BEIRUT, Lebanon – Ahmed Farroukh was never interested in politics and questioned Hezbollah’s hard-line views.
But now, more than two weeks into Israel’s battle with the guerrilla group, the 26-year-old American-educated office worker from bomb-ravaged south Beirut is “100 percent with them.”
He is just one of many previously apolitical Shiites who now back Hezbollah, a strong indication that the country’s largest religious sect could emerge from the conflict even stronger.
Hezbollah sparked the fighting with Israel on July 12 when it snatched two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid and killed eight others. It has gained more support after showing surprising resilience against Israeli forces, while Israel has come under increasing fire for what many in the Arab world consider to be its disproportionate response.
Anti-Israel opinion hit a new peak Sunday after Israeli missiles hit a building crowded with civilians in the southern Lebanese village of Qana, killing at least 56, half of them children.
Overall, Lebanon’s 1.2-million-strong Shiite community has been hardest hit in Israel’s assault. More than 500 people have been killed and 750,000 forced from their homes – the vast majority Shiites.
Secularized middle class Shiites and others who have previously shown apathy toward the group are now strongly defending its actions.
Farroukh, who has begun volunteering to help refugees who have swamped Beirut since the fighting started, recalled his reaction to Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah’s July 14 announcement that his fighters had struck an Israeli warship off the Lebanese coast.
“I felt such pride, I got tears in my eyes,” he said. “I stepped out and everyone was celebrating with fireworks. … That might make us terrorists according to the American dictionary, but we’re not. We’re people with dignity.”
A poll carried out by the Beirut Center for Research and Information this week showed a high level of support for Hezbollah’s capture of the two soldiers, based on a belief that Israel and the U.S. intended to crush and disarm Hezbollah at some point, regardless of what Hezbollah did.
According to the poll, an overwhelming 96.3 percent of Shiites supported the Hezbollah operation, in contrast to 45.7 of Christians and 40.1 of Druse. Surprisingly, 73.1 percent of Sunnis also supported the Hezbollah operation, perhaps a nod for growing calls across the Arab world for Muslims to put aside their differences to focus on fighting Israel.
The accuracy of the poll could not be verified.
In Beirut, Hamzi Eneissi said his morale has not been affected by the mounting Lebanese civilian casualties.
“God is with the Muslim people, and God will make us triumph,” said the 18-year-old, who is from a bombed-out neighborhood south of Beirut and has been living for more than two weeks at a derelict school with no water or electricity.
“All this misery is for a good cause,” he said, sitting next to a heap of garbage in the school’s playground.
“Israel is the Satan,” chimed in his friend, Ayad Khalife, 21, whose home in Beirut’s southern suburbs has been reduced to rubble. “Everyone who can should fight Israel and America.”
Augustus Richard Norton, a professor of international relations at Boston University, wrote in Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper this week that Shiites will likely emerge from the war more “politicized, not to mention angry and militant.”
“This war is consolidating sectarian loyalties, reinforcing the role of religious institutions and only heightening distrust of the U.S. and major Arab states – most prominently Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” he wrote.
For Farroukh, the draw into the Hezbollah fold was nothing conscious.
“It’s like you had a rope around your hand that you were not aware of, but when someone tries to yank it away from you, you hang on to it with all your strength,” he said.