SHEBAA, Lebanon (Reuters) – Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah, was a hero in this Sunni village in south Lebanon when Israeli troops were forced to withdraw in 2000 but his picture was torn down a few weeks ago.
Villagers in Shebaa were grateful to Hezbollah guerrillas for forcing out Israel. Now, some say Nasrallah’s image has been damaged by the campaign he is leading against a government which they support.
“In the liberation year, all of Shebaa supported Hezbollah. Now it’s a tiny, tiny minority,” grocer Ahmad al-Khatib said.
Posters of Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri and his ally Prime Minister Fouad Siniora have been pasted to walls and windows around the hillside village in mainly Shi’ite south Lebanon.
The opposition, led by Hezbollah, wants veto power in the cabinet or early elections. “For me, Hezbollah has changed completely,” shopkeeper Ghada Ghadir said. “It’s no longer resistance. It’s a big problem.”
Villagers fled north during the July-August war between Hezbollah and Israel. Ghadir blamed the conflict on Hezbollah and complained that Shebaa’s cherry crop had gone to waste.
“Oh Siniora, don’t worry, you have the support of men who will drink blood,” sang a group of boys as they played in the street next to an enormous poster of Saad’s assassinated father, former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.
Hariri has recently donated thousands of litres of heating fuel to help Shebaa through the winter. His Future Movement has also opened a clinic in the village, locals said.
Although Hariri pictures dominate Shebaa, Hezbollah still has sympathizers among the village’s Sunni population.
They say Hariri is trying to secure Shebaa’s loyalty as part of a campaign to shore up Sunni support to fend off the Hezbollah-led political challenge.
Nasrallah has accused his political opponents of seeking to whip up Sunni fears that Hezbollah has a sectarian agenda aimed at undermining Sunnis.
Shebaa carries symbolic weight for Hezbollah because it adjoins the Shebaa Farms — territory occupied by Israel since the 1967 Middle East war but claimed by Lebanon.
The United Nations says the Shebaa Farms are Syrian, while Damascus says the land belongs to Lebanon.
Hezbollah has said Israel’s occupation of the farms is one reason for it to keep its weapons.
“It’s in Israel’s interest for the Shebaa Farms to be removed from Hezbollah’s hand. How? By Sunnis saying: ‘We do not want Hezbollah to resist,” teacher Yahya Ali said.
In Shebaa, some Sunni clerics and other local leaders have started criticizing Hezbollah, villagers said. “They are trying to impose sectarianism under financial incentives or ideological pressure,” Ali said. “Frankly, it’s political money.”
“They say; ‘This village is Sunni and has a Sunni religious authority and whoever counters that is in error. They are in error,” he said.