Hezbollah Strengthens Its Grip in Lebanon

Winning Israel's release of a notorious killer gives the militant group a key success.

Freed Lebanese prisoner Samir Kantar (C) hugs his nephews at the family home while celebrating his release from an Israeli jail in his mountain village of Aabay, outside of Beirut, Lebanon.

Freed Lebanese prisoner Samir Kantar (C) hugs his nephews while celebrating his release from an Israeli jail.

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BEIRUT—Lebanon didn't exactly miss having Samir Kuntar around during the 30-odd years he spent in an Israeli jail after being convicted of killing a young Israeli girl and her father in a 1979 infiltration into northern Israel. His background—a Communist member of the Druze sect who joined with Palestinian militants in the 1970s—had left him without much of a constituency, except for one person who mattered: Hassan Nasrallah.

Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon's radical Shiite group Hezbollah, long had vowed to win the release of Kuntar, Israel's longest-held Lebanese prisoner, as a matter of national pride.

It was with Kuntar in mind that Hezbollah undertook the infamous July 2006 operation to kidnap two Israeli soldiers along the border with Lebanon, setting off the 34-day war that saw more than 1,000 Lebanese killed, thousands more wounded, and tens of thousands left homeless. In a poignant footnote to that war, Hezbollah last month returned the remains of those two soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, in a negotiated swap for Kuntar and four Hezbollah fighters captured during the war.

"Kuntar? It was never about him—it was the sacred promise of Sayed Hassan to return the prisoners that was pursued. The file on Kuntar was symbolic to show that only armed resistance can force the Zionists to act," declares a Hezbollah fighter whose nom de guerre is Abu Hussein. "He is only free because of his value as a message to those who want us to talk without the dignity of arms."

And to make sure no one missed the point, Nasrallah arranged for Kuntar and the Hezbollah fighters to be flown to Beirut's international airport for a red carpet celebration that included the newly installed President Michel Suleiman, Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, and Lebanon's new cabinet, which includes 10 opposition members that provide Hezbollah and its allies with veto power over all government decisions.

Members of the pro-western government were put in a difficult situation: refuse to participate and be dubbed an enemy by Hezbollah, or stand on the tarmac to celebrate the freedom of a man who bashed in a 4-year-old girl's head with his rifle butt.

"You don't want to know how hard this is for us," said one government political figure. "There was national pride when the resistance freed the south (from Israeli occupation); even if you opposed Hezbollah and supported Israel, you felt some pride to see Lebanon liberated. But over this? One thousand people, hundreds of children, died (in the 2006 war) to free this monster none of us even know? Hezbollah freed him to show they could. And now they will make us 'celebrate' their victory because they know they can."

Hezbollah, through its political arm, and Lebanon's pro-western elected government have reached an uneasy détente after Hezbollah-led forces routed activists loyal to the government and Sunni leader Saad Hariri in May. The ease with which Hezbollah and its more secular allies in the Amal Movement defeated Sunni and Druze supporters of the government stunned the nation and left most pro-western political figures terrified in the realization that Hezbollah can remove them from power by force at any time. "So why not try and get along with them?" the political figure added. "It's not like we have a choice."

The prisoner swap, it turns out, came at an important moment for Hezbollah, which both the United States and Israel consider a terrorist group. Hurt by the Arab world's perception that the May clashes were in essence a Shiite coup against Sunni Arab power, Hezbollah was increasingly isolated amid murmurings that the 2006 war and ensuing crisis might have been a self-immolating victory for the group.

But upon the arrival of Kuntar in Beirut, Nasrallah took the stage before hundreds of thousands of supporters to make the drive home the point that his critics, who call for negotiations with Israel, have won the release of no prisoners. "The age of defeats is gone, and the era of victories has come," Nasrallah declared in his brief appearance at the rally in Beirut southern suburbs.