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Fighting in Lebanon Escalates; Hezbollah Declares ‘Open War’

July 14, 2006 at 6:30 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Our Middle East coverage starts with reports from Lebanon and Israel, beginning with Tim Ewart of Independent Television News in Beirut.

TIM EWART, ITV News Correspondent: The international airport was bombed for the second time, dispelling any remaining hope that it might soon be reopened.

Well, this is the area of southern Beirut, which is the focus for Israeli attacks at the moment. This is where the Israelis believe Hezbollah had their stronghold and where leaders of Hezbollah are still in hiding.

The Israelis targeted buildings they said housed Hezbollah offices and flats, but there is much collateral damage in a crowded area that is home to thousands of Lebanese. At the local hospital, the injured from the raid included people were already patients, cut by flying glass as they lay in bed.

Well, this is the price that the ordinary people of Lebanon are paying for the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. Every time a bridge is hit, a road destroyed, a power station taken out, their lives become just a little bit more difficult, a little bit more miserable.

LEBANESE CITIZEN: You can’t even go to work. You can’t even go out to your house or to your family.

TIM EWART: Further south, in the area they consider Hezbollah heartland, Israeli jets kept up a steady bombardment. More than 60 people have now been killed in operations like this, and Lebanon’s infrastructure, its network of roads and bridges, is slowly being dismantled from the air.

Government ministers are increasingly alarmed about the time repairs will take.

AHMED FATFAT, Interior Minister, Lebanon: If it could stop here where it is now, it will be feasible in one year. But if it continues, like it seems to be, it will so (inaudible) for us.

TIM EWART: Many of those who can afford to and have somewhere to go are leaving Lebanon, packing their bags and heading for the border.

JIM LEHRER: And to a report from the other side of the Lebanon-Israel border. It comes from the town of Nahariya. The reporter is ITN special correspondent Inigo Gilmore.

INIGO GILMORE, ITV News Special Correspondent: The once-bustling streets of Nahariya are deserted, shops shutted, boarded up in haste, as residents fled the city. And this is why they’re leaving.

Out of nowhere, three more Katyushas suddenly came crashing into the center of the city. As the smoke cleared, we discovered one Katyusha missile had landed just a couple of blocks away.

The city’s tenuous sense of security has been shattered here. Talk of vengeance is focused on one man: Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah.

ISRAELI CITIZEN: Nasrallah, we’re going to kill you. Your head was attached to your body too much. You’re like a mosquito; we’re not afraid of you.

INIGO GILMORE: For all of the bravado though, some clearly are afraid, and for good reason, too. On the other side of Nahariya, another Katyusha had landed in Kibbutz Sa’ar. No casualties this time, but perhaps little wonder. The community had already been evacuated.

Avi Hever is one of just four who chose to stay behind, when nearly 400 residents left after the first missiles landed in Nahariya.

AVI HEVER, Kibbutz Resident: I was watching TV. And then I heard the bombs. I went into a safe place, between two walls, actually. Then, the house was shaking all over. And now it’s OK. Now it’s quiet again.

INIGO GILMORE: He has sent his wife and two children to family in Tel Aviv.

Hezbollah as a two-sided group

Flynt Leverett
Former CIA Middle East Analyst
Hezbollah has really emerged as the principal represent of Shia interests at a time when Shia are still basically disproportionately underrepresented in the Lebanese political order.

JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner takes the story from there.

MARGARET WARNER: Now a look at the militant Islamic group, Hezbollah. Its kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers on the Lebanon-Israel border sparked this latest crisis, and Israel bombed its Beirut headquarters today.

Hezbollah was founded, with Iran's support, after the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The group was considered responsible for the suicide truck bombing deaths of 241 U.S. Marines in their Beirut barracks a year later.

Hezbollah has been labeled a terrorist organization by the United States, but it's now one of the political groups in the Lebanese parliament. Its political leader is Hassan Nasrallah, a former military commander and Shiite scholar.

For more on Hezbollah, we turn to Flynt Leverett, who covered Middle East terrorism and political issues at the CIA, State Department, and on the National Security Council staff from 1992 to 2003. He's now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and is the author of the recent book "Inheriting Syria: Bashar's Trial by Fire."

And Daniel Byman, director of Georgetown University's Security Studies Program, a former CIA Mideast political analyst, he's written widely on Hezbollah and related terrorism issues, including the book "Deadly Connections: States that Sponsor Terrorism."

And welcome to you, both.

Flynt Leverett, let's start with: Who is Hezbollah? What more do we need to know about this group that would explain why they triggered this crisis and why now?

FLYNT LEVERETT, Former CIA Middle East Analyst: I think you need to understand Hezbollah as a kind of two-headed or two-sided organization.

On the one hand, it is, as your report said, a leading political movement in Lebanese political order. It basically is the leading Shiite party, and the Shiites are the largest single community in Lebanon today.

And Hezbollah has really emerged as the principal represent of Shia interests at a time when Shia are still basically disproportionately underrepresented in the Lebanese political order.

But they're also a paramilitary terrorist and resistance organization. And what I think the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is trying to do is to claim a kind of regional status as a leader of resistance to Israeli -- what he would portray as Israeli aggression against Palestinians and portray himself and his organization as the group that is really leading the fight to come to the aid of the Palestinians at a time of great need.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you add to that description? And what do you think Hezbollah's aim here is?

DANIEL BYMAN, Former CIA Mideast Political Analyst: Hezbollah's primary aim is to demonstrate that it is part of the Palestinian struggle. It has long seen that as the logical next step beyond the narrow Lebanese agenda it has had.

MARGARET WARNER: Which was originally to get Israel out of Lebanon?

DANIEL BYMAN: Which was originally to get Israel out of Lebanon and also, originally, to establish an Islamic state there. But Hezbollah's agenda has also been influenced by that of its patrons, Iran and Syria. And they have interests around the world, but both are committed foes of Israel.

And Hezbollah has been trying to work with them to serve their interest and its own very strong-felt ideological agenda against Israel.

An instrument of Syria and Iran

Daniel Byman
Georgetown University
Hezbollah, for many years, was an instrument of Iranian and Syrian foreign policy, but in the last decade it's become increasingly independent. It's more, I would say, a partner.

MARGARET WARNER: So do you think that Hezbollah is essentially a tool or instrument of Syria and Iran, including waging a proxy war against Israel, to the limit of its capabilities, on Iran or Syria's behalf?

DANIEL BYMAN: "Tool" is too strong. Hezbollah, for many years, was an instrument of Iranian and Syrian foreign policy, but in the last decade it's become increasingly independent. It's more, I would say, a partner.

It has its own agenda, its own issues, but it cooperates very closely with both countries, and it has tried, when possible, to harmonize its agenda with theirs.

MARGARET WARNER: Dan Byman, we hear that both Syria and Iran are its patrons. Some of the missiles, the Israelis say, that were found in Haifa today were made in Iran. Explain how a group like Hezbollah can have two patrons at once? And how does it work in a situation like this?

FLYNT LEVERETT: Well, we know that, for many years, Iran has been the principal external supporter of Hezbollah.

MARGARET WARNER: I'm sorry, I called you Dan. Of course, Flynt, I've known you a long time. I know you're Flynt.

FLYNT LEVERETT: That's all right. Iran has certainly been Hezbollah's principal financial supporter. They've also been the principal provider of weapons and military equipment to Hezbollah.

But in order to get those supplies, particularly the military supplies, into Lebanon, Iran has had to work through Syria. Iran has never been able to find a direct channel into Lebanon, and so typically what they've done is to fly planeloads of equipment into Damascus International Airport, and the Syrians then take that equipment into Lebanon and see that it gets to Hezbollah.

And that provides Syria with a very important source of influence and leverage over Hezbollah to go alongside Iran's status as the group's principal external backer.

MARGARET WARNER: So did you think that Hezbollah would have engaged in this cross-border raid, the kidnapping of these Israeli soldiers, without the OK of one or both of Iran and Syria?

FLYNT LEVERETT: I suspect that you probably had at least the parameters for this operation cleared with Iran and Syria. The precise timing of the operation might have been a decision that Hezbollah took on its own.

But I think the basic idea of going into Sheba Farms and, on a bigger scale than Hezbollah has done, killing more Israelis and capturing the Israeli soldiers that they took into custody, I suspect that wouldn't have been done without some sort of clearance with Syria and Iran.

"Formidable guerrilla movement"

Flynt Leverett
Former CIA Middle East Analyst
[I]t's something that the rest of the Lebanese political establishment, including the leaders of the Cedar Revolution that we saw play out in the streets of Beirut last year, they don't want to go near that issue.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Dan, the leader of Hezbollah, or at least the political leader, Hassan Nasrallah, today especially vowed open war against Israel. Is Hezbollah in a position to wage -- what kind of war is it in a position to wage? What are its military capabilities?

DANIEL BYMAN: Hezbollah's conventional military capabilities are weak to non-existent, but it is one of the world's most formidable guerrilla movements.

And of great worry to Israel is that Hezbollah has an overseas presence. In the past, it has attacked Israeli targets in Europe and also in South America. And Hezbollah is tenacious.

It has shown that it's willing to take casualties, to persist in the face of superior Israeli fire power and keep coming. And Israel historically has been very casualty-sensitive, and Hezbollah says this openly. It says that, "We can lose 10 for every one Israeli, and we will win."

MARGARET WARNER: But they do -- you say its conventional capabilities aren't much, but Israel says it has 10,000 to 12,000 rockets in southern Lebanon. Is that the case? And why have they amassed this kind of rocket...

DANIEL BYMAN: The rockets are an indiscriminate weapon. They're inaccurate. It's an old system, but it's capable of sowing terror. You bomb in general a city or a village, or you bomb a kibbutz, and people scatter and perhaps a few people die.

It's nothing compared to the arsenal of a modern state, especially a state like Israel, but it is a way of striking back. And very important to Hezbollah's agenda is showing that it, and Arabs in general, can strike back.

It has pushed Israel out by force of arms from Lebanon in 2000, and no Arab army has ever done that. And part of Hezbollah's appeal is that, not only is it a resistance movement, but it's a winner.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, explain, Flynt Leverett, why the Lebanese government and the Lebanese army have not gone down into southern Lebanon and essentially established control there? Why is Hezbollah allowed to operate as a state within a state, as it's often said?

FLYNT LEVERETT: I'd say there are two important reasons. One is simply capabilities. The Lebanese armed forces as they're constituted are simply not capable on their own of going into the south and disarming Hezbollah. That would be the equivalent as a Lebanese civil war, and I think it's pretty clear Hezbollah would prevail in that conflict.

The second reason, though, is political. Lebanon's politics basically operate in long confessional lines. Seats in the parliament...

MARGARET WARNER: Meaning sects?

FLYNT LEVERETT: ... are distributed according to religious groups. As was said earlier, the Shia are systematically underrepresented in that distribution of power.

If the Lebanese government, including the current one, were to push on the disarmament issue in the name of implementing the Taif Accords that ended the Lebanese civil war in 1989, say, Hezbollah has a trump card it can play, which is deconfessionalization, which is, "Let's move to one man, one vote."

That would greatly benefit the Shia. That would greatly benefit Hezbollah, in terms of its political standing. And it's something that the rest of the Lebanese political establishment, including the leaders of the Cedar Revolution that we saw play out in the streets of Beirut last year, they don't want to go near that issue. And it's the ultimate trump card that Hezbollah has to fend off pressure on the disarmament issue.

Committed to the Palestinian cause

Daniel Byman
Georgetown University
Israel spent years trying to root out Hezbollah and failed, so it is unlikely to be able to do so in the short time it's allotted now, but it's really a question of how much damage Lebanon can sustain.

MARGARET WARNER: So, in the end, what do you think Hezbollah wants out of this particular crisis now? And is your reading of them and of Nasrallah that they're going to persist with this just as long as Israel persists? I mean, if they have 10,000 rockets, theoretically they could just continue lobbing them into Israel.

DANIEL BYMAN: Hezbollah has three points they want to go across. One is to demonstrate that they are committed to the Palestinian cause, something they believe genuinely.

The second is to associate themselves politically with the anti-Israel struggle, at a time when many people increasingly saw them as a Lebanese organization, not as an international one.

And the third is much more domestic. They're part of a very uneasy coalition that is governing Lebanon, where much of the coalition is actually quite opposed to Hezbollah and quite opposed to its patron, Syria, and they want to shake things up a bit. They feel that things have gone a bit too far against Syria and want to correct that balance.

Hezbollah, though, can continue this indefinitely, because they have the weaponry and because they have the persistence. Israel spent years trying to root out Hezbollah and failed, so it is unlikely to be able to do so in the short time it's allotted now, but it's really a question of how much damage Lebanon can sustain.

Because the country was starting to rebuild and, as we've seen from the damage, that's been set back. Investment's going to be set back. And this was more acceptable to many Lebanese back when Israel occupied part of the country. But Israel doesn't today, so many Lebanese are less supportive.

MARGARET WARNER: But you agree with Flynt Leverett that, in fact, the Lebanese government or people in the government may not like what Hezbollah did -- maybe they don't -- but that they are really powerless to do anything about it?

DANIEL BYMAN: The Lebanese government cannot stop this, but Hezbollah does care about political opinion beyond its narrow Shia religious base. It does care about being seen as a broader Lebanese national movement, an independence movement, a resistance movement. And this jeopardizes that. It won't anger their core constituents, but it will anger others they might try to appeal to.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Dan Byman, Flint Leverett, thank you.

DANIEL BYMAN: Thank you.