By the standards of Arab strongmen, Hassan Nasrallah is a charmer. In televised appearances made from the undisclosed location where he shelters from Israeli bombs, the Hizballah leader appears more soothing than bellicose. There is none of Saddam Hussein's finger wagging or Yasser Arafat's eye-bulging lectures or Osama bin Laden's hectoring sneer. Instead, Nasrallah reads deliberately from notes, occasionally swallowing as if to catch his breath. Every so often, he looks into the camera and flashes a smile.
Nasrallah is having a good war. By surviving Israel's aerial onslaught and fighting its army to a standstill, Nasrallah, 46, has staked a claim to being the most popular leader in the Arab world. Nasrallah's fighters have kept up their daily rocket barrages against Israeli cities and towns, keeping his promise to inflict suffering on Israel in return for its bombardment of Lebanon. When Nasrallah went before the cameras on Hizballah-run al-Manar last week, he presented himself as the custodian of Muslim honor. Even his Arab critics are biting their tongues, mindful of the support Nasrallah commands among the masses. Says a senior Arab diplomat whose government earlier criticized Nasrallah for leading Lebanon into war: "Hizballah is becoming the leader that people are following."
And yet having held off Israel and boosted his group's global prestige, Nasrallah is now under more pressure than ever. He has signaled his grudging acceptance of the U.N. Security Council plan to deploy 15,000 Lebanese Army troops to southern Lebanon, but he has resisted demands that Hizballah lay down its arms--raising the prospect that government and multinational forces will be forced to disarm Hizballah themselves. If a cease-fire takes hold, many Lebanese may feel emboldened to lash out against Hizballah for its capturing of two Israeli soldiers on July 12, which prompted the Israeli military response that has killed some 1,000 Lebanese and left 1 million displaced. "After the guns fall silent, the moment of truth will come," says Hilal Khashan, a political-science professor at the American University of Beirut. "People will hold Hizballah accountable for what happened."
Nasrallah won't shy from the fight. "The thing about Nasrallah," says a Lebanese politician who knows him well, "is that he believes in what he is doing and defends it convincingly." Says Hanna Anbar, a journalist who has covered Nasrallah for years: "Behind that smile, he's a very tough personality. He doesn't compromise." Part of his appeal on the Arab street is his refusal to accept Israel's right to exist and his enthusiastic support for Palestinian attacks, including suicide bombings, against Israelis. After he became Hizballah's leader at age 32, he calculated that hit-and-run attacks would eventually force the vastly mightier Israel Defense Forces to quit Lebanon, which they had first occupied in 1978. Following Hizballah's merciless guerrilla campaign, Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, making Nasrallah the first Arab commander in chief who could claim a victory over Israel. It came at a personal price: in 1997 his eldest son was killed by Israeli shellfire in southern Lebanon after Nasrallah encouraged him to go there and fight. "Martyrdom is the best way of passing to the eternal world," he said in remarks published by an Iranian newspaper two weeks ago. "I am sure that my son is in paradise with God Almighty."