A warrior's rest
This week's prisoner swap deal between Israel and Hizbullah marks a new chapter in the Arab-Israeli conflict, writes Amira Howeidy
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PROMISED VICTORY: Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah personally greets the the five liberated Lebanese prisoners Israel released in a swap deal Wednesday (Photo: AP)
The images transmitted from South Lebanon and northern Israel spoke volumes. Broadcast around the world at 9:30am yesterday from Lebanon, footage showed two plain black boxes -- coffins -- containing the corpses of Israeli soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev captured by Hizbullah two years ago. Across the border, five healthy looking handcuffed Lebanese prisoners held by Israel completed the story that took two years and a war to end.
The seven -- two dead, five alive -- were swapped in a high- profile exchange deal between Hizbullah and Israel. In the deal, Hizbullah was due to receive the remains of 190 Lebanese, Syrian, Libyan, Palestinian and Tunisian fighters who died resisting Israeli occupation over the past three decades. For its part, Israel also was to gain information on an Israeli soldier who went missing in Lebanon 22 years ago.
In a later stage of the deal, that is expected to be implemented in a couple of weeks, Israel will hand over an unspecified number of Palestinian -- and possibly Jordanian -- prisoners serving prison sentences in the Hebrew state, in addition to providing information on four Iranian diplomats who were abducted from Lebanon 26 years ago.
The deal is more than another moral victory of Hizbullah or a small defeat for Israel. By completing it, Hizbullah makes Lebanon the first Arab country to resolve and close the issue of its prisoners killed or held captive by Israel. There are now no Lebanese prisoners or corpses on Israeli soil. And by handing over the corpses of hundreds of Arabs to Hizbullah, Israel further boosted the popularity, leverage and profile of Nasrallah and the resistance strategy he stands for across the Arab world.
This boost will be enhanced further when Israel releases Palestinian prisoners and hands them over to Hizbullah in the coming weeks. During the European-mediated negotiations between Hizbullah and Israel over the past year, Tel Aviv reportedly rejected the principle of releasing non- Lebanese prisoners so as not to make of Nasrallah "a king for the Arabs".
In Ras Al-Naqoura, the border town in South Lebanon where the five Lebanese prisoners were going to be delivered, a woman said, "we have no king, but Nasrallah is the emir [prince] of all Arabs."
Thousands of Palestinian, Lebanese and Hizbullah flags fluttered across South Lebanon and in Beirut's Al-Dahia district -- Hizbullah's stronghold -- as resistance songs filled the air via loud speakers. The day also marked the first meeting of the newly formed Lebanese cabinet after a long period of domestic unrest that almost descended into civil war two months ago.
Newly elected Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, Prime Minister Fouad Al-Siniora, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, the entire cabinet and a host of high-profile political figures were due to welcome the released prisoners at Beirut airport in a formal ceremony. Thousands of balloons and red carpets were stretched both in Ras Al-Naqoura, Beirut airport, and Al-Dahia for the reception as Lebanon declared 16 July a national holiday.
All of this is unprecedented in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict; a crack, observers suggest, in Israel's very existence as it celebrates its 60th anniversary. For the first time since its creation, an Arab side not only evens with Israel by levelling with it in a war, but also implements its strategy on its own terms. Following the capture of the two soldiers in 2006, Nasrallah confidently said they would be released only through a prisoner's exchange and indirect negotiations -- nothing else.
It is no wonder that silence, tears and seething anger marked the mood in Israel while jubilation, cheering, songs and a sense of national pride and unity dominated the once-divided Lebanon. Even Hizbullah's staunchest critic, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who is also a vocal advocate for the disarmament of the resistance movement, described the exchange deal as "a national day par excellence", adding that Israel "only understands the language of power".
Hizbullah captured the two Israeli soldiers two years ago in an operation orchestrated by the group's senior field commander, Imad Mughniyah. The objective was to exchange the soldiers with Lebanese and Arab prisoners held captive in Israel. Israel immediately rejected the concept and launched a war on Lebanon that lasted 33 days with the declared objective of liquidating Hizbullah. The war failed according to the Winograd Commission set up in Israel afterwards to investigate what happened, while Hizbullah declared it a victory for Lebanon. Tel Aviv, however, won some ground when Mughniyah was assassinated in Damascus in February.
Yesterday Hizbullah dedicated the exchange to Mughniyah, whose image covered yellow- coloured billboards in South Lebanon, dubbing it Al-Rodwan, after Mughniyah's nickname, Al-Haj Radwan.
The remains of 190 Lebanese and Arab fighters that were due to be delivered as Al-Ahram Weekly was going to press Wednesday, refreshed memories of the resistance era of the 1970s and 1980s when Arab governments openly supported the liberation of Palestine through armed struggle. The remains of the iconic Dalal Al-Moghrabi, a 20- year-old Palestinian Fatah fighter, who led a suicide operation in Tel Aviv in 1978 killing more than 30 Israeli soldiers, were delivered to Hizbullah yesterday.
But it was the release of Samir Al-Kantar, 46, the longest serving Lebanese prisoner in Israel, which served as Hizbullah's real "prize" in this exchange deal. In all previous prisoner swap deals between Israel and Hizbullah, Al-Kantar was a red line for Tel Aviv, which vehemently refused his release arguing that he "has Jewish blood on his hands". In 1979, then 17-year-old Al-Kantar crossed the Lebanese border to Nahria in Israel and killed three Israelis. He has been serving five life sentences since.
Prisoner swap deals between Israel and Hizbullah go back to 1991 when Israel released 91 prisoners for the corpse of one Israeli soldier. In 1996 Israel released 45 prisoners and the remains of 200 Lebanese for the corpses of two Israeli soldiers. Two years later Hizbullah swapped the remains of three Israeli soldiers with 60 Lebanese detainees and 40 bodies. The biggest swap deal was in 2004 when Hizbullah exchanged two Israeli captives and one corpse for 462 Lebanese and Arab prisoners, 59 corpses and a map of land mines planted by Israel in Lebanon.
Israel continues to hold 10,000 Palestinian and Arab prisoners. In 2006, three Palestinian resistance groups captured Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier on the Gaza border in an attempt to exchange him with some of those prisoners. Mediated by Egypt, negotiations for Shalit's release remain hindered by Israel's refusal to commit to the terms of the agreement that will pave the way for his liberation.
Commenting on the jubilation in Lebanon yesterday, emboldened Hamas leaders said that their resolve will be "hardened" further as they will only release Shalit, who is alive, in return for a large number of Palestinian and Arab prisoners.
Amal Saad Ghorayeb, a Lebanese expert on Hizbullah, argues that by making this concession with Hizbullah Israel has damaged itself. "Such a capitulation serves both to consecrate Hizbullah's image in the Arab world as the standard-bearer of Palestinian rights, and to raise Hamas's price for Shalit's release from 450 to 1,450 Palestinian prisoners -- especially given that the soldier is certifiably alive," she wrote in an article published on Open Democracy 12 July.
In Egypt, sentiment within official quarters was in tune with Lebanon. Speaking to the Weekly Tuesday, the ruling party's Mustafa El-Feki, head of the parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, said "Israel respects only the logic of force and this swap deal is one of the fruits of Hizbullah's victory in 2006."