thousand years ago, Julius Caesar ordered the construction of
the largest temple in the Roman empire -- a monument to the
god Jupiter -- in what is now Lebanon's Bekaa Valley near the
border with Syria. The temple ruins are spectacular, but as
he wanders through the site, FRONTLINE/World reporter
David Lewis finds himself almost alone. Tourists avoid these
ancient ruins because nearby the militant Islamic group, Hezbollah,
once trained its fighters.
The Bekaa valley is outlaw territory, long known as a haven
for terrorists, counterfeiting and drug smuggling. Syrian soldiers
-- who intervened in Lebanon's civil war years ago and never
left -- still dominate the region. Accompanied by a local Lebanese
reporter, Hikmat Sharif, who works for Agence France-Presse,
Lewis enters the town of Baalbek, a Hezbollah stronghold. Posters
of Hezbollah "martyrs," or suicide bombers, line the streets of
the city. A souvenir store sells videos of Hezbollah guerrillas
attacking Israeli soldiers, alongside shelves of Hezbollah hats and postcards.
They even market a Hezbollah scent called "perfume of the martyrs."
Founded in 1982 in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon,
Hezbollah -- "Party of God" in Arabic -- based its ideology
on the 1979 Iranian revolution and the teachings of Ayatollah
Khomeini. Lewis spots the old castle where Iranian Revolutionary
Guards came in 1981 and later trained Hezbollah recruits. He
also sees where Hezbollah held Western hostages they kidnapped
in the 1980s during Lebanon's long civil war. He even spots
a notorious airplane hijacker who is living quietly in Baalbek.
Hijackings, bombings, a brutal civil war between Christians
and Muslims -- that's what Lebanon was known for in the 1970s
and 1980s, especially the capital, Beirut, which was reduced
to rubble. But Lewis discovers that Beirut is largely peaceful
today and much restored, eager to reclaim its old reputation
as "the Paris of the Middle East." He sees American fast food
restaurants, fancy cafes, belly dancers, even a luxury car show
hosted by Miss Lebanon and prosperous businessmen seeking to
attract foreign investment.
But as a tourist from Bahrain tells him, "Lebanon has no middle
class. It's like India, where you can find very rich people
who can afford to spend as much as you can think of, and poor
who can't even afford to eat."
Not far from the prosperous Westernized center of Beirut,
Lewis enters the Palestinian refugee camps, where rightwing
Christian militias allied with Israel once massacred hundreds
of Palestinians. Here, among the poor and disenfranchised --
and in the Lebanese Shiite neighborhoods -- Hezbollah took root.
Lewis manages to get into a local Hezbollah rally in honor of
the Iranian revolution. Under the watchful eye of a large Ayatollah
Khomeini poster, the crowd sings, "Death, death, death to Israel!"
And Hezbollah's charismatic secretary-general, Sheik Hassan
Nasrallah, inveighs against the United States, urging his Shiite
followers to resist the Americans in Iraq.
America and Hezbollah have a bloody history. When the United States
intervened in Lebanon's civil war, Hezbollah bombed the U.S.
embassy twice and attacked a military barracks, killing 241
Marines. Some in Washington want to avenge these suicide bombings.
"Hezbollah may be the A-team of terrorists and maybe Al Qaeda
is actually the B-team," argues Deputy Secretary of State Richard
Armitage. "They're on the list and their time will come. There
is no question about it. They have a blood debt to us and we're
not going to forget it. It's all in good time."
Ironically, in Lebanon, Hezbollah has been remaking itself
as a mainstream political organization. They operate a satellite
television channel (Al Manar), a radio station and a Web site. They have
11 members in the Lebanese parliament. Lewis also visits
a modern Hezbollah-run hospital -- "one of the best in Beirut"
-- as well as one of the group's many schools.
"America is a great country with a lot of good people," a
Hezbollah MP, Amar Mussawi, tells Lewis. Representing the "moderate"
public face of Hezbollah, Mussawi denounces the September 11
terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington. He argues
that Hezbollah is not a terrorist organization, but a Lebanese
Hezbollah is so entrenched in Lebanon's political system that
few Lebanese dare to criticize it openly. But attorney and human
rights activist Muhammad Mugrabi tells Lewis that Hezbollah's
presence "is a recipe for trouble for Lebanon ...They are not subject
to the rule of law." Hezbollah is "untouchable" because Syria
-- with 20,000 troops in Lebanon -- still backs Hezbollah and
holds sway over Lebanon's President Emile Lahoud.
Attending Lebanon's annual independence day celebrations,
Lewis discovers "a strange exercise in political theater." The
public is not invited -- only political and military leaders
and the press. "The parade had a make-believe quality," says
Lewis. "For its closing number the band played a familiar song,
the theme from Monty Python."
Heading south to Lebanon's border with Israel, Lewis enters
an area where the Lebanese army has little authority -- this
is Hezbollah country, in which Hezbollah acts as a surrogate
army for its patrons, Iran and Syria. A thin blue line of U.N.
peacekeepers stands guard along the border, but here Hezbollah
claims its greatest triumph -- compelling Israeli soldiers to
withdraw from southern Lebanon in 2000.
The border is quiet now. Syria, Iran and Hezbollah held their
fire during the U.S. war in Iraq. But Hezbollah refuses to withdraw
from the border. At its annual Jerusalem Day march, Hezbollah
flexes its muscle, showing off its soldiers and restating its
official position: Israel has no right to exist.
Back in Beirut, Lewis interviews the man widely considered
to be Hezbollah's spiritual advisor, Grand Ayatollah Sayeed
Hassan Fadlallah, who also denounces Israel and the United States.
But in an otherwise uncompromising interview, Fadlallah, at
one point, seems to leave the door open for an end to the conflict
with Israel. "I am sure that if Israel withdrew," Fadlallah
tells Lewis, "that not a single Palestinian would commit any
But in public, Hezbollah maintains a hardline. At another
rally, Lewis hears Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Nasrallah, condemn
the United States for trying to control the region and redraw
the political map of the Middle East "with Israel's interests
in mind." Then Lewis spots the Hezbollah member of parliament
he had interviewed earlier, Amar Mussawi, and recalls that,
in private conversation, Mussawi offered some small measure
of hope that Hezbollah may be willing to accept a Palestinian
peace settlement with Israel. But Mussawi makes clear that if
the United States decides to go after Hezbollah, "Be sure that
we will defend ourselves with all our might."
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Stephanie Mechura Challberg
JALEX -- Alexi Chemaly and Jad Abouzeid
KPSP-TV Palm Springs