BEIRUT, Lebanon – Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah acknowledges that Israeli troops can sweep across south Lebanon. But that if he and his militants can survive and keep fighting, he may cement his image as the unlikely new hero of Arab nationalism.
Israeli troops backed by tanks fought their way into southern Lebanon Saturday at the start of a ground assault to drive the Islamic guerrilla group away from the border and put Israeli cities beyond the reach of its rockets.
"I don't want to raise expectations. I never said that the Israelis cannot reach any place in southern Lebanon," says Nasrallah, a black-turbaned Shiite cleric whom Israel has tried repeatedly to kill.
"Our dogma and strategy is when the Israelis come, they must pay a high price. This is what we promise and this is what we will achieve, God willing."
The fighting was sparked by Hezbollah's July 12 capture of two Israeli soldiers and the killing of eight others in a cross-border raid. A massive Israeli offensive followed and Hezbollah responded by firing hundreds of rockets at Israel.
More than 370 people have been killed in Lebanon over the past 11 days, authorities said. In Israel, 34 have died.
Anticipating the ground assault, Nasrallah sought to ensure his group's survival and safeguard its widening base of support in Lebanon and abroad by lowering the bar for what would constitute victory.
In a television interview broadcast Friday, he defined victory as a successful defense.
And he acknowledges the gravity of defeat.
"A defeat in Lebanon will end the region's resistance movements, the Palestinian cause and impose Israel's conditions for a settlement," he warned.
His previous warnings were even more dire.
"If Israel is able to defeat the resistance in Palestine and Lebanon, God forbid, then the Arab world, governments and peoples will drown in eternal humiliation from which they will have no way out."
Hezbollah's chances of victory lie as much in its guerrilla capability as in Nasrallah's leadership. He has led the group since 1992, taking over after his predecessor was killed in an Israeli helicopter attack.
A fiery orator who deftly mixes threats with lighthearted comments, Nasrallah lost his 18-year-old son, Hadi, during a fight with Israeli troops in 1997. He refused to receive mourners, praised God's "ultimate grace and kindness" for choosing a family member as a martyr and allowed another son, Jawad, to join the guerrillas.
"We love martyrdom," he said on Friday. "But we take precautions to deny the enemy an easy victory."
On paper, Hezbollah's chances of surviving a military setback and regrouping to fight again are good. Most of its estimated 5,000-6,000 fighters are hardened by years of combat against Israel during its 18-year control of a border strip in southern Lebanon.
The Iranian- and Syrian-backed organization, listed as a terrorist group by the United States, has a typical guerrilla arsenal that includes assault rifles, mines, light artillery, mortars and — most importantly — missiles with ranges of up to 45 miles.
It enjoys popular support in southern and eastern Lebanon.
Victory or defeat, Nasrallah already has a place in the hearts of millions of Arabs angered and ashamed by their governments' perceived acquiescence to Israeli and U.S. policies.
A defeat on the battlefield is unlikely to change that so long as Hezbollah is seen to have put up a good fight. In fact, it could give the 46-year-old, mid-ranking cleric hero status.
Nasrallah's rise to Arab stardom, said Ibrahim Bayram of Beirut's respected An-Nahar daily, was owed in part to his tireless attempts to rise above the Shiite-Sunni divide by forging close ties with Sunni Muslims — who are the overwhelming majority of the world's Arabs.
"He has ambitions to become a leader of the Muslim world," said Bayram.
Charismatic, sharp and media savvy, Nasrallah seems aware of respect and admiration he and his organization enjoy. He speaks with a confidence that sometimes borders on arrogance.
He also taunts his critics in the Arab world, led by key U.S. allies Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.
"I say to Arab leaders: I don't want your swords and I don't want your hearts ... Leave us alone."
Such undiplomatic talk resonates with many Arabs. His fiery rhetoric harkens back to Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Egypt's late president who led his nation to disastrous military defeat by Israel in 1967. But Nasser's political resilience and charisma made him a respected Arab nationalist leader until his death in 1970.
"Nasrallah is doing what Arab governments are unwilling or incapable of doing — fighting Israel. He is embarrassing them," said Vali Nasr, an expert on Shiites who lectures on national security affairs at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, Calif.
"Many people in the Middle East reward courage, not wisdom," said Nasr.