Even Israel's most legendary military general - a veteran of
every war of Israel but this current one - is believed to have found
Hizbullah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah a worthy enemy.
Such grudging respect is no surprise to Lebanese. They have
watched Nasrallah transform the Shiite militia into the only Arab
force credited in the Arab world with defeating Israel on the
battlefield - forcing the end of an 18-year Israeli occupation of
southern Lebanon in 2000 - and a potent political force.
But they have also seen the charismatic cleric spark the latest
war in Lebanon. And while exacting a heavy toll on the Jewish state
and its long-fostered aura of invincibility, Hizbullah also prompted
a massive Israeli bombardment that has cost 10 times as many
Lebanese lives as Israeli ones, and ravaged the country.
Calm and in control, with steady eyes and a hint of heavy burden,
the thickly bearded sheikh has told rapt Lebanese that Israel could
stop Hizbullah rockets, if Israel stopped killing civilians.
Nasrallah mocked Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his lack of
military experience, in his latest television statement last
Thursday, saying the Israeli leader was "an incompetent moron," who
did not measure up to Mr. Sharon - whose autobiography Nasrallah has
read - or other Israeli leaders before him, except in "committing
"You are looking at a person who can be classified [in the
Islamic world] as a hero, or an Arab Khomeini," says Nizar Hamzeh, a
Hizbullah expert at the American University of Kuwait, referring to
the leader of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.
"The Sunni and Shiite street agree on one thing: After 50 years
of Arab defeat at the hands of Israel, Nasrallah was able to change
this," says Mr. Hamzeh, who has studied the group for years.
"Hizbullah is the model for Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Hizbullah,
backed by allies like Iran, has perfected this kind of guerrilla
But who is Nasrallah, a man the US named a "Specially Designated
Terrorist" in 1995 for his vitriolic opposition to the Arab-Israeli
And how has Nasrallah, backed by patrons Syria and Iran, created
the most capable guerrilla force in the region? His black-turbaned
visage, framed by wire-rimmed glasses, still festoons the rubble of
Hizbullah strongholds in southern suburbs of Beirut and south
Lebanon, where the destruction has, so far, boosted his popularity.
"The reason behind our strength these past years, is that we do
more than we speak," Nasrallah told the Monitor in early 2000,
during a rare interview in Beirut offices that last month were
destroyed by Israeli planes. Flashing enigmatic smiles then, he was
coy about whether attacks would continue.
"Keeping this issue unknown - which means there is a possibility
for [cross-border attacks] to happen, or ... not - is strong for
both Lebanon and Syria," Nasrallah said. "In the end, this is an
extremely important card to play, and the Israelis know it."
Analysts say Nasrallah powerfully combines an eloquent speaking
style with battlefield, political, and spiritual experience. He
studied in Shiite centers in both Iraq and Iran, and his spiritual
guide - and that of many Hizbullah members, but not all - is Iran's
supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
With his movement shrouded in secrecy, protected by a tight ring
of loyalists, Nasrallah has avoided the fate of his predecessor, who
was assassinated with his family by Israeli helicopter gunships in
"Nasrallah was one of the earliest Hizbullah members, when they
were a band of 50 or 100 ragtag, young, unshaven guerrilla guys in
the Bekaa Valley, supported by arguably hundreds - perhaps as many
as 1,000 - Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in 1982," says Nicholas
Noe, a scholar of Hizbullah and editor of the Beirut-based
Mideasetwire.com. "He's an original guy."
Back then Hizbullah was an umbrella for a host of militant