Tipping the balance
In sealing a prisoner swap with Israel, Hizbullah has vindicated its strategy, writes Hussein Ayoub from Beirut
The prisoner exchange deal between Hizbullah and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert differs from earlier exchanges between Israel and Palestinian or Arab parties, most significantly in terms of the "price" Israel has been compelled to pay. That this is so is due mainly to the July 2006 war and the unprecedented strategic failure of Israel's assault.
The Israelis are agreeing to exchange prisoners in return for corpses, among them Samir Kuntar, convicted of killing three Israelis, and they are doing so in a deal cut with a Lebanese party.
Ask today about the Palestinian Liberation Front or Operation Gamal Abdel-Nasser which it planned and carried out 30 years ago in Neharaya during which a number of Palestinian and Lebanese fighters were either killed or captured and most people will look blank. Ask about Kuntar, however, and it will soon become clear that the man is far more famous than the operation in which he participated, or indeed the faction, led by Abul-Abbas, that planned it.
Kuntar, part of the "price" Israel must now pay, is an icon of the era of open struggle in Lebanon that started in 1948 and continued till the war of 2006. Not that there is anything exceptional in prisoner swaps per se. Olmert's immediate predecessors have done them, even Ariel Sharon who, despite staunchly opposing such deals before he became prime minister agreed in 2004 to an exchange that led to the freeing of thousands of Arab and international prisoners. The same happened with Itzhak Rabin.
What is new about Hizbullah, though, is that it deliberately sets out to capture Israeli soldiers to use them in subsequent swaps and it does so not just on the Lebanese side of the border with Israel but in Israel itself.
In 2004, following the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon, the Israelis knew Hizbullah was planning to capture a number of its soldiers and were aware that it would probably happen in the weakest point geographically, the Shabaa Farms area. They tightened security, issued warnings and threatened to destroy Lebanon. And yet the soldiers were captured exactly where it was expected they would be.
When the big exchange deal was cut between Israel and Hizbullah in the winter of 2004 the Israelis refused to release Kuntar, a man, they said, with Jewish blood on his hands. In a twist of fate, Sharon's adamant refusal gave Hizbullah every reason to strike again. The organisation's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, repeatedly announced that Hizbullah would capture as many Israeli soldiers as it needed to bring Kuntar home.
In June 2006, on the southern Lebanese border, while touring a number of resistance positions, a member of Hizbullah pointed across the border towards the Israeli settlement of Avivim and told me categorically that that was the place the Israelis expected them to try and capture soldiers. They have taken every possible security measure, he said, changing their itineraries, altering the timing of manoeuvres, everything they could think of. Yet three weeks later Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, two Israeli soldiers, were captured from the precise location the Hizbullah commander had pointed out to me.
In response, Olmert declared war on Lebanon and its resistance, proclaiming that Israel "will not be blackmailed and will not negotiate the lives of our soldiers with terrorist organisations".
However the outcome of Israel's 34-day war against Lebanon in 2006 is interpreted, some facts cannot be denied. The war exposed the shortcomings of Israel's main battle tank, the Merkava. It also showed that Hizbullah's rockets could reach Israel's third largest city, Haifa. Most importantly, perhaps, it made clear that any future attempt to invade Lebanon was a non-starter.
Two years on and the deal that Hizbullah offered in 2006 is finally being sealed: Kuntar, four prisoners from the 2006 war, a group of other Palestinian prisoners and the remains of hundreds of Arab and Lebanese resistance fighters kept by Israel since the 1982 invasion are being exchanged for two corpses and a report stating that no one has information about the whereabouts of Ron Arad, the Israel soldier missing in Lebanon.
There is no exaggeration in calling this a victory for Hizbullah, and not only in terms of the deal. Of equal significance is the fact that it vindicates Hizbullah's insistence that any dealings with Israel must be built on the basis of a balance of power. Only this balance can provide the solutions that politics has miserably failed to deliver.
This is happening at a crucial juncture in the recent history of the region, during a time when political negotiations with Israel are being revived and the Palestinians are still holding an Israeli soldier in the hope they will be able to negotiate his release for some tangible gains. It will also serve to silence at least some of the voices from within Lebanon that have been calling for Hizbullah to be disarmed.