“You are fighting a people who have faith such as no one else on the face of the earth possesses... who take pride in their history, their civilisation and culture, who also possess material power, expertise, knowledge, calm, imagination, determination and courage. In the coming days it will be between us and you, God willing.” — Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah, Secretary General Hezbollah

WORDS such as these haven’t been heard across the Middle East for a long time. They signify the birth of a new resolve — not to suffer wrong passively, as the Arabs and Muslims have been accustomed to do for a long time, but to stand up against the oppressor and defeat him.

American and Israeli frustration is easy to understand. They have been used to dealing with puppets and tinpot figures — sonorous phrases on their lips, fear and timidity in their hearts. Now in Gaza and Lebanon they are encountering a new breed of fighters, fearless and resolute.

And so they are doing what comes most readily to them: pinning blame on Syria and Iran, plying the airwaves with the most outrageous falsehoods (helped in this most loyally by CNN and even more by BBC) and refusing to see that the attacks on Gaza and Beirut far from destroying Hamas and Hezbollah are adding more fuel to the fires of resistance.

After so much death and destruction in Gaza, support for Hamas should have crumbled. It has had just the opposite effect, Palestinians rallying round Hamas’s flag. After days and nights of relentless bombing of Lebanese cities, the people of Lebanon should have turned against Hezbollah. They haven’t. Hasan Nasrallah is a hero because Hezbollah — in Robert Fisk’s words “one of the toughest guerrilla armies in the world” — has the courage and strength to stand up to Israel.

But the contrast couldn’t be more striking: on one side Hamas and Hezbollah, and their fierce determination, the willingness to take on the most fearsome odds; and on the other, the pathetic spectacle of Arab and Muslim impotence.

Far from wanting to do anything for the Palestinian and Lebanese resistance, the kings and autocrats of the Muslim world are angry at Hezbollah for exposing their (the autocrats’) helplessness. Kings of Jordan, presidents of Egypt made their peace with Israel long ago. They are champions now of the American cause with no stomach for confronting Israel or annoying the US. How can they be comfortable with the idea of resistance? According to Ori Nir in The Forward, a Jewish newspaper appearing from New York, “In a particularly unusual move, one top Jewish communal leader, Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman, visited the Saudi ambassador in Washington, Prince Turki al-Faisal, to thank him for his country’s condemnation of Hezbollah for igniting the crisis by launching a cross-border raid against Israel and abducting two of its soldiers.”

From the same write-up: “Jewish groups said that they were quite happy with the response of several Arab countries, namely Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.”

To this picture of collective impotence here’s Hasan Nasrullah’s answer: “As to the Arab rulers, I don’t want to ask you about your history. I just want to say a few words. We are adventurers... But we have been adventurers since 1982. And we have brought to our country only victory, freedom, liberation, dignity, honour, and pride... In the year 1982 you said... we were crazy. But we proved that we were the rational ones, so who then was crazy? ...So I tell them simply: go bet on your reason and we will bet on our adventure, with God as our Supporter and Benefactor. We have never for one day counted on you. We have trusted in God, our people, our hearts, our hands, and our children. Today we do the same, and God willing, victory will follow.”

How can the cardboard figures presiding over the destinies of the world of Islam warm to such uncomfortable words?

Spare a thought also for the powerful republic of Pakistan with its 600,000 man army, nuclear arsenal and long-flying missiles. The hearts of the Pakistani people may beat with that of their brethren-in-faith in Gaza and Lebanon but from their government hardly a squeak has come out, its muted commentaries on the Lebanese situation couched in the softest possible terms.

But then what is to be expected from a dispensation whose foreign minister was happy to cavort with his Israeli counterpart in Istanbul last year and whose president applauded Israel’s ‘withdrawal’ from Gaza? (A picture in the papers the other day showed the US ambassador sitting amidst Pakistan army and police officers at a ceremony to ‘honour’ anti-narcotics personnel. The US ambassador showing all the condescension that one shows to a well-trained poodle, this while Israeli bombs, actually American bombs, were raining down on Lebanon. It won’t be any time soon before we come to realise what looks right and what doesn’t.)

Hezbollah is the only force in the Muslim world which can claim victory over Israel, forcing Israel to retreat from southern Lebanon in 2000. Even now while Israel commands the skies of Lebanon and blockades its waters (although even there Hezbollah has scored a triumph by hitting and crippling a sophisticated Israeli helicopter-carrying warship), on the ground Hezbollah is proving more than a match for the Israeli army.

Israel has everything in the US armoury, making its military one of the most effective in the world. It certainly has an edge over all Arab armies combined. But it is not finding it easy to fight Hezbollah in south Lebanon.

What is Israel hoping to achieve? It can kill as many innocent civilians as it wants — and already more than 200 have been killed as a result of indiscriminate bombing — but defeating Hezbollah, a phantom army which has the ability to strike but is not easy to find (classic guerrilla tactics), is another matter. If war is a continuation of politics by other means, it is hard to figure out what the politics are in this case.

Just as the American invasion and occupation of Iraq has, unwittingly, served Iranian interests — by removing from the scene Iran’s sworn enemy, Saddam, and allowing Iranian influence to grow in Iraq — the Israeli assault on Lebanon far from doing Israel any good is undermining the position of Lebanon’s anti-Syrian government and immeasurably adding to the stature of Hasan Nasrullah, not only in Lebanon but across the Muslim world.

As an Associated Press report puts it: “After fierce fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, posters of the bespectacled Nasrallah in his black turban have sprung up throughout the Gaza Strip. Demonstrators carry Hezbollah flags and chant slogans in his support. In the West Bank, Palestinians tune into Hezbollah’s Al Manar television station to hear Nasrallah speeches and follow the group’s progress in its war against Israel.”

Hamas is mainly Sunni, Hezbollah largely Shia. Support for Hezbollah transcends this sectarian divide.

There is no shortage of despised figures in the world of Islam for whom the Muslim masses (not the elites) have nothing but contempt. But something new is emerging, a galaxy of heroes of whom the masses can be proud: in Iraq the resistance which has humbled and made a mockery of American might, in Lebanon Hasan Nasrallah and glorious Hezbollah, in the Gaza Strip equally valiant Hamas, in Afghanistan a resurgent resistance and, whether anyone likes it or not, Sheikh Osama bin Laden.

The US had a splendid opportunity after Sept 11 to capture the moral heights had it conducted itself, for all its justified anger, with dignity and restraint. This would only have been possible if men of vision had been at the helm of affairs. To America’s misfortune a small-minded cabal was in charge which sought small-change advantage from that huge tragedy, thus turning monumental grief and anger into a shallow-minded policy of vindictiveness and retribution.

We have seen what has come of this course: Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, the folly of Iraq, and, as a direct consequence, an arc of defiance and resistance spreading all the way from the Gaza Strip and Lebanon to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Opportunity turned into a nightmare with the end nowhere in sight. As Byron said, “The thorns that I have reaped are of the tree I planted.”