Nasrallah Gambles for Hezbollah
Hezbollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers is a trademark gambit of the group's secretary general Hasan Nasrallah, according to Middle East online observers.
Nasrallah, who will be 46 years old on Friday, is seen by friend and foe alike as an experienced religious leader who combines a hard-line strategic vision of confronting Israel with the tactical flexibility learned in the intrigues of Lebanese domestic politics.
"Nasrallah's gamble," as Yoav Appel of the Jerusalem Post called it, is that the violence will die down and Israel will enter in negotiations over a prisoner swap. The Shiite political party and militia says the two Israeli soldiers captured on Wednesday will only be released in exchange for prisoners held in Israeli jails. (Palestinians are seeking the same deal for the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, captured by Hamas militants last month). Whether or not Nasrallah secures an exchange, the attacks on Israel already "boost Hizbullah's popularity throughout the Middle East, especially at a time when the group is under regional and international pressure to disarm."
Nasrallah's standing among Arabs is high because he is seen as a leader who can negotiate with the Jewish state on an equal basis. In 2004, notes Islam Online, he arranged a massive prisoner exchange in which Israel released two high profile Lebanese leaders and 28 other Lebanese detained by Israel, as well as 400 Palestinian prisoners and the bodies of 59 Lebanese fighters. In return, Hezbollah handed over an Israeli businessman lured to Beirut and kidnapped, and caskets containing the bodies of three Israeli soldiers killed in Lebanon.
"Nasrallah will try to be the one responsible for negotiations and will try to combine the two kidnappings into one event," Israeli rofessor Shaul Mishal told Ynet News. He will "leverage the whole process to improve his standing in the Lebanese political system. Now he seems like the mover and shaker of Tehran and Damascus against Israel, and as a main player regionally, not just against Israel but facing Hamas as well."
"If I were the prime minister - I would want such a defense minister," said Mishal, an expert on Hamas.
As Israel bombs Hezbollah positions in Lebanon and countless bridges, the Lebanese people are bracing for worse, say Lebanese commentators.
The Lebanese daily Naharnet quoted Lebanese politicians as saying the country is caught between "decisions made in Syria" and "Israeli aggression."
In an online chat with washingtonpost.com readers on Thursday, Michael Young, opinion editor at Beruit's Daily Star, talked about the mood in Beirut as Israel jets bombed the city's airport and dropped pamphlets warning citizens to stay away from Hezbollah-controlled neighborhoods.
According to editors of the Daily Star, the Israeli incursion into Lebanon endangers the fragile political revival that followed the country's Cedar Revolution in February 2005. Lebanon, they say, should expect "Israel's signature strategy: collective punishment."
"Lebanese civilians, who have absolutely no control over the events that are unfolding, and who once again find themselves in the eye of the storm, are now bracing for the very worst. Their darkest fear is that as they helplessly repeat the act of watching history unfold on their land, this time the promise of Lebanon's resurrection will itself become history."
Israel must then decide, they say. "Is the mere chance of saving two soldiers really worth spilling more Israeli blood in another deadly military adventure in Lebanon?"
No, says Haaretz, the liberal Israeli daily. "In the state of war that Israel is facing in the territories and vis-a-vis Hezbollah, its deterrent ability must be bolstered, especially because abductions can indicate that this ability has indeed been eroded - but Israel must not let the abductions drag it into a regional war."
The editors of the conservative Jerusalem Post maintain a harder response -- Israel must strike "heavy blows" against Hezbollah and Hamas. "In the North, Hezbollah's rocket arsenal, army and terrorist training camps in southern Lebanon should be destroyed to the maximum extent possible, within the constraint of Israel's desire not to reoccupy Lebanese territory over an extended period."
Nasrallah's popularity in the Middle East may or may not may help him win the release of prisoners this time around. But as Israel's attacks escalate, says Zvi Bar'el of Haaretz, he is definitely "counting on gaining support from both the Lebanese public and the government."
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Posted by: luke | July 13, 2006 07:43 PM