On a recent afternoon I was walking down Hamra, Beirut's old main shopping area, when a car pulled up alongside of me and the driver asked how I liked Lebanon. The place is still thriving, the snow-capped peaks, not a cloud in the sky, the shops full of the latest stylish clothes. It was fantastic, of course.
"Enjoy it while you can," he answered. "It won't be here next month."
What will replace it, nearly everyone in Beirut speculated to me, is the resumption of the Hizballah-Israel war that ravaged Lebanon in the summer of 2006. Some Lebanese even have a precise date for it: April 6 — the day Israel's biggest emergency drill ever starts, when they believe the Israeli Defense Forces juggernaut will roll across the border to finish the job they should have during the 34-day conflict. Although, mind you, there's not a thread of evidence that the Israelis are really going to invade.
Everyone I met in Beirut confirmed that Hizballah is locked and loaded for the next war. They didn't need any additional proof, but when the USS Cole showed up off the coast of Lebanon it was all the more proof that the United States and Israel were coming to get them.
I experienced the siege mentality firsthand when I passed by Hizballah's "media office" in Beirut's southern suburbs to see if I could photograph the grave of its most recent "martyr," Imad Mughniyah — the Hizballah military commander assassinated in Damascus on February 12. It shouldn't have been a big deal: Mughniyah's pictures line the road from the airport into town. But the lady who ran the office looked at us as if we personally had detonated the car bomb that killed him.
Just as we were about to be shown to the door, I made one last plea, something about Mughniyah being Hizballah's field general, and surely there shouldn't be a problem. "There are thousands more like him," she said, turning her laser eyes on me as if to say, don't even think that one death made a difference to Hizballah's Islamic Resistance.
Ironically, for anyone who doesn't spend his day following Lebanese politics, an Israeli invasion is exactly what Hizballah wants. A war with Israel would keep Hizballah from losing its resistance mantle, and prevent it from getting caught up in what one of Hizballah's leader Hassan Nasrallah's political interlocutors told me would be Hizballah's worst nightmare — a civil war. A civil war would draw Hizballah into a fight with the Christians and the Sunnis; it would be just another faction with its own parochial interests, the end of Hizballah's special place in Lebanese society.
Hizballah has said publicly that it holds Israel responsible for Mughniyah's assassination. But the same Nasrallah lieutenant stressed, "Do not count on Hizballah taking revenge against Israel anytime soon." "They will take their time, years if necessary. They will, yes. But Hizballah is not an impetuous organization. It will not give its enemies a chance to divert it from the war against Israel."
Whether Hizballah takes its revenge for Mughniyah or not, the average Lebanese is preparing for the worst. The price of a Kalashnikov in the thriving black market has nearly tripled in recent weeks to $1,200.Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, is TIME.com's intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and, most recently, the novel Blow the House Down