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    Middle East
     Jul 18, 2008
Hezbollah's deal leaves Israel short
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - In January 2004, Arabs watched with big smiles as Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hezbollah in Lebanon, hammered out a prisoner exchange deal with the Israelis. It led to the return of more than 400 prisoners from Israeli jails (mostly Lebanese and Palestinian) in exchange for the bodies of three Israeli soldiers who had been abducted in 2000.

In addition, Israel agreed to provide maps of mines planted by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in South Lebanon. Nasrallah promised an encore, and in subsequent years he frequently said he would get back all Lebanese prisoners released from Israeli jails, even mentioning the heavyweights among them by name.

On Wednesday, the remains of 199 Arabs (mostly Palestinians) were returned to Lebanon, along with four very much alive

 

Hezbollah commandos and Samir Qantar, known as the "dean" of Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails. In exchange, Nasrallah handed over to Israel the bodies of two Israeli soldiers abducted by Hezbollah in 2006 - the July 12 incident that sparked a 33-day war between Israel and Hezbollah.

Nasrallah raged throughout that war, pledging that Israeli would never reclaim the two soldiers - Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev - by force, insisting that they would only return through a prisoner-exchange deal with the Lebanese. That is exactly what happened at the Naqoora crossing on Wednesday, where Qantar and his colleagues arrived from Hadarim Prison. The exchange took place under the watchful eye of the International Red Cross. Hezbollah's al-Manar TV boasted that Nasrallah has "kept his promise".

This is not new to Arab-Israeli relations, although, yet again, it is considered a diplomatic victory for Hezbollah, which proved that it can deliver. It shows the Israelis that Hezbollah can continue to kidnap Israeli troops then trade them for an unlimited number of special prisoners, or the remains of prisoners.

In 2004, Nasrallah secured the release of Mustapha al-Dirani, the Hezbollah leader abducted from his home in South Lebanon in 1994. He was the man who had captured Ron Arad, an Israeli pilot downed in Lebanon during the civil war, in 1986.

This time, Nasrallah restored Qantar to Lebanon. He had been in jail since 1979 for killing five Israelis, including a child and a 31-year old policeman, near the town of Nahariyah in northern Israel. He had crossed into Israel by boat from Tyre, in an operation known as Operation Nasr (Victory). An Israeli court sentenced him to 542 years in prison (99 years for every victim and 47 years for attacking an Israeli officer during interrogation). He spent 30 years of his sentence, and was welcomed to Lebanon as a national hero by Prime Minister Fouad al-Siniora and President Michel Suleiman.

Another prize victory for Nasrallah are the remains of Dalal Moghraby, a legendary female Palestinian fighter who was killed in 1978. At the age of 19 she had led an 11-man group of militants onto an Israeli beach, hijacked a taxi, and then two buses, before dying in an explosion of one of the buses. The IDF says she detonated a bomb, while the Arabs claim that the IDF blew up the bus.

The latest deal follows intensive German lobbying on behalf of the United Nations, since Germany oversaw two prisoner-exchange deals between Hezbollah and Israel, in 1996 and 2004. The first deal involved Hezbollah releasing the bodies of two missing Israelis in exchange for the remains of nearly 100 guerillas involved in cross-border operations from Lebanon.

Nasrallah's prisoner exchange is modeled on a deal orchestrated by Ahmad Jibril, the secretary general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, General Command, in 1985. Jibril secured the release of 1,150 Arab and Palestinian prisoners in exchange for three Israeli captives.

Winners in the exchange
The biggest winner by far (in addition to Qantar and his four Hezbollah colleagues) is Nasrallah. The man has surrounded himself with something of a superhuman aura in the eyes of millions in the Arab world. For the past eight years he has delivered nothing but success to his constituency. Now he boasts of a long record: getting the Israelis to leave South Lebanon in 2000, the prisoner exchange of 2004, the Israeli defeat of 2006, and more recently the overpowering of his opponents in Lebanese domestic politics in May. This led to the election of Suleiman - a friend of Hezbollah - as president and gave a greater representation, with veto-power, to the Hezbollah-led opposition.

And now the exchange, which leaves no Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails. The fact that Qantar is Druze rather than Shi'ite is telling. It portrays Nasrallah as a Lebanese nationalist, rather than a Shi'ite leader, as the Western media have been saying. That is, he works with equal determination to free both Shi'ites and non-Shi'ites from Israeli prisons.

Also, Qantar was never a member of Hezbollah (the party had not been formed when he was active) but rather a commander in the Palestinian Liberation Front, a radical Palestinian group headed by Abu al-Abbas (a militant who died in American jails in Iraq after 2003).

Few can deny Nasrallah's achievements, and Arabs from every end of the political spectrum (even those loyal to Saudi Arabia, which is not too fond of his powerbase, considering him an extension of Iranian influence) have showered him with praise. Former adversaries such as Sunni politician Saad al-Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon's Druze, called on their followers to celebrate July 16 and mark the day as a national holiday so that all Lebanese, regardless of sect, can honor what Nasrallah has done.

And the losers ...
Mahmud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority, has now been put in the embarrassing position that Nasrallah has been able to release more Palestinians than both he and his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, were ever able to achieve with Israel.

Nasrallah has been challenging the authority of Abbas - without knowing it - since Arafat's death in 2004. Nasrallah had allied himself with the Palestinian uprising of September 2000, coordinating with anti-Arafat groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and abducting Israeli soldiers in October 2000 to pressure then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak to change course with regard to the Palestinians.

That endeared him to thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. He was young, charismatic and an accomplished war hero who never spoke of defeat, whereas Abbas was aged, ailing, compromising and had never obtained - or strived for - a war medal in his life.

If Nasrallah is able to bring Qantar back to Lebanon, then the least Abbas could do is to work for the release of Marwan Barghouti, the charismatic West Bank leader from Fatah, from Israeli jails.

Other losers are hardliners in the Israeli government who argued against the deal, claiming that it would encourage more violence against Israel and "proves that terrorism pays, and pays well".

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Shimon Peres argued otherwise, claiming that it could raise Israeli morale while at the same time restoring confidence in Olmert's leadership (since he still suffers from the war defeat of 2006 in Lebanon).

Neither the Israeli press, however, nor public opinion is satisfied with the Olmert-Nasrallah deal, claiming that by dealing with Hezbollah (through German mediation) the Israelis were in fact offering de facto recognition of its legitimacy.

Also, they argue that the Israeli soldiers had been returned dead - the Lebanese had promised to preserve their lives on their arrest in 2006 - whereas Qantar was alive. Qantar is too high a price to pay, argue the Israelis, since he is considered one of the most vicious enemies of the Jewish state. By trading bodies for live prisoners, this encourages Hezbollah to capture more soldiers.

When signing Qantar's pardon, Peres said, "This is a sad day for me and for the country. On one hand we have the most terrible murderer. On the other hand, we have our commitment to our boys who were sent to fight for their country. It is our moral duty and our heartfelt wish to see them come back."

The entire episode, which has left Nasrallah on cloud nine, raises one question. If Israel was all along going to accept a prisoner exchange to bring back the two soldiers abducted on July 12, 2006, why did it not do so at the beginning. Instead, it rejected Nasrallah's terms at the time (much the same as the ones agreed to now) and went to war, promising to regain the two soldiers and also punish Lebanon while doing so.

The IDF failed on both counts, not even weakening Hezbollah. That war, which Israel was not ready for, was a political and military disaster for Israel and particularly for Olmert - and it could have been avoided.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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