Beirut, Lebanon Power failures are creating problems across much of the city, cell phones are unpredictable, and the regular bombing makes my neighbors cautious about going out, leaving most people here alone with the question that has plagued them for almost two weeks: What on Earth was Hezbollah up to when it abducted two Israeli soldiers and provoked a punishing response that is creating orphans and bringing down buildings all around us?
As a scholar who has devoted much of my career to following Hezbollah, I have a simple answer. I'm sure that Hezbollah had envisaged, though perhaps not expected, a response of this kind. By provoking its southern neighbor, Hezbollah knew it would present Israel with a ghastly choice. Hezbollah is a popular social movement, and it is well aware that it can be destroyed only if the Israeli army is prepared to commit mass murder, genocide, ethnic cleansing - use whatever unpalatable term you will - against the entire Shiite community.
Israel won't win without wiping out a religious group. However angry the Israelis are, there must be many who won't be able to stomach that possibility, with its hideous historic implications. That's what Hezbollah was counting on 11 days ago when its fighters took Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser captive near the Lebanese border.
Without wanting to alarm my neighbors who are adjusting to the nightly barrage of Israeli missiles, I cannot help but cast the current conflict in apocalyptic terms. What began as a surgical military operation staged by a relatively small organization has metamorphosed into an existential showdown with the potential to transform the political landscape of the Middle East. And it has put Hezbollah in its favorite spot: center stage, with the international community looking on.
I've been reading this script for 11 years now, interviewing political, media and security officials from Hezbollah. And they have given me insights into the party's motives that go well beyond the prisoner exchange that it publicly claims. True, Hezbollah had dubbed 2006 "the year of retrieving the prisoners" and had warned of its intent to kidnap Israelis to secure the release of three Lebanese held in Israel. But the seizure of these two soldiers also reflects Hezbollah's broader goals - both its domestic political agenda and its regional, strategic one.
Domestically, Hezbollah has succeeded in integrating itself into the Lebanese political system, with its two government ministers and 14 MPs. But the party has also been keen to convince others of the importance of its resistance and of its unrivaled efficacy as a deterrent to the threat posed by Israel.
And Israel's current onslaught has unwittingly provided Hezbollah with the opportunity to demonstrate both that Israel remains Lebanon's gravest enemy, and that Hezbollah is the only force capable of confronting it. The Lebanese government's ineptitude in handling the crisis, coupled with the army's sitting-duck status, only underscores that point.
Hezbollah has succeeded in elevating its regional importance, positioning itself alongside Iran, Syria and Hamas - the axis of terrorism in Israel's lexicon. In this light, Hezbollah's face-off with Israel is not only a defensive war of survival (in response to Israel's and the declared U.S. objective of eliminating the organization), but also an attempt to shatter the myth of Israeli invincibility (which explains why Israel also views this conflict in existential terms).
Most of all, though, Hezbollah hopes to set a new precedent in the Arab world, as its leader Hasan Nasrallah revealed in his latest televised speech: He characterized his movement as a "spearhead of the (Islamic) umma" and declared the conflict as "surpassing Lebanon ... it is the conflict of the umma," whose success or failure will reverberate in the entire region. In other words, Hezbollah is to serve as an inspiration, as an exemplar of bold action against Israel and, by extension, against Arab regimes that have allied themselves with the United States and Israel.
With so much at stake, it is likely that Hezbollah foresaw Israel's overreaction and laid out contingency plans. Its daily displays of its long-range missiles are more than empty exercises in psychological warfare. Echoing in my mind are the words of a Hezbollah official. He told me that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's ongoing anti-Zionism, along with Iranian supreme religious leader Ali Khamenei's affirmation that Hezbollah will never disarm, has given the movement confidence that it can "fight for months."
Hezbollah is launching missiles deeper into Israeli territory than it ever has before. It is bringing the war to Israelis' doorsteps in the hope that they will pressure their government to call for an unconditional cease-fire. And it wants to demoralize the Israeli army, one Hezbollah official told me.
It is hard to gauge public opinion here today. From the snippets of conversation I pick up, people remain polarized, as they were before the war: On one end are those (mainly non-Shiites) who lay the blame for Israel's destruction of Lebanon squarely on Hezbollah for having picked the fight; and on the other are those (overwhelmingly Shiite) who believe, as one man told me, that "we should fight to the death." But there are also many in between whose initial anger at Hezbollah is being replaced by rage at Israel. Those sentiments remind me of 1982, when Israel's invasion of Lebanon gave birth to Hezbollah.
Little room for negotiation
Given its current position of strength, Hezbollah is in no mood to settle for anything less than its original demand for a prisoner exchange, as Nasrallah asserted in a recent interview on al-Jazeera. Why would Hezbollah agree to any of the diplomatic proposals being floated? The idea of deploying the Lebanese army to the south to serve as a buffer between Israel and Hezbollah would be tantamount to the party's military neutralization. And the notion of stationing multinational troops there is even more far-fetched, given that Hezbollah and the Shiite community would view them as occupiers.
Leaving Israel to significantly weaken Hezbollah's military infrastructure would have equally perilous consequences. If there is anything more dangerous than a strong Hezbollah, it is a weak Hezbollah. One can only imagine what would happen if the organization were left bereft of leadership, clinging to its remaining weapons and operating underground, while the Shiite community is seething with resentment at Israel, the United States and the government that it perceives as its betrayer. As one Hezbollah member said, "All hell would be let loose."
Which is a reminder that although this past week has been bad, we haven't seen hell yet.