Nasrallah / Better Dead or Alive?

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah survived yesterday's massive bombing of his purported bunker in the Burj al-Barajne neighborhood in Beirut. Whether he survived or not, his fate should be troubling the Israeli officials shaping the war's goals. Is killing Nasrallah a vital goal? Or could it be no less destructive than killing other organizational leaders, such as Al-Qaida's Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin or former Hezbollah leader Abbas Musawi, proved to be?

The answer lies in Hezbollah's structure and in Lebanese politics. Nasrallah is seen as a talented politician and military commander. He built up his power with support from the radical wing of the Iranian government, headed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The latter supported Nasrallah's appointment as Hezbollah secretary general in 1992, after Israel assassinated Musawi.

Earlier, when the Lebanon War erupted in 1982, Nasrallah based his power on a split with the Shiite Amal movement headed by Nabih Berri, today speaker of the Lebanese parliament. Nasrallah quit Amal with a few hundred activists and founded Hezbollah.

Nasrallah was not always ardently pro-Syrian. In 1989, for example, he objected to signing the agreement that ended the Lebanese civil war because it granted Syria political hegemony over Lebanon. He clashed with Musawi, who supported the agreement. Consequently, Nasrallah left Lebanon for Iran.

These relationships, and internal ideological and political disputes, show that Hezbollah is not as monolithic as it portrays itself, and may have rival forces bubbling under its surface.

There may be elements in Hezbollah that are more moderate than Nasrallah, but it may also contain separatists who wish to set up new organizations, even more violent and radical than Hezbollah.

Similar developments can be seen in the Gaza Strip, where street organizations that split from Hamas and Fatah became oppositions to the parent organization.

In the absence of a central Lebanese power that could fight these organizations, killing Nasrallah could prove devastating - not only to Hezbollah, but to the ethnic and political status quo in Lebanon. Even Saad al-Hariri's party, which won the parliamentary elections, realized that a personal fight against Nasrallah was dangerous to Lebanon. Therefore, the party strove to add Hezbollah to the coalition.

Today, too, even with the war destroying Lebanon, Hariri and Prime Minister Fuad Siniora are not calling for the elimination of either Hezbollah or Nasrallah. At most, they are demanding that the organization be disarmed.

Apparently, the Lebanese leadership knows a thing or two that those eager to kill Nasrallah do not, especially regarding the martyrs' tradition that underlies the Shia sect. The Lebanese, including secular Shiites, do not need an important Shiite martyr like Nasrallah, who will be remembered as the one who liberated Lebanon rather than the one who brought disaster upon it.