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Hezbollah under fire, but Lebanon hold is tight

Associated Press Published: November 3, 2012

That suggests the West does not see Hezbollah's predicament as an opening for challenging the group and wants to avoid a political crisis in Lebanon at a time when it's preoccupied with the Syria conflict, said Bilal Saab, an analyst at the Monterey Institute for International Studies.

"There will be a time when Hezbollah will be confronted, but this is not it," he said.

Hezbollah's media office in Beirut declined requests for interviews.

In response to domestic criticism, Hezbollah often plays the "resistance card," trying to draw political legitimacy from its combative stance toward Israel. The "Resistance Tourist Landmark" in the village of Mleeta is an outdoor shrine to Hezbollah's battle against Israel's 18-year military presence in Lebanon, which ended in 2000 when Israeli forces withdrew from a zone they controlled in the south.

A Hezbollah activist who serves as a volunteer tour guide at the site spoke dismissively of Lebanon's opposition.

"If you take a look at their numbers, they are very weak and small," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was expressing his personal view, not Hezbollah's official position.

The site, which was turned into a resistance museum in 2010, includes trenches covered by camouflage netting, a 200-meter-long tunnel and bunkers used by fighters at the time.

In one huge victory tableau, an Israeli Merkava tank is half-submerged into the ground. Hebrew letters in stone next to it read, "the Lebanese mud," a mocking reference to the phrase Israelis themselves use to describe their costly military entanglement across their northern border.

In its latest show of taking on Israel, the militia sent an Iranian-made drone on a reconnaissance flight over Israel earlier this month.

Israel shot down the plane near its Dimona nuclear reactor in the south, but an Iranian lawmaker later said Tehran was able to obtain images of Israeli military bases.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said he'd send more drones, boasting that "we can reach any place" in Israel.

In the 2006 war, Hezbollah forces battled Israel's military to a standstill, winning it support across the Arab world, even among Sunnis. That has diminished because of the Syria conflict. But among some, its resistance credentials trump its alliance with a dictator trying to crush a Sunni-led rebellion among some.

That's particularly the case in southern Lebanon, where residents still nurse bitter memories of Israel's invasion in the early 1980s.

In Sidon, a Sunni stronghold in the mainly Shiite south, Mohieddine Sin, a 56-year-old Sunni smoking a waterpipe in a boardwalk cafe, said he supports Hezbollah regardless of its actions in Syria. "Whoever is against Israel, we are with them," he said.

"Either you are with America or you are with the resistance," added fellow Sunni Fadi Saed, 47, owner of a Sidon household goods store in Sidon.

Hezbollah would suffer a serious blow if Assad were to fall, but likely not a fatal one.

It has done well by Lebanon's Shiites and built alliances with Christian and Druze politicians. The militia can likely count on continued support from Iran, which would want to protect its strategic proxy on Israel's doorstep, particularly if Assad is toppled. And even if a post-Assad leadership were to prevent more Iranian weapons from being shipped to Hezbollah, the militia already has a huge arsenal of tens of thousands of missiles, according to Israeli estimates.

Saab, the analyst, said Hezbollah remains in good shape, provided it does not get into another major war with Israel.

"Hezbollah is going to come out on top, not matter what," he said.