Lebanese watch as a war unfolds on their territory

Updated 7/17/2006 12:19 AM ET

Lebanon’s government stood in disarray Sunday, looking on as Hezbollah intensified both rocket attacks and rhetoric aimed at Israel.
Hezbollah’s Al-Manar Television station aired an address by the group’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, who promised to press on with attacks against Israel.

“We are now fighting a battle for the (Islamic) nation,” he said.

Israeli aircraft attacked Al-Manar’s transmission facilities, but the station remained on the air most of the day. It ran martial music and footage of militants launching rockets at Israel.

The Lebanese government ignored Israeli demands that it mobilize its army and rein in Hezbollah.

Lebanon’s top two leaders appeared to disagree on how to proceed. Emile Lahoud, the country’s pro-Syrian president, sounded defiant and vowed that Lebanon would not “surrender” to Israel.

Saturday, an emotional Prime Minister Fuad Saniora appeared on television pledging to suppress guerrilla activity by Hezbollah.

“There’s total agreement among all Lebanese political parties that Israel is an enemy,” said Toufic Al Hindi, a former adviser to the Lebanese Forces, a Christian political party. “But we are deep in a war. (It was) triggered not by Lebanese consensus but by just one of the parties in Lebanon. This is a violation of the constitution.”

The Lebanese government, a fragile patchwork representing the country’s 19 major religious and ethnic groups, agreed to disarm Hezbollah when Israel withdrew its forces from the southern part of the country in 2000.

It hasn’t done so, in part because of lasting memories of the divisions that fueled Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. Any attempt to take Hezbollah’s weapons could split the Lebanese army and start a new civil war.

The government is trying to preserve national unity, Al Hindi said. “The social tissue of Lebanon is very sensitive. … A state must have the monopoly on power. It is not acceptable for it to have armed groups, but for now the Lebanese must stick together.”

Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs who writes about the region, said the five-day conflict is the most significant event in Lebanon since the civil war ended in 1990.

“There is the threat of a wider regional war,” he said. “The Israelis are gambling that by putting collective pressure on the Lebanese people, they can get the Lebanese government to deploy its army in the south, which would then remove Hezbollah militia and its rockets from the Israel frontier.”

The risk is that “you can actually drive a people together. They might unite behind Hezbollah,” he said.

In Syria, meanwhile, many people expressed support for Hezbollah on Sunday. Cars in Damascus flew Hezbollah flags, and patriotic songs played on state-run radio and television stations.

Information Minister Mohsen Bilal warned that an Israeli attack against Syria would bring an “unlimited, direct and firm response,” according to SANA, the official Syrian news agency.

Since last year’s assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, a harsh critic of Syria’s presence in Lebanon, the United States has led efforts to force Syrian troops and intelligence agents out of that country and reduce Syrian influence there.

The Bush administration’s push for international isolation of Syria after Hariri’s death bolstered popular support for Hezbollah among Syrians, analysts said.

“The Israeli attack on Lebanon over the past few days has moved people in a way that has not been seen in the past 10 or 15 years,” said Marwan Kabalan, professor of political science at Damascus University. “People believe that Hezbollah is the only resistance movement that can retaliate and at least make the Israelis feel the pain that they have been feeling.”

As the fighting has intensified, thousands of tourists, Lebanese and Syrian laborers have poured into Syria through the Masnaa border crossing that links Beirut to Damascus. The Damascus airport remained packed with travelers Sunday. Airlines serving Persian Gulf countries increased the number of flights leaving Damascus.

Ali Osman, 25, a Lebanese citizen who crossed with family members, said he might return to fight Israel. “I am a member of Amal (a Shiite Muslim militia), and if they ask for us, I will not wait a second.”

Butters reported from Beirut, Roumani from Damascus

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