed by Siniora, one of whom later confirmed it with the prime minister. "It will calm down in 24 to 48 hours."

More technocrat than politician, Siniora was skeptical. He pointed to the Gaza Strip, which Israeli forces had stormed after Palestinian militants abducted a soldier less than three weeks earlier. Israeli warplanes had blasted bridges and Gaza's main power station.

Calmly, Khalil looked at him. "Lebanon is not Gaza," he answered.

What followed was a 33-day war, the most devastating chapter in Lebanon's history since the civil war ended in 1990, as Hezbollah unleashed hundreds of missiles on Israel and the Israeli military shattered Lebanon's infrastructure and invaded its south. Nearly three months later, parts of the country remain a shambles and tens of thousands are still homeless as winter approaches.

In speeches and iconography, Hezbollah has cast the war as a "divine victory." But a reconstruction of the period before and soon after the seizure of the soldiers reveals a series of miscalculations on the part of the 24-year-old movement that defies its carefully cultivated reputation for planning and caution. Hezbollah's leadership sometimes waited days to evacuate the poor, densely populated neighborhood in southern Beirut that is its stronghold. Only as Israeli warplanes began reducing the headquarters to rubble did they realize the scope of what the Israeli military intended. Hezbollah fighters were still planning to train in Iran the very month that the soldiers were seized; Hezbollah leaders in Beirut had assured Lebanese officials of a relatively uneventful summer.

"They were prisoners of their assumptions," said Nizar Abdel-Kader, a retired Lebanese general.

The outcome of the war, still a matter of perceptions, reveals both the strengths and weaknesses of Hezbollah, perhaps the world's best-organized guerrilla group. The movement, even by the admission of its leaders, misjudged the Israeli response. But by virtue of its complex infrastructure and preparations -- years spent digging tunnels, positioning weapons, upgrading its arsenal and carrying out surveillance along the border -- Hezbollah survived.

"We were always prepared because we always knew that the day would come when we have to fight this war," said Hussein Hajj Hassan, a Hezbollah member of parliament. "We also knew that God was with us. He was with us."

Timur Goksel, a former spokesman and adviser to the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon, put it more bluntly: "Hezbollah did not expect this response, but they were ready for it."

The Militia as Deterrent

On March 2, to great fanfare, leaders from across Lebanon's fractured political landscape began what was hailed as a National Dialogue. It drew together implacable foes: Walid Jumblatt, the chieftain of the Druze sect, sat across from Hasan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader; the two regularly traded thinly veiled insults. Michel Aoun, the most popular Christian leader, sat with Saad Hariri, a political novice who derives clout as the son of a former prime minister slain in a car bombing in 2005. For months, they tackled issues that threatened to tear the country apart: relations with Syria, the presence of armed Palestinians and the future of the isolated, pro-Syrian president.

Last on the agenda were Hezbollah's weapons.

Backed by France and the United States, U.N. Resolution 1559 was passed in September 2004. Under it, all militias in Lebanon -- diplomatic phrasing for Hezbollah -- were supposed to disarm. Five months later, Hariri's father, Rafiq, was assassinated, setting in motion events that forced Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon after a 29-year military presence. Deprived of the cover of one of its two main allies -- Iran is the other --Hezbollah was left relatively isolated, and its weapons became an even more pressing issue in a country whose sectarian tension was as pronounced as at any time since the civil war began.

Virtually no one expected the Lebanese army and its meager, outdated arsenal to disarm Hezbollah, which has cultivated broad support among Shiite Muslims through a variety of social services, political representation and a language of empowerment that resonates with the community's long sense of disenfranchisement. Only consensus could reach a solution short of strife.

On June 8, at the parliament building on place de l'Etoile, amid a security blanket that shut downtown, Nasrallah offered his defense at the National Dialogue. Dressed in clerical robes and a black turban, he spoke for more than an hour, participants recalled. Lebanese often remark on Nasrallah's highly organized speaking style; this speech was no different. Point by point, confident and determined but not arrogant, he explained why the militia -- what Hezbollah calls the Islamic resistance -- should retain its arms, from guns to thousands of missiles.

First, Nasrallah said, it provided a cover to the Lebanese state; in any battle with Israel, Hezbollah would suffer the consequences of Israeli reprisals, not the rest of the country. Second, Hezbollah had created a deterrent -- in the words of one participant, "a balance of fear and terror." Third, he said, the Lebanese army alone was not enough to protect a border that Israeli routinely violates by air and sometimes by sea.

In that session and the next on June 29, Hezbollah's critics at the dialogue questioned, sometimes sharply, the supposed balance of terror.

"I can reach Haifa and beyond Haifa," Nasrallah was quoted as answering them, according to Marwan Hamadeh, the telecommunications minister and a critic of Hezbollah who took part in the dialogue. Israel would not risk a Hezbollah missile attack, Nasrallah added, which could strike its petrochemical industry and the northern third of the country, including some of its most populated regions.

"He considered his potential threat as his deterrent," Hamadeh said, "that Israel would not escalate."

At the time, much of the talk was hypothetical. Participants were put at ease by what they took as Nasrallah's reassurance that nothing would disrupt the crucial tourist season, one of the Mediterranean country's lone patches of economic vitality. "He said this summer would be a quiet summer," Hamadeh recalled. "He said all the actions they would do would be reminders of their presence."

But almost as a footnote in Nasrallah's speech was a reiteration of a promise he had made many times before: the need to capture Israeli soldiers as leverage to win the release of three Lebanese prisoners. Hezbollah had tried before, in November 2005.

"He didn't say it to take approval," said Boutros Harb, a member of parliament, who sat three seats away from Nasrallah. Harb flicked his wrist in a flippant gesture. "He mentioned it like you'd write in the margins of a text."

"It didn't draw the attention of anyone at all."

Preparing for Ground War

Goksel, the former spokesman for the U.N. force, has watched Hezbollah's evolution since its incarnation in the wake of Israel's devastating 1982 invasion of Lebanon. He recalled an incident in 2001-02, more than a year after the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon. In two locales near the border, Khiam in the east and on the road to Naqoura on the coast, Hezbollah brought out excavation equipment and trucks, hauling away dirt. Men hung around, looking suspicious. And over as many as six months, in plain sight, tunnels were dug into the limestone of rugged southern Lebanon.

"We were meant to see these things," he said. "They were not making any effort to stop us looking."

At the time, he said he now believes, Hezbollah, farther from view, was digging other tunnels around Labouna, Aita al-Shaab and Maroun al-Ras, all along the Israeli border, that they employed for ambush and cover in combat to sometimes devastating effect during this summer's war.

"Looking back, they really fooled us on that one," Goksel added.

While Hezbollah's missiles were supposed to deter an all-out Israeli assault, the movement, by its own admission, also began preparing for a ground war almost from the day Israeli forces left in May 2000. Most of the militiamen were drawn from their villages and kept their weapons at home. Abdel-Kader said the town or village became the unit of defense, where other arms were stashed. The towns, in turn, were organized into three or four sectors, with a regional command.

"All the weapons were in the right place," he said. "They didn't need to mobilize."

Elias Hanna, another retired general, said the arsenal was updated over the past two years. In addition to rockets, anti-tank weapons were ferried through Syria; their use required at least some degree of training and their sophistication surprised Israeli forces.

As important to Hezbollah was surveillance. Goksel recalled fighters sometimes sitting for three months on the border "and they would write about everything that moves." He added, "They are the most patient watchers in the world."

On July 11, Goksel and seven students from a university class he was teaching stood on the Qasmiya Bridge, which spans the Litani River, the natural border of southern Lebanon. "I said, 'Look at this bridge. If anything happens, this is the first target.' " He wasn't worried, though. It was summer, and towns were filled with vacationing Shiite expatriates, many of them Hezbollah supporters. "I've never been so wrong in my life," he said.

The cross-border raid was carried out at 9:05 a.m. the next day. Soon after, Israeli warplanes struck the Qasmiya Bridge.

Three months later, Hezbollah's timing remains puzzling.

"They don't attempt adventures. They're not adventurous types," Goksel said. In every operation, they would project "what it means for Shiites, what it means for the party, what it means for Lebanon, what it means for Syria."

He paused. "One wonders if that process collapsed somehow," he said.

Hezbollah officials have hewed to the line Nasrallah delivered that night: They had long telegraphed such an operation, and the opportunity arose. Nasrallah has acknowledged that they did not anticipate the Israeli response, though Hezbollah's officials say they believe the Israelis were planning to carry out such a campaign by this October. In statement after statement, Nasrallah has dismissed charges by critics that Iran and Syria, both under international pressure, encouraged or even ordered the ambush.

Others offer a domestic rationale. The last session of the National Dialogue was set for July 25, nearly two weeks after the war began. Hamadeh suggested that Hezbollah could return to the table "with the proof that the deterrence philosophy would work." But even he admits, "The precipitation has something of a mystery around it."

Underrating a Threat

Two hours after the raid, Hassan, a reticent chemistry professor and one of the longest-serving members of parliament from Hezbollah, was sitting in a meeting for the committee on public works. His cellphone rang. "I smiled, hung up the phone and told the members of parliament in the room, 'Congratulations, our hostages will be coming home soon.' " Some smiled with him; others sat expressionless.

In another room, Nawwar Sahli, a Hezbollah representative who sends his children to an American-affiliated high school, sat in a parliamentary meeting on computerizing Lebanon's ministries. He, too, broke the news to colleagues.

"God help us," he recalled one of them responding.

Sahli went on with his day, getting an MRI exam at 3 p.m. for a pain in his neck. (He picked up the results after the war.) He listened to Nasrallah's speech, then went to his office at night to deal with paperwork in the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs known as the Dahiya. He ignored warnings by Hezbollah security not to stay late. From Khalifah, a local fast-food restaurant that was later bombed, he ordered a chicken fajita sandwich and Philly steak sandwich, then went for an interview on a Lebanese television station.

"I said that we shouldn't exaggerate, that Israel will just retaliate a bit, bomb a couple of targets and that would be the end of it," he recalled. "When I stayed in the office, I wasn't trying to be a hero. I seriously didn't think there was a threat."

Near the airport, Amin Sherri, another Hezbollah representative, sat with his wife, four children and three grandchildren.

"My family asked me if we should evacuate the house," he remembered. "I told them, 'Absolutely not.' " On that first day and early into the war, Hezbollah's political arm was relatively lax about security. Officials said they at times slept in other homes and changed their cars, but little else. Sherri kept his cellphone on throughout; Sahli said he was only occasionally advised to shut it off and remove its SIM card. Only by the third day, after Israeli forces had struck the airport road, Nasrallah's offices, Hezbollah's television and radio stations and several bridges, was the Dahiya fully evacuated, military officials said.

It was on that day, Sahli said, that he began getting worried.

But, he added, "I kept telling myself that no war lasts forever."

A Fighter's Call to Duty

Along the rolling hills of southern Lebanon that face the Israeli border, Shadi Hani Saad was getting ready for breakfast in the village of Aita al-Shaab on July 12. He was the oldest son of Zeinab Hammoud and her favorite. But when he was as young as 8, with southern Lebanon still occupied, she remembered him asking her, "Will Hezbollah still be there when I grow up?"

Tall and broad-shouldered, Saad joined the Hezbollah youth movement in 2000 after the Israeli withdrawal. As a 14-year-old, he bypassed the lower grades of the Mahdi Scouts -- the Blossoms, the Cubs and the Sailors -- and had become Infantry. Within two years, he had achieved the highest rank, a Rover, and then carried out his first operation as a militiaman.

"They didn't tell us where," she said.

He trained once or twice a week. This summer, he was groomed for even more responsibility; his mother said Hezbollah was about to send him for six months of military training in Iran.

The trip never happened. A little after 9 a.m. on July 12, after Saad had gotten out of the shower, another fighter showed up at her door and whispered something to him. Saad grabbed his M-16 rifle, along with ammunition he kept at the house, and walked away in a T-shirt and jeans. "He told me, 'I might return, I might not return,' " his mother recalled.

Years of surveillance had given Hezbollah an idea of where the Israeli forces might cross the border, Goksel said. Of 24 gates, they entered four, and at each, Hezbollah had guessed right with its fortifications and defenses, he said.

Aita al-Shaab was one. "They were waiting for them," he said.

In addition, Lebanese analysts say Israeli hesitation in the early part of the war allowed Hezbollah, caught off guard, time to prepare its defenses. By the time Israeli troops entered in force, more than a week later, Hezbollah's men were in place in villages like Aita al-Shaab. Saad's mother said he called her the first day, then the second, using a land line they deemed more secure. On the third day, he planned to come home to visit and asked her to cook dinner.

That was the last time they spoke. Israeli raids escalated that day, and the Israeli military warned residents of border towns to flee. In a blue 1986 Mercedes, she left with her four other children for Tyre, then north to the Chouf Mountains. After they fled, Saad called an uncle. "Where's my family?" he asked. Nearly three weeks later, on a Thursday night, he was killed in an airstrike.

"What God wants to leave me, he'll leave," his mother said. "What he wants to take, he'll take."

She sat at her home, with a picture of Nasrallah on the wall. A school picture of Saad hung nearby in a black frame. A sprawling poster, with a purple tint, pictured Saad in military uniform and declared him a martyred crusader. Another picture showed all nine of the Hezbollah fighters who died in the village, among the 30 or so who stayed -- by local legend, against Nasrallah's wishes -- to face Israeli troops.

Her blue eyes glimmered with tears, and she recalled a conversation before the war. As they sat at home, Saad had asked that when he died he be buried among martyrs. "What do you mean martyrs?" she shot back, half-joking. "Why do you tell me this kind of stuff?"

She shook her head. "Who knew there would be a war?"

Special correspondent Alia Ibrahim contributed to this report.