Hizbullah vows to continue its struggle to secure the release of Lebanese prisoners held in Israeli jails, reports Mohalhel Fakih from Beirut
Defying growing international and domestic pressure to strip Hizbullah of its arms the militant Islamist Shia group pledged to "use all available means" to win the release of three Lebanese nationals still held by Israel. Hizbullah said its fighters would continue to defend Lebanon against Israel and any resettlement of Palestinian refugees in the country.
"What plans do you have to liberate the rest of the detainees in Israeli prisons?" Hizbullah Secretary-General Sayid Hassan Nasrallah openly asked the Lebanese opposition which has been pressing the group to renounce its armed struggle against Israel in line with UN Security Council Resolution 1559.
The September resolution demands troops withdraw from Lebanon and warns against continued intervention in Lebanese politics, provisions clearly directed at Syria, though the country is not mentioned by name.
Nasrallah's comments came as he addressed supporters on the first anniversary of the high-profile prisoner exchange deal that saw Israel swap 40 Arab and 400 Palestinian detainees in return for captured Israeli reserve Colonel Elhanan Tannenbaum and the release of the bodies of three Israeli soldiers.
"The Zionist enemy daily declares that Hizbullah has taken a strategic decision to capture Israeli soldiers. I confirm that all options are open," Nasrallah told a crowd that included several Lebanese officials.
But Hizbullah, which spearheaded the armed campaign that ousted Israel from South Lebanon in May 2000, will face considerable risks if it attempts to capture soldiers from across the UN demarcated Blue Line to exchange for Lebanese prisoners held in Israel. Earlier this month three people, including a French UN peace-keeper, were killed in violence along the border. The incident drew UN condemnation and more calls on Beirut to disarm Hisbullah and send the Lebanese army to the south.
On Saturday Nasrallah argued that "since 1948 the official stance" has been to not counter Israeli air, land and marine breaches.
"Shebaa Farms is not the issue... Lebanon's security" is at stake, Nasrallah insisted, in what appeared to be an attempt to head off mounting pressure inside Lebanon for the group to be disarmed. Since Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon Israel's occupation of the Shebaa Farms has been presented by Hizbullah as the raison d'être of its struggle.
Veteran political analyst Naseer Al-Asaad told Al-Ahram Weekly in Beirut that "in response to mounting pressure Nasrallah has now said that Hizbullah will remain armed with or without the conflict over the Shebaa Farms."
"We cannot," Al-Asaad continued, "yet rule out a demarcation of the border to include the Shebaa Farms inside UN-recognised Lebanese territory. It could be that Nasrallah is pre-empting such a move though in the end it will remain up to Syria."
A Security Council resolution passed last week demanded Hizbullah disarm, rejected Beirut's claim to the occupied Shebaa Farms and renewed the mandate of the UNIFIL, the United Nations' border peace-keeping force, for a further six months. The resolution, adopted unanimously, said Lebanon's "continually asserted position" that the Shebaa Farms are part of Lebanese territory was "incompatible" with past resolutions. The UN had ruled that the region was Syrian when Israel occupied it and that it is up to Lebanon and Syria to fix their border. Beirut and Damascus have refused to do so.
The resolution reiterated that Secretary-General Koffi Anan had certified Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon and urged Beirut to exercise "sole" authority in the south. Amid reports that the US would press the council to link a renewal of UNIFIL's mandate to Resolution 1559 Lebanon opposed any amendments to the force's mission though the council kept open the possibility of future modifications.
The council "was selective in highlighting passages from the secretary-general's report... and this could have a detrimental effect on peace and security," said Ibrahim Assaf, Lebanon's deputy UN ambassador.
Beirut and Damascus not only face pressure from the United Nations. Home-grown opposition to continued instability along Lebanon's border with Israel is growing.
"Is there any harm in the Lebanese and Syrian governments demarcating a border?" asked Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt.
He stressed that Lebanon and Syria must provide evidence to the UN confirming that the Shebaa Farms region is Lebanese.
The Syrian authorities took the area over in the 1950s and 1960s and has since refused to clarify the situation, said Jumblatt, who said his intentions in raising the matter were meant to "defend" Hizbullah.
"The opposition wants Lebanon to operate within the bounds of international legitimacy. It wants to preserve the resistance, and is arguing that this cannot happen if it continues along its present path. Hizbullah needs to find a way to avoid the consequences of Resolution 1559," said Al-Asaad.
Exiled former Lebanese army chief and anti-Syrian opposition figure General Michel Aoun also said he wanted to "defend" Hizbullah.
"We ask Hizbullah to renounce its arms. Its mission is over and the issue of the Shebaa Farms is a failed pretext... Resolution 1559 offers a way out," Aoun said after announcing that he will return to Lebanon before legislative elections in May, ending 14 years of exile.
"Hizbullah must integrate within Lebanese society if it is not to face something more dangerous," Aoun said in Paris, alluding to Hizbullah's inclusion on Washington's list of terrorist groups and efforts by Israel to convince the EU to also designate the group as terrorist.
Israel has accused Hisbullah of sponsoring operations in the occupied Palestinian territories, a charge the group denies, and has told EU officials that Hizbullah is a major stumbling block to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's cease-fire plans.
Meanwhile, in a move that is likely to draw more pressure on Lebanon and Syria, the Danish foreign ministry announced on Sunday that a Lebanese-born Palestinian Dane will be tried in Tel Aviv on charges of spying for Hizbullah. Ayad Al-Ashuah was arrested on 6 January after allegedly filming military installations in Israel. His defence lawyer, Ila Telawi, said his client was forced into confessing to charges of espionage.