Fri, Jul 14, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Hezbollah seizure shakes Lebanon's political landscape

QUICKSAND While the militia's capture of Israeli soldiers was celebrated by some, it risks dragging Lebanon into a war and will not be welcomed in Beirut


Lebanese youths wave Hezbollah flags in the suburbs of Beirut on Wednesday as they celebrate the capture of two Israeli soldiers.


Hezbollah had previously threatened to capture Israeli soldiers, but it had limited its attacks to shelling across the border. Wednesday's strike marked the Islamic militia's biggest operation since 2000, when Israel ended its military occupation of southern Lebanon.

Although the seizure of the two Israeli troops in a cross-border attack by Hezbollah fighters early on Wednesday morning was celebrated with sweets and firecrackers in the Hezbollah-dominated southern Shiite suburbs of Beirut, it will be much less welcome elsewhere in Lebanon's fragile politics.

The attack was almost certainly carried out without any consultation with the Lebanese government, in which Hezbollah holds two Cabinet seats, and risks dragging Beirut into an all-out war with Israel.

In an apparent acknowledgement of his critics in Lebanon, Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrullah, told the country's public it was "not the time for discussion and arguing."

"I am not asking for your support or help," he said, "but nobody should behave in a way to support the enemy. Today we behaved in a patriotic way."

Since the Israeli withdrawal six years ago, Hezbollah, whose name means Party of God, has occupied a unique position in Lebanon. The Shiite group is the last armed militia left from the civil war era and last year, for the first time, it joined the Lebanese government.

Despite a 2004 UN resolution that ordered all militias in Lebanon to be disarmed, Hezbollah's fighting units have survived intact. Earlier this year, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a respected Sunni Muslim banker, explicitly gave his government's support to the group, calling it the "resistance."

"To me it looks like Hezbollah is trying to divorce itself from Lebanese politics," said Timur Goksel, who was for more than 20 years the UN spokesman in southern Lebanon and who is now an academic in Beirut.

"This is not going down well in Lebanon, certainly in Beirut. And it could get serious internally. In Beirut there are a lot of question marks being raised now," Goksel said.

Much will now depend on the Israeli response. Hezbollah is a highly-organized guerrilla force that does not have easily identifiable military positions which could be targeted in an Israeli operation. Instead it operates among a largely supportive population across southern Lebanon and up into the long Bekaa valley, which runs between two mountain ranges along the Syrian border.

Thousands of Lebanese expatriates, many of them Shiite and from the south, are holidaying in Lebanon and the risk of civilian casualties from any Israeli strike would be high. Two Lebanese civilians were reported killed on Wednesday and five wounded. An Israeli attack destroyed a bridge along the southern coastline and jets flew over the town of Saida.

Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon was one of its most difficult military operations. It cost the lives of many soldiers and resulted in protests within the Jewish state and an eventual withdrawal.

There are precedents for a negotiated prisoner release between Hezbollah and Israel. In 2004, the Islamic militia handed over the bodies of three Israeli soldiers and released a kidnapped Israeli businessman. In return, Israel freed more than 420 Arab prisoners from its jails.

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