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Hello, it's Israel calling, and calling, and calling

Published August 9, 2006

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Hassan al-Harakeh answered his phone one evening to hear a deep voice asking: "How long will you go on supporting the gang of Hassan Nasrallah?" It was Israel calling, with a message denouncing Hezbollah and its leader.

Cell phones and land lines across Lebanon have been ringing with automated, recorded messages, part of a propaganda war being waged along with Israel's assault on Lebanon.

The sophisticated campaign has given the impression that Israelis are everywhere, not just in the warplanes overhead or on the front lines of the ground battle against Hezbollah.

Hackers broke into Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV transmission, and the Lebanese press is dotted with reports of Israeli commandos turning up in places far from the front.

The Israeli army won't confirm that it is behind the phone calls. But few Lebanese have any doubts.

"This is the beginning of the cell phone war between Israel and Hezbollah," wrote Ahmed Mughrabi, a reporter for Al-Hayat newspaper.

"The cellular and land lines have become ingredients of the modern psychological and propaganda wars, joining other tools ... like the radio, TV, flyers and the Internet," he said.

Mughrabi got a call as well, the same deep voice but this time addressing Nasrallah: "Hassan, have you realized yet that the Israeli army is not as delicate as a spider's web? It's a web of steel that will strangle you."

There are a variety of messages, all seeking to break the Lebanese public from Hezbollah, which Israel says it is determined to cripple after guerrillas kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and killed three others in a raid July 12.

The message didn't work on Harakeh.

"I wish they had the guts to come and say those words face to face so I could respond to them," he said. "Let them go pick up their dead from the battleground instead of sending these messages," he added.

Harakeh is a Hezbollah supporter, but calls have come to Lebanese regardless of affiliation - including to Christians and to land lines at offices.

"This is the state of Israel," said one message. "This resistance (by Hezbollah) ... is forcing you to stay at home like rats."

Another posed questions: "Who is it that's putting your life in danger? Who is using you as human shields?"

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