July 27, 2006
by Charles Levinson
A gentle tap on his right arm from a bearded man who said he was an Islamic charity worker was all it took to warn Samir Asaad to quiet down.
Hezbollah, Asaad had been saying, is providing food and other aid to people trapped in the Lebanese village of Bassuriyeh, the hometown of the Shiite movement’s leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Then came the nudge. Asaad, who is overseeing a shelter for displaced women and children here, quickly shut his mouth while the unassuming volunteer set the record straight for visiting journalists.
“There is no Hezbollah here,” corrected Ridar Damarjeh, who said he was a local shop owner and a volunteer for an Islamic charity. “All the Hezbollah are on the front lines fighting Israel.”
Throughout Hezbollah-controlled south Lebanon, the Shiite guerrilla movement, charity organization and political party, seems to have disappeared leaving scarcely a trace.
But the popular grassroots movement which grew from within these hillside villages remains a ubiquitous, if invisible, presence.
This village of a few thousand people, 15 minutes outside the southern port of Tyre, is where the fiery cleric and wily military tactician now at the helm of Hezbollah came of age.
Hassan Nasrallah, who was Hezbollah’s military commander before he ascended to the top spot, has turned his fighters into a mean guerrilla force over the past two decades capable of dissolving into the population at a moment’s notice, analysts say.
“That is their style. They never show themselves,” says Timur Goksel, a professor at Beirut’s American University and a former United Nations advisor who spent years mediating between Israel and Hezbollah.
“They don’t need a command structure, or a headquarters. They know their missions and work in small groups. They become invisible very quickly.”
It is one of the reasons the Israeli air campaign has exacted such a disproportionate toll on Lebanese civilians. The militants Israel has set out to destroy are woven deep into the social fabric of the largely Shiite south.
In Nasrallah’s hometown, in Hezbollah heartland, there are no gunmen roving the village’s narrow streets or lounging in its leafy gardens. There are no spokesmen to answer the media’s questions or local leaders who admit fealty to the besieged Islamists.
The organization’s fluttering yellow flags and posters of its leaders and fallen “martyrs” are the only obvious reminder that this is Hezbollah’s domain.
Those who remain in south Lebanon’s grassy farming villages despite the relentless bombs, missiles and artillery shells, invariably insist Hezbollah is elsewhere, even as unobtrusive minders follow curious visitors about the village.
“Where is Hezbollah?” asks Salim Watfa, a retired Lebanese soldier, who has refused to let the Israeli air campaign drive him from his native village of Bassuriyeh. “Israelis are saying the resistance is among us but do you see any fighters? There is no resistance here.”
But even as the Israeli onslaught has forced its leadership deep underground, Hezbollah, which won over hundreds of thousands of supporters by pouring huge sums of money into clinics, schools and cheap housing for downtrodden Shiites, appears to be quietly looking after its flock.
In Tebnine, 30 minutes east of Bassuriyeh, somebody — they don’t know who and prefer not to ask — brings water each day to the 1,500 refugees in the village hospital.
“A man risks his life to bring us water from nearby wells each day,” says Mohammad Zeineddin, the Lebanese army officer in charge of the hospital turned refugee shelter.
“Who is he? It’s better we don’t ask. That’s our way in times like this.”
Even as it operates largely below the radar, Hezbollah’s long reach makes its presence felt in other ways too.
One Western journalist spent days scouring the south Lebanese port city of Tyre and the surrounding villages for a sign of the militants who triggered the Israeli assault, but came up empty.
Then, two men showed up at his seafront hotel. He had asked too many questions, they said. He would have to return to Beirut. The journalist in question asked not to be identified fearing Hezbollah retaliation.
“This is their counter intelligence. They have a very effective local networks who report every thing that is going on,” says Goksel, the former UN advisor.
An ice cream vendor in downtown Tyre simply shrugs his shoulders when asked about the shadowy organization. He knows they are around, he says, but no one knows where.
“Even during peaceful times we never see them anywhere,” says Ali Mohammed, 56. “They are a part of the people. We don’t know who is Hezbollah and who is not. It could be you or me.”
Copyright © 2006 Agence France Presse. All rights reserved. The information contained in the AFP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of Agence France Presse.