New Page 1

 Sunday, July 30, 2006

Sheikh Nasrallah: To Arabs, He is the New Nasser. To the West, He is the new Bin Laden


Giles Whittel

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
Sheik Hassan Nasrallah

"... it has made him the new face of jihadism, with an appeal transcending border and sectarian divides.

With stunning swiftness, Sheikh Nasrallah has eclipsed even Osama bin Laden as the West’s most potent enemy in the War on Terror. "

-Giles Whittel
Read here full article

Three times in the past three weeks Israeli jets have flattened buildings where they hoped that Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the unchallenged leader of Hezbollah, was hiding.

Three times they missed him, and three times he appeared on his own TV channel soon afterwards to mock them.

Where is Sheikh Nasrallah now?

On Thursday a Kuwaiti newspaper put him in Damascus. Last night Iran denied that he was hiding in its Embassy in Beirut — but offered refuge should he want it.

This is the man now hailed by Arabs from Syria to Egypt as the new Nasser.

He is also the terrorist whom Israel must kill to claim victory in southern Lebanon. And, for all the rumours, he is believed to have stayed in Beirut throughout this war, racing between hiding places in unmarked family saloon cars as the Israeli air force tries to catch up.

The survival of Sheikh Nasrallah is already remarkable.

Even more so is the West’s sudden obsession with his leadership — not just of Hezbollah but also, for all practical purposes, of Lebanon and of an upsurge of pan-Arab solidarity potentially more powerful than any since the Yom Kippur war of 1973.

His support on the Arab street will not of itself rebuild Lebanon or destroy Israel, which remains a key Hezbollah goal.

But it has made him the new face of jihadism, with an appeal transcending border and sectarian divides. This is why, with stunning swiftness, Sheikh Nasrallah has eclipsed even Osama bin Laden as the West’s most potent enemy in the War on Terror.

“Nasser 1956 — Nasrallah 2006” declare the posters on the streets of Cairo. No al- Qaeda figurehead was ever so honoured. “Oh beloved Nasrallah, strike Tel Aviv,” chant protesters in Bahrain, home of the US 5th Fleet.

And his latest televised threat is to do just that, with long-range missiles he has not needed to deploy so far.

To Israel, the story of Sheikh Nasrallah is one of toxic extremism and remorseless killing.

To his followers, it is of patient planning and heroic defiance. Until this month his greatest triumph, in their eyes, was Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon six years ago.

But by taking on the full might of the Israeli Defence Forces in a war of his own timing — and then holding it at bay — he surpassed himself.

On Wednesday troops from the IDF’s elite Golani brigade entered the village of Bint Jbeil in southeastern Lebanon after Israeli artillery had pounded it for days. They had expected resistance, but not the furious Hezbollah ambush that pinned them down for six hours and left 13 Israeli soldiers dead.

Sheikh Nasrallah had staged a victory rally in this remote stronghold in 2000. Now he crowed on his own al-Manar satellite news channel: “We will fight in Bint Jbeil . . . and we will fight in every village, town, position and post.”

What has set him apart from other Arab leaders is his ability to make good promises.

That, in turn, is the result of systematic stockpiling of weapons from Syria and Iran and his transformation of the military wing of Hezbollah into the world’s most lethal guerrilla army.

Under Sheikh Nasrallah field commanders are promoted strictly on merit and their fighters are trained as specialists, among them snipers who proved their worth this week. Israel’s losses at Bint Jbeil were the IDF’s worst in a single day for 20 years.

Such resistance has electrified not just the Arab world but also Lebanese voters of all stripes.

A new poll shows that 80 per cent of Lebanese Christians, 80 per cent of Druze and 89 per cent of Sunnis support Hezbollah, even though it remains Shia to its core.

Small wonder that Ayman al-Zawahri, the al-Qaeda second-in-command, felt the need this week to cross the sectarian divide and jump on the Hezbollah bandwagon in a tape broadcast on al-Jazeera; or that a Lebanese minister said of Sheikh Nasrallah: “We wonder who can rein him in now.”

As in combat, so in the propaganda war. Even Sheikh Nasrallah’s mortal enemies concede that he has a charisma and instinct for public relations that most Arab leaders lack.

He also grasps the importance of television, and personally supervised his al-Manar channel’s defences against Israeli attack.

That attack came within hours of Hezbollah’s abduction of two Israeli soldiers on July 12. F16 jets destroyed the channel’s five-storey headquarters, then returned to strafe the rubble in case anyone had been working in the basement. Two minutes later al-Manar was back on the air. It has not stopped broadcasting since.

Aides to Sheikh Nasrallah say that he considered this war inevitable.

It is no exaggeration to say that he spent 14 years preparing. The process started in 1992 when Israeli helicopter gunships destroyed a motorcade carrying Abbas Mussawi, then the Hezbollah leader and a close mentor to Sheikh Nasrallah. Aged 32, Sheikh Nasrallah took over.

He launched root-and-branch reforms that were to propel Hezbollah from the status of Iranian-backed extremist splinter group to state within a state.
That summer Hezbollah politicians took part in Lebanese parliamentary elections for the first time. A welfare programme was launched to cement Hezbollah’s hold on the impoverished villages of the south.

The expansion of its military wing began. And Sheikh Nasrallah ordered the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29.


Born in 1960, the eldest of nine children, he has said that he was “a dull, studious child”. If so, it was the dullness of cold steel. Singled out for his diligence, he was sent as a teenager from Tyre to a Shia college in Iraq.

He was expelled from there, only to be immersed deeper in Shia fundamentalism in Iran, where the 1979 revolution inspired him to join Hezbollah at its founding three years later. Its explicit aim: to drive Israel back to its pre-1967 borders.

As leader he has brooked no dissent. Two years after striking Argentina’s Israeli Embassy he cemented his reputation for ruthlessness by hitting Buenos Aires again. This time a massive car bomb killed 85 people and injured 250 in the Jewish district.

He could inspire fear — but also sympathy. In 1997 his eldest son, Hari, was killed aged 18 fighting Israeli troops in the south. Sheikh Nasrallah was due to address a group of students in Beirut. “Now I can look other parents who have lost children in the eye,” he began, then delivered his prepared speech.

Labelled a terrorist in both Washington and Whitehall, he has nonetheless shown unerring political instincts.

Anticipating Hezbollah’s vulnerability as a mere proxy for Syria and Iran, he has steadily broadened its power base within Lebanon, setting up the Lebanese Resistance Battalions with both Christians and Druze and seeking funds from the Lebanese diaspora as well as Tehran and Damascus.

He claims to receive more funds from émigrés than from either state sponsor.

In 2000 Sheikh Nasrallah was photographed with the world’s top diplomat, Kofi Annan.

The following year he condemned the Taleban after the 9/11 attacks.

He criticised Abu Musab al-Zarqawi for beheading foreigners in Iraq and appeared to side with the “Cedar Revolution” against Syria in Beirut that followed the murder of Rafik Hariri, the Prime Minister.

Yet, in practice, Sheikh Nasrallah had sacrificed none of his support: Bashar Assad, the Syrian President, is said to revere him as a godfather.

Three weeks ago President Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia felt free to side with Washington in denouncing Sheikh Nasrallah’s provocation of Israel.

They are now distancing themselves from the US, while their citizens flock to Sheikh Nasrallah’s banner.

A Cairo street-sweeper told the Eyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm: “Uncle Ahmed [Sheikh Nasrallah] has awakened the dead man inside me! May God make him triumphant!”

Israel cannot live with him on its northern border but, even if it manages to kill him, his supporters will claim that his stand has already echoed the meaning of his name: Victory of God.

  Go to Latest Posting

Comments 0