Hezbollah may be writing the book – at least for now – of fourth-generation war. Hezbollah had a reputation as an extremely disciplined, mobile guerrilla force. Now Hezbollah has fully revealed itself as a more than competent asymmetrical actor.

Hezbollah controls a great deal of territory – Beirut’s southern suburbs, vast areas in southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley, which is sandwiched between two mountain ranges along the Syrian border. Hezbollah enjoys staunch popular support running to probably one and a half million people, almost half the population of Lebanon. And Hezbollah has been capable of unleashing some relatively sophisticated military operations against Israel using both conventional and unorthodox weapons.

It’s still impossible to assess the ramifications of Hezbollah’s prestige in the Arab street being tremendously enhanced after its military success for the past week – which include delivering missiles to the heart of Israel. But the Arab street has certainly registered the communique by the House of Saud against Hezbollah, as well as the thunderous silence-cum-embarrassment displayed by the US client regimes of Egypt and Jordan.

A certified effect of the Israeli bombing barrage will be to draw newer, thicker waves of moderate Muslims toward political – and radical – Islam. The perception in the Arab street – as well as for most of the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims – has been reinforced: the US/Israel axis seems to hold a license to kill Arabs with impunity. For its part, Israel’s Leviathan-run-amok tactic of trying to turn the Lebanese as a whole against Hezbollah seems to be doomed to failure. This is especially because compounding Israel’s trademark collective-punishment techniques – bombing bridges and an international airport, killing scores of civilians indiscriminately, turning Beirut into Gaza – shines President George W. Bush’s imperial indifference, not to mention the international community’s. Just as in 1982 – when president Ronald Reagan said it was all right for Ariel Sharon to invade Lebanon – now Bush says it’s all right for Israel to bomb Lebanese civilians.

Israel does not listen to anybody – be it the toothless United Nations or the even more cowardly European Union. Beirut is in panic. According to Hanady Salman, a journalist at As-Safir newspaper, the population widely expects that “as soon as the evacuation of foreigners will be completed, the Israelis will have a freer hand.” Not by accident, all the areas bombed by Israel – and most of the civilians killed – are among the poorest in Lebanon.

Hezbollah is convinced it got its overall strategy right – factoring all the angles of the Leviathan-run-amok response; so there’s no way the Lebanese people as a whole may blame Hezbollah for the escalation. Moreover, Hezbollah is a key force in fractured Lebanon. The majority of Lebanon’s population is Shi’ite: at least 45% (in south Beirut, this correspondent was repeatedly told they may be from 55% to 60%). Christians are no more than 30%. The majority of Shi’ites – mostly poor, with very extended families, and a great deal of them basically peasants – support Hezbollah. Symbolically, fiercely independent Hezbollah represents the revenge of the oppressed – not only against the well off Sunni and Christians but against the Israeli invaders.

Hezbollah is a genuine resistance movement, such as Hamas in Palestine. Israel’s military logic rules that it must crush any Arab resistance movement. Now Israel seems to have found two pretexts to try to crush simultaneously both Hezbollah and Hamas. Israel’s modus operandi is to take entire populations hostage.

French social scientist Alain Joxe has demonstrated how these policies are “technical experiments” always observed with extreme interest by the Pentagon. The stateless Palestinians have been taken hostage in two giant, unconnected gulags in Gaza and the West Bank. Now the experiment – through relentless bombing – applies to a whole sovereign country. But Israel is also reaping – in the form of Hezbollah’s renewed fourth-generation war efforts – what it sowed with its debasement of Palestinians.

The absence of a level playing field is glaring. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) may kidnap a doctor and his brother – two civilians – from their home in Gaza. But Leviathan runs amok when Hezbollah captures soldiers (according to Israel that’s “illegitimate and illegal”). Meanwhile, Israel’s Defense Ministry places “the head of the snake” in Damascus, even while the IDF uses the same questionable methods – toward civilians.

The taboo – never questioned by the bulk of Western mainstream media – runs that Israel is allowed to kill innocent civilians without expecting any retaliation. The Lebanese French-language daily L’Orient-Le Jour summed it up: the “international community” supports Lebanon without condemning Israel, which is reducing a sovereign country to rubble.

Our way or the (bombed) highway

Israel’s logic is unilateral. It has blamed the Lebanese government as a whole. Hezbollah has only a small role in the Lebanese government; it is actually in the opposition. Power in Beirut is in the hands of US and Sunni Arab allies. The Hariri clan, mired in dodgy deals, remains extremely powerful. Fouad Siniora, a banker, the new Lebanese prime minister – and a strong critic of Syria – defines Hezbollah as a “legitimate resistance” group. As such, it should not be disarmed.

Thus Israel’s real objective must be to provoke civil war in Lebanon – just as it did everything to provoke civil war in Palestine. The strategy is always the same. Israel wants Fatah to crush Hamas in Palestine, and now it wants the government in Beirut to crush Hezbollah. Or else …

It was Hezbollah’s hardcore warriors – trained by Syria and Iran – who ultimately expelled Israel from Lebanon in 2000. It’s difficult for Westerners – or non-Arab Asians – to understand how powerfully symbolic this is in the Arab world: it means that Hezbollah was the only Arab military force ever to defeat Israel. Not surprisingly, even Lebanese Sunnis approve what Hezbollah is doing – they interpret it as solidarity with Hamas and the Palestinian struggle (as Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, made it all too clear).

Moreover, Israel’s Leviathan-run-amok response has only served to rally Sunnis behind a “Lebanon under siege” banner.

The relationship between Iran and Hezbollah is not unlike Moscow’s with assorted communist parties during the Cold War. There are no directives issued from Tehran – as Washington neo-cons see it. Hamas may be Sunni and Hezbollah may be Shi’ite, but both parties – supported by Syria and Iran – converge as resistance movements based on a platform of national struggle against foreign (Israeli) occupation.

There’s nothing sectarian about it. On the contrary, Hezbollah shows total solidarity with Hamas. And way beyond Israel identified as the common enemy, both Hamas and Hezbollah clearly identify the not-so-invisible big enemy behind, the US, for which Israel is a kind of “militarized offshoot,” in the words of Noam Chomsky. Virtually every Lebanese knows that the missiles currently exterminating their compatriots were made in Miami, Duluth and Seattle.

Whatever the outcome, blowback will be inevitable. Osama bin Laden, in one of his videos, told the world how he burned with anger when he saw the Israeli bombing of the “towers” of Lebanon during the 1982 invasion. The new Osamas in the making may be Sunni or Shi’ite, it doesn’t matter: what matters is what they identify as the American/Israeli license to kill (mostly poor, defenseless) Arabs.

Iran for its part may have been a full Hezbollah supporter, but now it’s as much a staunch supporter of Hamas. As Nasrallah has emphasized on many occasions, Hezbollah as a resistance movement is not engaged only in the liberation of the Sheba Farms, still occupied by Israel; Hezbollah sees itself as a powerful actor positioned right at the center of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

As Lebanese-born Gilbert Achcar, a political-science professor at the University of Paris-VIII, puts it, “The main source of destabilization in the region is this violent and arrogant behavior of Israel that is in full harmony with the equally arrogant and violent behavior the United States displayed in Iraq.” No change is in sight, not when Bush’s “Greater Middle East” has revealed itself for what it is – a fallacy.

When in doubt, invade

The Israeli public relations machine – in English, thus widely monopolizing the airwaves, unlike Hezbollah, which expresses itself in Arabic – brags that now it’s time to finish off Hezbollah. That makes no sense – because Hezbollah is a mass movement with roughly 1.5 million adherents. To finish off Hezbollah means in practice to finish off all poor Lebanese Shi’ites.

Iran and Iraq would never let it go unpunished. Israel also conveniently forgets that Hezbollah itself should not even exist – after all, it was founded to fight the Israeli invasion (in 1982) and occupation (until 2000) of southern Lebanon.

Israel’s three basic demands, passed to Beirut by Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, are the return of two captured Israeli soldiers now under Hezbollah; a Hezbollah withdrawal to the Litani River, which is roughly 45 kilometers north of the current Lebanese-Israeli border; and no more rocket attacks against Israel.

Most of this could have happened before Israel illegally – international law is clear about it – started bombing a sovereign country. They could have traded prisoners. And there would be no Hezbollah rocket attacks because there would have been no Israeli indiscriminate bombings. One thing is certain: there is absolutely no chance the Lebanese will accept retreating to the Litani River. That would mean the establishment of a new Israeli de facto border. The only way Israel can annex these waters is by invading southern Lebanon – again.

That’s what the Stratfor Intelligence Report said would happen. “The Israeli Defense Forces is preparing for a major, sustained assault into southern Lebanon to eliminate the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah,” said the report. “The assault will extend at least to the Litani River – the first natural barrier, roughly 20 miles into Lebanon – and possibly all the way to areas south of Beirut … Israel stands on the verge of attempting to completely annihilate Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.”

Sounds like wishful thinking. And Hezbollah will do anything to prevent it from happening any time in the future. The key question remains. The Lebanese government knows that if it accedes to Israel’s demands, there will be another civil war in the country. At least for the moment, Lebanon seems to be hanging on, engaged in passive resistance against collective punishment.

As Israel wages war on the Palestinian people and now the Lebanese people, Hezbollah may be betting that Lebanon as whole will be able to absorb the extreme limits of collective punishment – and in the end the resistance movement will still come out alive. Now that would be a lesson for the ages.