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Hezbollah's grip will be tough to break

Published July 14, 2006

When I was in Lebanon last year, I had an interview with one of the leaders of Hezbollah, the radical Shiite organization that kidnapped two Israeli soldiers this week.

To accompany me, I hired an interpreter, a blond, blue-eyed Lebanese Christian woman in spike heels and a short skirt. As we drove to Hezbollah's headquarters in southern Beirut, home to hundreds of thousand of poor Shiites, the streets got more crowded, the buildings more decrepit, the women more modestly dressed to the point many wore Iranian-style black abayas and head scarves.

My interpreter, eyes widening as a truly foreign scene unfolded before her, had a confession: Even though she was born in Beirut, she had never seen this part of the city.

"I had no idea," she kept repeating.

In many ways it was a moment that told the story of Lebanon and showed why its government may be unable to crack down on Hezbollah even in the face of huge Israeli pressure. In retaliation for the kidnappings and rocket attacks, Israel on Thursday bombed Beirut's international airport, blockaded its seaport and created a near panic that sent thousands of visitors fleeing to neighboring Syria.

After Lebanon's terrible civil war ended in 1990, central Beirut went through a building boom that helped restore its image as the "Paris of the Mideast." Today, the Beirut that my interpreter and many other well-to-do Lebanese know is a city of luxury hotels, smart shops, fast cars and trendy restaurants.

Much of the credit for Beirut's transformation went to the late Rafik Hariri, a Sunni entrepreneur who started out in the construction business in Saudi Arabia and returned home to become one of Lebanon's richest and most influential citizens. He twice served as prime minister, favoring friends and relatives, critics say, and largely ignoring the Shiites who populated the slums of south Beirut and the villages in southern Lebanon close to the Israeli border.

Hezbollah stepped into the gap left by the government, starting schools and health care clinics and building a base of support among the Shiites, who are thought to make up a majority of Lebanon's 4-million people. There has been no official census since 1932. The organization now has 14 seats in Lebanon's Parliament and, along with Amal, another Shiite party, controls about a third of the Cabinet.

Thus, part of the reason Lebanon's government will find it difficult to disarm Hezbollah is that Hezbollah is a substantial part of the government.

"It's not a promising situation for the Israelis," says Robert Lowe, an expert on the Mideast at London's Chatham House. "The influence they can bring to bear on the government is limited and the influence on Hezbollah is even more limited."

Though it has moved into politics and social services, Hezbollah has never abandoned its raison d'etre, which is the destruction of Israel. It has been supported in that goal by Iran, a Shiite country that reportedly has funneled millions of dollars and tons of armaments into Lebanon via Syria.

Kenneth Stein, professor of Mideast and Israeli studies at Emory University, recalls a trip to Beirut in the 1980s when a Christian militia member pointed out a plane at the airport.

"That's an Iranian airliner that just arrived with weapons to go to Hezbollah," Stein was told.

Two decades later, Hezbollah is even better armed and far more sophisticated militarily than Hamas and other Palestinian groups. While Palestinians still use notoriously unreliable Qassam rockets, a Hezbollah missile hit Haifa, Israel's third largest city Thursday, and scores of rockets rained down on northern Israel, killing two people and wounding at least 120.

"Hezbollah does not want to disarm," Stein says. "What is Hezbollah if it can't use force as a tool for perpetuating its goal of trying to destroy the state of Israel? Does it merely want to be a political party within the Lebanese Parliament? And the answer is no."

Israel's retaliation - defended by President Bush but criticized by many other foreign leaders as an excessive use of force - could not have come at a worse time for Lebanon. This is the start of the peak tourist season when thousands of Persian Gulf Arabs flee the scorching heat of their conservative homelands for Lebanon's cool mountains, balmy Mediterranean coast and relaxed attitude toward drinking and dress.

Thousands of other visitors are also in the country, including Pilar Saad, a Tampa high school teacher who came for her daughter's June 23 wedding to a Lebanese-American. The couple have since returned to New Jersey, but Saad has been virtually trapped in her in-laws' 10th floor apartment for the past two days as Israel bombarded Beirut's airport, port and parts of the city.

"We went to the beach on Tuesday and on Wednesday all hell broke loose," she said in a telephone interview when I reached her at midnight Beirut time, 5 p.m. Florida time. (Communications have been spotty.)

"I can see the southern suburbs; they're still smoking. I think it was a gas station they (the Israelis) hit. We could see lighted missiles from the sea flying to the south. With what's going on, people are just scrambling to get to safety. Many of the shops and things are closed and people are buying bread at the bakeries because we don't know what's going to happen."

Saad is due to return home in two weeks, but with Lebanon's only international airport now full of bomb craters she is unsure if she'll have to leave by land through Syria. Still, she sounded remarkably collected.

"This is not my first experience with Israeli bombardment," explained Saad, a repeat visitor to Lebanon. "I'm sort of like a veteran, but if this was the first time, I'd be in a panic."

Susan Martin can be contacted at

[Last modified July 14, 2006, 15:41:35]

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