KFAR ROUMMANE, Lebanon — These are happy days for the militant Islamic guerrilla movement Hezbollah, which has spearheaded the fight against Israeli forces from places like this picturesque village in southern Lebanon, with its cedar-shaded streets and olive groves stretching invitingly along the hillsides.
Two fortified military positions, one belonging to the Israel Defense Forces and one to its militia proxy, the South Lebanon Army, loom over the bucolic setting. But the residents below, many of whose homes bear scars from the fighting, say the enemy's proximity no longer seems quite so forbidding.
"It is the Israelis who are afraid now," Amal Saieh exults. The town's petite English teacher is planning to do the traditional folk dance known as the dabke on that historic day, coming soon, when the Israelis finally withdraw from southern Lebanon after 22 years.
Ask Saieh whom she credits for the withdrawal, and the answer comes quickly: "Hezbollah. Here the people love Hezbollah because they are the ones doing the fighting, and they help us in so many ways."
It has been a strange transformation for an Iranian-backed group with about 2,000 fighters and perhaps 10 times that number of party members.
In the eyes of many Lebanese, Hezbollah has gone from being a foreign, fanatical menace that blackened the country's image with its bombings, assassinations and kidnappings to a mainstream, indigenous, political-humanitarian organization, one whose steadfastness has restored wounded Lebanese and Arab national pride.
Not only has Hezbollah gained what it regards as a military victory in its war of attrition against Israel, but Hezbollah claims to be riding high in the polls and set to expand its presence in the Lebanese parliament in a few months.
Even its media are doing well. Hezbollah's television station, Al Manar (The Lighthouse), is rapidly becoming one of the most watched in Lebanon and is preparing for worldwide telecasts via satellite from new $15-million marbled headquarters tucked into the slums of south Beirut. The group also has two radio stations.
Sheik Naim Kassem, co-founder of Hezbollah and its deputy secretary-general, doesn't rule out the idea that the group, whose name means Party of God, might one day be the most powerful in the country. "Isn't that what any party would want?" he asked during an interview.
Hezbollah came to Lebanon as one of the first foreign manifestations of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, saw the movement that brought down the shah as the crest of a worldwide wave that eventually would sweep the enemies of Islam--in his view, Israel and the United States--from the Middle East.
Where better to spread his doctrine of political Islam than in Lebanon, whose Shiite Muslim community had ties to the Shiites of Iran and whose land had recently been invaded by the Israelis, who were seeking to end attacks by Palestinian guerrilla groups?
In its early days, Hezbollah was known and feared for its revolutionary fervor. It enforced modest dress for women and a ban on alcohol in the areas it controlled. In pursuit of its goals, it could be ruthless--using kidnappings, suicide bombings and assassinations to drive foreigners out of Lebanon.
Some observers believe that this is still the true face of Hezbollah, but after a Syrian-imposed peace ended Lebanon's civil war in 1990, Hezbollah abandoned such tactics and began concentrating on harassing the Israelis, who had retained a self-declared, 9-mile-deep "security zone" on Lebanese territory.
Armed, funded and trained by Tehran--and abetted by Syria, which had its own interest in keeping the Israelis mired in Lebanon--Hezbollah developed and perfected its combat skills, mounting a classic guerrilla campaign that managed to turn southern Lebanon into Israel's Vietnam.
The turbaned Kassem said winning the war against Israel stands as Hezbollah's proudest accomplishment.
"We have been fighting since 1982 to seize the momentum, and we have put all our energy and effort to liberate the land," he said, seated in a safe house in south Beirut, protected by a bevy of thickset guards. (Hezbollah's mania for security is much in evidence; reporters are taken to see top officials in black-curtained limousines so that they cannot disclose the precise location.)
But Hezbollah is facing some strategic and tactical challenges now that Israel is starting to leave, a process that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has promised will be complete by July 7. In a nutshell, political analysts in Lebanon are not sure that the group can maintain its popularity. What becomes of a resistance if there is no occupier left to fight?