Are Israel's Attacks Winning New Support for Hizballah?

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If Israel really believed its fiery campaign against Hizballah in South Lebanon would help turn the local population against the militant Shi'ite group, all indications are that the death and destruction being rained down is having quite the opposite effect. That much was painfully clear Wednesday after an Israeli jet returned to bomb the center of this — until now — relatively safe coastal town for the first time in 10 days, and a new generation of Hizballah supporters was born

At least two precision guided missiles, used by the Israeli Air Force to flatten houses throughout south Lebanon, pancaked a six-story apartment block down a narrow street in the heart of Tyre. A huge pall of yellow smoke and dust rose above the town, marking the spot where the bombs have fallen. All that was left of the building was a sprawling pile of rubble mixed with the pathetic detritus of people’s destroyed homes — broken tables, a lamp, half a sofa, torn books, clothing.

A crowd of onlookers gathered at the entrance to the narrow, rubble-strewn street, gazing initially in wide-eyed awe at the smoke-filled scene before them. Then they too were stirred by fury. “With our souls and our blood we will sacrifice ourselves for you, O Nasrallah,” they chanted in homage to Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hizballah’s leader. “Death to Israel and America,” yelled another man standing on a slab of concrete above the crowd.

Until the recent attacks, Hizballah has never really gained a strong following in Tyre. The local people are too laid-back for the Islamic party’s zealotry, preferring instead an easy life lolling in the shade, eating fresh fried fish and slaking their thirst with chilled bottles of Lebanese beer. But that nonchalance is changing with each passing day of Israel’s onslaught against south Lebanon. Slowly but surely, Tyre’s residents are becoming radicalized.

The scene in front of them was all the motivation they apparently needed. Thick orange flames darted from between cracks in the rubble as rescue workers pulled apart blocks of smashed concrete to look for survivors and recover the dead, choking all the while on the noxious fumes from the explosion and the roiling clouds of dust and smoke.

A sudden panic swept through the crowd and it surged away from the site, stumbling over the foot-high debris in the street. An unexploded missile? Israeli jets coming back? Moments later they cautiously returned as a fireman helped by dozens of youths unfurled a hose pipe and begins dousing the flames. But who or what was the target of this devastating air strike?

“Only civilians live here. There is no Hizballah. Why did they hit us?” asks Mustafa Hashem, a diamond merchant whose uncle lives in an adjacent building. But the street looks familiar to this reporter, who interviewed Sheikh Nabil Qaouk, Hizballah’s southern commander, several years ago in his office in a building located where the missile-struck block stood. At the beginning of the campaign, Israeli jets bombed Qaouk’s home in the village of Jibsheet, a few miles to the north of here. But Qaouk has apparently gone into hiding with other top leaders, which perhaps explains the lack of fatalities.

Ghassan Farran, a doctor and head of a local cultural organization called Thought and Culture, stares at the ruins of his home in disbelief. His apartment was on the third floor, although fortunately his family had fled Tyre days earlier. Dr. Farran says he is looking for his family photograph albums, but all he can do is gaze hopelessly at the scene of devastation before him. “All of my memories are gone, when my children were babies. They have killed my dreams,” he says.

But then this middle-class, educated professional switches from melancholy to trembling rage. “America, America!” he says, jabbing his finger at the smoking rubble. “This is the new Middle East of Ms. Rice,” he says, referring to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He adds that he was never interested in politics before this moment. “Now I am with Hizballah and I will fight Israel and America."