Paralysed by its own presidential crisis, Lebanon this week felt the reverberations of the torment of its Arab neighbours, Lucy Fielder reports
As darkness fell on the hapless citizens of Gaza this week after Israel cut fuel to the Strip's only power plant, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah taunted the theocratic state by revealing that his group still held the body parts of some of its soldiers.
"They [the Israeli army] were so weak on the field that they left behind remains not of one, two or three, but a large number of its soldiers," Nasrallah said. "One body is almost complete ... What did the army say to the family of these soldiers, and what remains did they give them?" he asked.
Analysts agreed that Nasrallah's graphic comments were intended to embarrass the Israeli leadership and sow confusion ahead of the expected release at the end of this month of the Winograd report into Israel's dismal performance in its 2006 war on Lebanon. Nasrallah has suggested before that the Israeli government had come under pressure -- presumably from the US -- not to bargain with Hizbullah over the two Israeli soldiers they captured during the war.
"Nasrallah really knows how to play the psychological warfare game well, and this is just a new way of expediting [prisoner swap] negotiations stalled for so long," said Amal Saad- Ghorayeb, a Hizbullah expert at the Middle East Centre in Beirut of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. It was clear from reaction in the Israeli media -- accusing Nasrallah of trading in corpses and calling for his assassination -- that the Hizbullah leader had touched a nerve, she said.
To add fuel to fire, the charismatic resistance leader spoke after defying Israeli leader boasts of having prevented him from walking Beirut's streets by doing just that on Saturday. To the adulation of his supporters, Nasrallah led hundreds of thousands of Shias in a procession through the southern suburbs to mark the final day of Ashura, commemorating the death of Imam Hussein, the prophet Mohamed's grandson, in battle in Karbala. After this rare public appearance, Nasrallah delivered the fiery speech live on a large screen.
Nasrallah also focussed on Gaza, implying that Hizbullah would not stand aside while Israel escalated its collective punishment of the Strip's inhabitants. Ibrahim Al-Amin, chairman of the board of directors of pro-opposition daily Al-Akhbar, wrote that Nasrallah called on Arab leaders to shoulder their responsibilities to help the Palestinians, drawing a comparison with the July 2006 war, when he called on Arabs states not to conspire against the resistance.
"Nasrallah... sent a very clear and dangerous signal that the resistance in Lebanon, as part of the Arab street, will not remain on the side watching as Israel gangs up on the Palestinians and resistance fighters in Gaza," Amin wrote.
Israeli aircraft violate Lebanese airspace regularly, and this week the country's ill-equipped army fired back with anti-aircraft guns when planes swooped over the southern city of Tyre and border town of Naqoura. Israel also seized two Lebanese shepherds in separate incidents this month, releasing them after questioning.
Nasrallah said he believed Israeli officials were currently incapable of launching another war like the one that destroyed much of South Lebanon in 2006. But if they did: "We promise them a war that will change the path of the battle and the fate of the whole region, God willing."
Saad-Ghorayeb said Hizbullah was unlikely to fire rockets across the border and risk round two of Israeli destruction of southern Lebanon, and it was unclear what form its reaction would take.
Hizbullah's warnings on Gaza also serve as a reminder, if one were needed, that it is unlikely to back down on its internal political demands for more representation in the next cabinet in order to have veto power, particularly concerning strategic issues and US-backed attempts to disarm the group.
A car bomb that hit a US embassy vehicle last week -- the first such attack on a US target in Lebanon since the days of the civil war -- illustrated that the country is in thrall to regional and global struggles. Coinciding with US President George W Bush's Middle East tour, the attack was seen as a warning to Washington, which has unequivocally backed the anti-Syrian "14 March" coalition against Hizbullah (supported by Syria and Iran) and its allies. Hizbullah condemned the bombing, which killed three Lebanese passers-by.
In Beirut, scores of Hizbullah and allied Shia Amal supporters burnt tyres in flashpoint areas of the capital to protest drastic cuts in the national electricity supply and the economic policies of Prime Minister Fouad Al-Siniora. Central Beirut's electricity is now cut for three hours a day, but the mainly Shia southern suburbs' supply is even lower.
Meanwhile, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa went home empty-handed from Lebanon once again this week, voicing optimism despite increasing scepticism among Lebanese on resolving the country's political crisis. Pundits are increasingly united in predicting a president-less Lebanon for some time to come, probably until the parliamentary elections scheduled for 2009. Since Emile Lahoud vacated Baabda Palace on 23 November, politicians have agreed only on a consensus candidate, army commander Michel Suleiman. Even that agreement may not hold for long, analysts say.
Both Al-Siniora's pro-West government and the opposition led by Hizbullah are happy with the state of paralysis, argued Osama Safa, head of the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies. "There's much to gain from waiting," he said. "The government has the powers of the president, which cannot be bad. And Hizbullah has discussion of its arms indefinitely postponed." With the Bush administration on its way out, all appear waiting for a better time to make a deal.
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri announced the postponement of the vote on the president for the 13th time since 25 September, setting a new date for 11 February.
One consolation prize Moussa did take back to Cairo this week was presiding over a meeting between parliamentary majority leader Saad Al-Hariri and Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun, along with phalangist former President Amin Gemayel. The meeting was weeks in the works, Al-Hariri reportedly disinclined to meet the man delegated to negotiate for the opposition. Analysts said the meeting of the two foes achieved little more than to give an increasingly irked secretary-general something positive to tell the Arab League.
The opposition and government sides are currently fighting it out over places in the cabinet, which wields executive power since the once all-powerful Christian presidency was weakened by the post-civil war Taif Agreement. Moussa's plan recommends the immediate election of Suleiman, the formation of a national unity government and a new electoral law. "The opposition are annoyed with Moussa's reading of the initiative and basically told him to go back and more clearly articulate the part about the national unity government," Saad- Ghorayeb said.