BEIRUT, Lebanon – Israel has held Lebanese leaders responsible for Hezbollah's capture of two soldiers, but the government here says it has no real control over the guerrillas — and taking action to rein them in could tear the country apart.
Wracked by divisions over relations with Syria, the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora has yet to muster the political will, or the courage, to disarm the guerrillas of the Shiite Hezbollah, allowing them to continue to operate with almost total autonomy in southern Lebanon.
Successive Lebanese governments have maintained that replacing the guerrillas by Lebanese army troops would be tantamount to offering Israel a free service — protecting its northern border from guerrilla attacks.
Many in Lebanon — particularly opponents of its ally Syria — resent Hezbollah's free hand and feel that the government should do more to assert its authority. However, the dangers of taking on the group over its arms and the state-within-state role it has assumed in southern Lebanon carries serious risks.
"The 'state of Lebanon' held responsible by Israel for yesterday's Hezbollah operation does not exist and may never exist in the foreseeable future," wrote Sarkis Naoum, political editor of the respected Beirut daily An-Nahar, in a column Thursday.
"How can such a state exist when the war-and-peace decision is not in its hands and its influence on the Lebanese who have it, that's if indeed they have it, is little or in fact nonexistent?"
Denouncing Hezbollah as a "group of terrorists," U.S. President George W. Bush alluded to the weakness of the Lebanese government in comments made in Germany on Thursday. He said Israel had a right to defend itself, but also expressed worries the Israeli assault could cause the fall of Lebanon's anti-Syrian government.
"We're concerned about the fragile democracy in Lebanon," he said.
The Syrian and Iranian-backed Hezbollah is seen by Lebanon's 1.2 million Shiite Muslims, the largest single community among Lebanon's diverse 4 million people, as the fruition of a long and painful journey to empowerment, emerging from the fringes of a society long dominated by Christians and Sunni Muslims to become a power to be reckoned with in the last 30 years.
With the name Hezbollah, or party of God, almost synonymous now with Lebanese Shiites, any attempt to disarm the organization or undermine its leverage in the Shiite-dominated south and east of Lebanon could firmly place Lebanon on the road to a second civil war, with the Shiites sure to feel that others are seeking to send them back to political wilderness.
Disarming Hezbollah, listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, was called for in a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted in 2004, but Lebanese authorities, perhaps with an eye on the consequences of any unilateral action, have not implemented it, trying instead to reach national consensus on the issue.
Hezbollah's charismatic leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has presented Lebanese leaders with a blueprint for a strategic defense strategy. The document, of which very little is known, remains on the agenda of national reconciliation talks that have made little progress since they started in March.
Still, the government has sought to distance itself from Hezbollah's latest action, saying it did not know in advance of the cross-border raid and doesn't support it.
Anticipating the government's stance, Nasrallah served it a warning Wednesday. "No one at home should act in a way that encourages the enemy to escalate against Lebanon," he told a news conference, adding that Hezbollah had no intention to drag Lebanon or the entire region to war.
Nasrallah, a cleric, has in the past used strong language when touching on the question of disarmament, recently warning that anyone who attempts to unilaterally take away his guerrillas' arms would have his arm cut off and eyes gauged.
A similarly emphatic stance was taken by his deputy Thursday.
"This will not happen. We are fully ready to resist and defend ourselves," Sheik Naim Kassem said about disarming Hezbollah. Speaking to Al-Jazeera in a telephone interview, he warned that Israel was trying to drag Lebanon into a position whereby it ends up trying to disarm Hezbollah.
Founded in 1982 with Iranian help, Hezbollah has evolved from a secretive group linked to a series of suicide bombings targeting U.S. installations in Lebanon and the kidnapping of some 50 Westerners in the 1980s. It later became a national resistance movement, waging a war of attrition against Israeli forces occupying a southern Lebanon border strip. Faced with rising casualties, Israel withdrew its army in 2000, ending a 22-year military presence there.
The withdrawal crowned Hezbollah as a heroic organization seen by many Lebanese as a liberator that won back territory without negotiations or concessions. The group has since focused on charity work in the south and the eastern Bekaa Valley, operating schools, hospitals, dental clinics and rebuilding roads and houses destroyed in fighting in the south. It continues to fight for a small, disputed border area, the Chebaa Farms, through sporadic attacks in the area. But its association with Syria, widely blamed in Lebanon for the assassination last year of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, has hurt its standing.