In Al-Rassoul al Aazam, a southern suburb of Beirut, hospital director Mohammed Hijazi is proud of the latest addition to his 140-bed general hospital, a state-of-the-art neonatal ward, the best of its kind in the Middle East.
NEARBY, UZARI elementary school principal Ahmed Kassir explains the meaning of Ashoura, the solemn Shi’ite religious holiday, to his students.
Across town, Ibrahim Musawi puts the finishing touches on his half-hour English-language newscast, to be broadcast via satellite into hundreds of thousands of homes in neighboring Israel and the Palestinian territories.
What do the hospital, the school and the TV studio have in common? They are all financed and managed by Hizballah, the radical Islamic group more famous for its suicide bombers and Katyusha rockets than for its social services.
In Lebanon, and particularly in Beirut, Hizballah — the Party of God — is not just a military force that liberated the people from 18 years of Israeli occupation. Two years since the Israeli pullout, Hizballah has had to adjust to remain relevant. Now, it’s as much a political force, deeply rooted in the Lebanese Shi’ite community.
But as the Arab League ended a two-day summit here Thursday by approving a of “normal relations” with Israel in exchange for a return of all Arab lands, the role of Hizballah — and its fierce hostility toward the Jewish state — remains a thorny one for the United States, which has designated it a terrorist organization.
In an interview with NBC, Hizballah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, freely acknowledged the organization’s role in smuggling weapons to Palestinian militants.
FINANCED BY IRAN, SYRIA
For the United States and its allies, Hizballah remains what it has always been since its creation in 1982 — the army of resistance to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, still figuring prominently on the U.S. State Department’s list of international terrorist groups.
For years, its very name has evoked fear in Israel and in the West. As a national resistance movement, it was financed and armed by Shi’ite Iran and neighboring Syria.
Now it receives over $100 million a year, mostly from Iran, to manage its extensive network of hospitals, schools and charities. Has Hizballah, then, gone “straight”? Hardly.
“Iran doesn’t give them money because Iran cares about South Lebanese Shi’ites having hospitals, charity organizations or schools,” said Hazhir Teimourian, a Middle East analyst based in London.
“Iran gives them money because it wants them to carry out military acts of terror against the Israelis and the West.”
The consensus among terrorist experts is that, if Iran and Syria decided to turn off the taps, Hizballah would dry up within weeks.
But Nasrallah, the Hizballah leader, denied the group was a puppet of its financial backers. “Wrong is the person who thinks that Syria and Iran can tell Hizballah, ‘Resist or don’t resist; stop the operations or launch new operations,”’ he said.
The 45-year-old cleric has been the face of Hizballah since his predecessor, Sheik Abbas Musawi, was killed by Israeli helicopter gunships 10 years ago.
Nasrallah denied U.S. allegations that Hizballah was responsible for some of the most dramatic terrorist attacks against Americans in the past generation — the 1983 suicide bombings of the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut, which killed hundreds of Americans; the spate of hostage-taking in the 1980s; the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in 1985.
During those chaotic times, other “unknown” groups were to blame for the incidents, Nasrallah said.
Hizballah was too busy fighting a war of resistance against Israeli troops, he said.
But Nasrallah acknowledged Hizballah’s role in helping Palestinian groups in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
And, when asked about his reaction to the use of suicide bombs against innocent men, women and children in Israel, Nasrallah asserted the Palestinians were only defending themselves.
InsertArt(1467241)“Hundreds of Palestinian civilians have been killed by Israeli forces since the beginning of this intifada (uprising), so they had to resort to this their only means of defense. The world condemns what the Palestinians are doing, but it just watches as Israel kills women and children every day.”
Round, jovial and eloquent, it is easy to forget that Nasrallah is defending the decapitation and evisceration of human beings whose only crime was to be in the wrong pizzeria or discotheque at the wrong time.
But, in the poor backstreets of Muslim West Beirut, most people support Hizballah’s policies, and many here consider Nasrallah a holy man of great distinction.
Even an NBC interpreter, a 25-year-old secular Lebanese woman, couldn’t resist telling Nasrallah how excited all of her friends were about her chance to meet him.
Under his guidance, Hizballah has acquired 12 seats in Lebanon’s Parliament. For people in Lebanon, Hizballah isn’t a terrorist group but a liberation movement, providing more social benefits to over a million Shi’ite Muslims than even the Lebanese government can offer.
NOT THE TALIBAN
Hizballah TV news director Ibrahim Musawi explained it this way. “We are not like the Taliban, or al-Qaida. Those were despised organizations, imposed from the outside. We are deeply entrenched in Lebanese society. We are engineers, teachers, students, familes — we are everywhere, and we will continue to exist.”
And some analysts agree. Which is why they warn against a move by the U.S.-led coalition on Hizballah in any future chapters of the war on terror.
With a strong base in Lebanon and throughout the Arab world, any military assault on Hizballah would likely lead to a bloodbath, they said.
So, for now, this new, improved Hizballah will remain on the official U.S. list of potential terrorist targets, still dedicated to the destruction of Israel — and just as determined to scuttle any peace plan between Arabs and the Zionist enemy.
NBC’s Jim Maceda is on assignment in Beirut.