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LEBANON: Peace still precarious

NAQOURA, 20 July 2008 (IRIN) - Hezbollah’s claim to victory over Israel in its 16 July prisoner swap undermines moderate Arab states and leaders, and may encourage armed struggle across the region at a time of upheaval in the relations between the West and the Middle East, a number of observers have said.

“This sends a very dangerous message that Israel only makes concessions if you use violence against it,” said Amal Saad Ghorayeb, an expert on Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia political party. “The exchange has also laid bare that, in Lebanon at least, national power is not in the hands of the state, but with a non-state actor,” she said.

Speaking to a crowd of thousands of ecstatic supporters in the southern suburbs of Beirut on 16 July, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, making his first public appearance in a year, said the release of Samir Qantar and four Hezbollah fighters marked the dawn of a new era.

“The era of defeats has ended and now we embark on an era of victories,” said Nasrallah, who has become a revered leader - in a region beset by corrupt and ineffectual politicians - since Hezbollah fighters drove Israeli forces out of Lebanon in 2000.

An overwhelmed looking Qantar, jailed for nearly 30 years in Israel for the murder of three Israelis during a 1979 raid, told the crowd he had “returned from Palestine, only to return back to Palestine” and said he looked forward to the destruction of Israel.

“The resistance has turned into a power that will never be defeated,” said Qantar, an icon of armed struggle in the Arab world, but reviled in Israel over the conviction he bludgeoned a four-year-old girl to death.

“The resistance’s weapons have become a culture that will build a country of resistance. This is the culture of the next generation that will fulfill our dream to destroy this oppressive entity.”

Hezbollah “bigger than Lebanon”

Ahmad Moussalli, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut (AUB), said Hezbollah now represented a regional fighting force whose integration into the Lebanese state security services could only come from a regional settlement.

“Hezbollah is bigger than Lebanon and the issue of their weapons can only be dealt with now by a regional settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict,” said Moussalli.

In scenes unthinkable just two months ago when a threatened crackdown on Hezbollah by the US-backed government brought the country to the brink of civil war, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora stood at Beirut’s military airport shoulder to shoulder with Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s deputy leader, to greet Qantar and the four Hezbollah fighters captured during the July 2006 War between Hezbollah and Israel.

The July War was triggered by a cross-border raid by Hezbollah guerillas who captured two Israeli soldiers, whose bodies were returned to Israel in the 16 July exchange.

The massive Israeli bombardment of south Lebanon and Beirut’s southern suburbs killed 1,200 Lebanese, mainly civilians, and displaced up to one million people, or a quarter of the population.

The 34-day war killed 157 Israelis, mostly soldiers who invaded south Lebanon, and Hezbollah rained down some 4,000 rockets on northern Israel, leading to the evacuation of around 350,000 people.

Israeli forces fired around four million cluster bomblets into south Lebanon, around a quarter of which the UN estimated failed to detonate, and which have caused dozens of deaths and maiming since the cessation of hostilities on 13 August. Israel’s bombing of Jiyyeh power station caused the Mediterranean’s worst oil spill.

The prisoner exchange also included the return to Lebanon of seven dead Hezbollah fighters and the remains of Dalal Mughrabi, the first female Palestinian guerilla leader, and four of her team who died in a 1978 raid into Israel.

Nearly 200 other bodies of Lebanese and Palestinians, as well as militants from Tunisia to Yemen, captured or killed fighting Israel between the 1970s and 2000 were also returned to Lebanon, underlining Hezbollah’s credibility as a regional force.

A poll of nearly 4,000 non-Palestinian Arab respondents in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Morocco, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, published on 16 July by the Brookings Institution in Washington, found Nasrallah to be the most admired leader by Sunni and Shia Muslims, as well as members of other faiths.

Some observers saw Hezbollah’s successful deal-making with Israel as a major blow to moderate Arab leaders, such as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is currently pursuing failing US-backed peace talks with Israel.

New mood

“Peace talks have led to nothing tangible, but force has,” said AUB’s Moussalli. “There is a mood among the new generation that Israel can be taken on and defeated. Islamist movements will see their recruitment increase.”

Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement controlling Gaza, said the Hezbollah deal strengthened its own hand in demanding freedom for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the release of Israeli solider Gilad Shalit, captured by the group in June 2006.

Bassem Qantar, Samir’s brother, told IRIN the prisoner exchange would boost the credibility of armed resistance across the region.

“This exchange will raise the big question: Is resistance a way to liberate land, to secure sovereignty and, at least in Palestine, to negotiate with some power in your hands in order to reach your goals? The answer is yes.”

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Theme(s): (IRIN) Conflict, (IRIN) Early Warning

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Copyright © IRIN 2008
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
IRIN is a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.



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