Israel's military campaign against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon has entered its fourth week, but as civilian casualties mount, some experts caution that the conflict may leave Hezbollah stronger than before.
When the crisis started on July 12, after Hezbollah guerrillas entered Israel and kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia criticized Israel's overwhelming response against Lebanon and called for an immediate cease-fire. But the three Sunni Islam regimes also criticized the Shiite group, Hezbollah, and its backer, Iran for provoking Israel.
Paul Scham, an adjunct scholar with the Washington-based Middle East Institute sees this criticism as a sign of a Sunni-Shiite split. "One interesting development is that some Arab countries, notably Egypt and Jordan, which is expected, but also Saudi Arabia, which is more surprising, have expressed strong opposition to Hezbollah, because these are countries that feel threatened both by Islamism and also by Iran as a regional power," says Scham. "There's been a rift between the two and, of course, [given] the fact that the main Shiite power at this point is Iran and there's always been tension between Persians on the one hand and Arabs on the other."
The Iranian Angle
The view that Iran is trying to extend its influence through the Israeli-Lebanese crisis is shared by a number of analysts. Among them is former U.S. Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who says Washington does not look kindly on the prospects of an expanded Iranian role.
"I don't think the United States looks at this conflict as a local skirmish across the Israeli-Lebanese border. For the United States, at least for this administration, this is a direct challenge by Iran to project sheer power into a Sunni region," says Miller. "And I think the Iranians are determined to make it very clear to the Sunni Arabs that 'we, Iran,' deserve respect and that we can influence developments through our proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, in an area that you care very deeply about, the Arab-Israeli issue."
However, many analysts point out that the roots of the Arab-Israeli conflict are political, and that popular support for Hezbollah crosses sectarian boundaries.
American University's Mohammed Abu-Nimer, an international peace and conflict resolution expert, says sectarian cracks may have appeared at first, but that the opposite is now true.
"What I see is more Lebanese people showing more unity and more solidarity with each other, regardless of whether they are Sunni, Shiite, Druze or Christian. I don't think this rift of Sunni and Shia exists on the ground as much as in the heads of the analysts who try to spread it. I don't see that at all," says Abu-Nimer.
A Government-People Divide
What most Middle East experts agree on is that the hostilities have widened the schism between Sunni governments critical of Hezbollah and their populations.
Chris Toensing, Executive Director of the non-profit Middle East Research Information Project in Washington, says these regimes will not be viewed favorably at home.
"The fact that the Saudi Government, certainly a very Sunni-identified government, described Hezbollah's action in very negative terms and seemed to lay the blame for what is happening in Lebanon on Hezbollah will be seen by some as something with sectarian motivation. However, I think that there is another, perhaps more significant way to view this crisis, which is that you have the populations of the region, whether they are Sunni or Shiite or Christian for that matter, being aligned very clearly against the regimes, which have tacitly or overtly laid the blame on Hezbollah for this. On the popular level there's very clear condemnation of Israel and also the U.S. for allowing this to continue," says Toensing.
While accelerating its diplomatic efforts, the United States has maintained that the Israeli-Lebanese dispute can only be settled through a sustainable truce that allows for the deployment of an effective multi-national force along the Lebanese-Israeli border. Most Middle Eastern governments have called for an immediate ceasefire.
Egypt's Ambassador in the United States, Nabil Fahmy, says violence is not the answer, and that the destruction of civilian infrastructure with heavy civilian losses is "morally unacceptable." At the same time, he says the United States must remain diplomatically engaged.
"The U.S. has an extremely important role. [It] has a tremendous amount of influence with Israel and among the Arab parties, and we encourage the U.S. to engage us. It's not enough simply to pursue diplomacy through remote contact. We need to respond to the call of public opinion on both sides that the international community be engaged on this issue," says Fahmy.
Some analysts argue that the U.S. position vis-à-vis this conflict, which is perceived in the region to be biased toward Israel, will make it difficult for Arab regimes to align themselves with American foreign policy, and equally difficult for the United States to support genuine allies in the region.
And most Middle East experts agree that the crisis will deepen the distrust and hatred between Israelis and Arabs and tarnish America's image further, as former Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller concedes.
"From our stand point, this is almost a lose-lose [situation] unless at the end of the crisis Hezbollah is perceived to have suffered a major defeat. And right now I don't see how that is going to happen. I think that, within a month, this crisis will probably be diffused. You'll have some sort of process underway which will clear a buffer zone, in which the government of Lebanon, aided by a real international force, effective [force] could be deployed. Hezbollah will not be disarmed. And the Israelis will not be able to destroy all of its rockets. So it will have an imperfect ending, but it will end," says Miller.
A Stronger Hezbollah?
Some experts suggest that Hezbollah will be weakened at the end of this military confrontation. But American university's Mohammed Abu-Nimer cautions that popular movements typically have mass appeal that goes beyond military strength or weakness.
"Certainly, I think you can see signs of [that] right now. But the question is not of military weakness. The question is to what extent Hezbollah will gain political support on the ground in Lebanon, in Syria, in the Arab World versus other forces. Will they emerge politically as losers or winners? So far, I think they gained political ground and increased their political support," says Abu-Nimer.
This, some experts say, alarms Sunni regimes that have marginalized their Shiite populations. And in a country like Lebanon, where Shiites comprise about 40 percent of the population, many Lebanese question whether their historically Christian-led state will be the same if Hezbollah emerges from this conflict politically victorious.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.