BEIRUT – Standing amid the smoking ruins of Beirut’s pulverized southern suburbs, Hezbollah official Abu Fadel was defiant. “As you can see, we are still here,” he declared. “Hezbollah is here, and it is everywhere.”

Fadel was leading journalists on what has become an almost daily event, a guided Hezbollah tour of the destruction caused by Israeli air strikes on the once-teeming southern neighborhoods of Beirut. This is where Hezbollah was headquartered, and where hundreds of thousands of people once lived, in densely populated, closely packed high-rises.

The suburbs are now eerily deserted, their residents having fled in the first days of the war. Hezbollah’s headquarters is a collapsed pile of masonry, the buildings housing the group’s press office and TV station are gone, and the apartment block where Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah lived has pancaked into a single story of crunched concrete.

Entire city blocks have been obliterated, along with the thousands of homes, shops and offices that they housed, by the tons of explosives dropped by Israeli warplanes in their effort to dislodge the Shiite militia.

The scene at this ground zero of Israel’s offensive offers a grim vision of what it would take to achieve Israel’s goal of destroying Hezbollah as a fighting force.

All indicators suggest Hezbollah has survived relatively unscathed. Its guerrilla forces are still firing rockets into northern Israel and putting up stiff resistance in the town of Bint Jbeil, its leader routinely appears on television, and its media department conducts regular press tours.

Lebanon itself is not faring so well.

As the conflict enters its third week, the country is teetering on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe. More than 800,000 people, nearly one-quarter of the population, have been displaced, the government says. In the war zone of the south, injured people are trapped in the rubble of the buildings that cascaded down on them. The death toll has passed 420 but is feared to be much higher.

The attacks have pummeled the country’s infrastructure, much of it newly built, turning the clock back on Lebanon’s hopes of recovery in the aftermath of the civil war that engulfed the country from 1975 to 1990.

According to the government, 62 bridges – two-thirds of the country’s total – have been destroyed, along with 85 percent of the main roads as well as 72 overpasses; 160 factories, farms and commercial ventures; 23 gas stations, 27 “vital points,” including ports, airports and power stations, and 6,200 apartments. The count is probably an underestimate, because officials say many areas are beyond reach of the government’s limited resources.

If the war continues, it will be the state that crumbles, not Hezbollah, complained Lebanon’s economy minister, Sami Haddad. With the roads impassable and Israel enforcing an air and sea blockade, Lebanon’s fragile, year-old government is in no position to assert its authority over the country, he said.

“If this goes another week, another couple of weeks, there will be nothing to negotiate about,” Haddad said. “The country will be destroyed, and the government will be in a precarious position.”

But if Israel hoped that the bombardments would turn Lebanese against Hezbollah – as the Israeli invasion of 1982 succeeded in turning Lebanese against the Palestine Liberation Organization – the strategy appears not to be working.

The Shiites of south Lebanon, tired of Israeli retaliation against Palestinian bases there, welcomed invading Israeli troops with rice and flowers in 1982. But unlike the PLO, Hezbollah is Lebanese, and even its critics acknowledge that it would be hard to destroy the organization.

Though there was initially anger that Hezbollah’s abduction of two Israeli soldiers had catapulted Lebanon backwards into war, Israel’s response convinced many Lebanese that Hezbollah was not to blame.

“The Lebanese are no novices to Israeli ways. They don’t trust Israel,” said Jamil Mrowe, editor of Beirut’s Daily Star, an English-language newspaper. “When the response came, they recognized that this is way beyond what we’re used to, and that this war is not about the two soldiers. Otherwise, why bomb the north, why bomb the mountains and why destroy our infrastructure? There is a sense that Lebanon itself is being targeted.

“If all this was actually weakening Hezbollah, there would be some justification, remote as it is,” added Mrowe, who believes Hezbollah should be disarmed. “But here they have just set Nasrallah on a trajectory to become the hero of the Arab world.”

Indeed, for many Lebanese, Israel’s response seems only to have validated Hezbollah’s self-proclaimed role as the sole guarantor of security against Israel. Though the Shiites of the south are bearing the brunt of the war, they also dread the prospect of another Israeli invasion, and they view the Hezbollah fighters as heroes.

“The U.S. army reached Baghdad in three weeks,” said Talib Talib, 32, who fled the fighting and sought refuge in Beirut last week. “Israel’s army has been fighting more than two weeks, and it has only moved a few miles.”

With Israel now talking about limiting its war aims to removing Hezbollah from its northern border, Hezbollah already glimpses victory.

“For us, victory is remaining on our land to defend our people,” said Hussein Hajj Hassan, one of 14 Hezbollah members in Lebanon’s Parliament.

“Israel has won a great victory against buildings,” he said, referring to the destruction of the suburbs. “But they cannot reach the bases of the resistance and the command of the resistance. Why? Because we are resistance. We are in unknown places.”

Though Israel has demolished known Hezbollah offices and command centers in its strikes against the suburbs, it appears Hezbollah had a contingency plan and was quickly able to redeploy to a shadowy, parallel network of command and control centers, probably deep underground, said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a political scientist at the Lebanese American University and author of a book on the Hezbollah movement.

Hezbollah’s television station, Al-Manar, went off the air briefly after its headquarters were hit on the war’s first day, but it has since broadcast continuously from an unknown location. Hezbollah leader Nasrallah, who surfaces from time to time for televised interviews, is rumored to be moving among underground bunkers in the suburbs.

“The leadership is obviously up and running. They’re coming out with unified statements. It seems the organization as a whole is intact,” said Saad-Ghorayeb.

It is hard to believe that Hezbollah has not been weakened militarily at least somewhat, with the fierce battles raging around Hezbollah strongholds in the border towns of the south. But it is impossible to tell because its military wing is so secretive, Mrowe said.

Unlike Palestinian guerrillas or the Lebanese militias who ruled Beirut’s streets during the civil war, Hezbollah members don’t wear uniforms or brandish guns, making it impossible to distinguish them from the civilian population.

“You can walk the streets of the suburbs and ask, where are these people?” he said. “You don’t see them, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. It’s a fighting force completely merged with society and it’s invisible.”

That is why Hezbollah disputes criticisms that its fighters have shielded themselves among the civilian population.

“Hezbollah is from this earth, it is from the people,” said Dr. Mohammed Bashir, administrator of the Hezbollah-affiliated Al Rasoul Hospital in the southern suburb of Borj al-Barajneh. “You can’t eliminate Hezbollah because it represents 35 to 40 percent of the people of Lebanon. How can they eliminate 1 or 2 million people?”

The hospital is nearly empty, patients have been evacuated. Because the people of the suburbs fled, there have been few casualties from the bombing here. The same can’t be said of the south, where civilians have been trapped by the intensity of the fighting. Bashir predicted victory for Hezbollah, but at a price.

“We are sure the Israelis are not going to win this war, but they are going to kill a lot of people,” he said. “A lot of people will die for our victory.”

Though the suburbs appear almost empty, Hezbollah’s presence seems ubiquitous. Unescorted reporters are quickly challenged by unarmed young men who at first sight appear to be ordinary civilians. Some journalists have been detained and interrogated.

Hezbollah says it has captured more than 30 people suspected of spying for Israel.

The only permitted visits are those organized by Hezbollah, which lays down ground rules: no interviews with the locals, and when the tour leader shouts “evacuate,” everyone must run.

On this visit, the Hezbollah officials were jumpy. The roar of Israeli jets could be heard overhead. After a few minutes, they called the tour off. “There are many planes in the sky. The bombing will start!” shouted Abu Fadel. “Yallah, yallah (Let’s go).”

He broke into a trot and headed for his car, trailed by a straggle of reporters, cameramen and photographers.



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