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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A few minutes later, Nasrallah gave his formal speech via closed circuit television from an undisclosed location and turned the event into a not-so-subtle rebuke to Arab regimes that have criticized his group.

For its part, the Israeli public, which at first strongly supported the prisoner swap, seems to have entered into a 'buyer's remorse' phase, realizing its humanitarian desire to bring home the remains of two soldiers has handed its enemies a huge symbolic victory.And almost immediately the Israelis hinted that they planned to kill both Kuntar and Nasrallah as legitimate terrorist targets. Kuntar may have more reason to worry, at least in the near term, given that Nasrallah for years has dodged Israeli attempts to get him.

But Israel threats won't change the facts on the ground in Lebanon—notably, Hezbollah's political ascendancy. It now controls all cabinet decisions through a veto, controls the largest and strongest military force in the country, justified the 2006 war to its political base, and now seems to enjoy the protection of President Suleiman, who as army commander refused to use the military to stop the group's incursion into West Beirut in May.

Hezbollah has been busy rearming since the war, despite a United Nations resolution calling for the disarming of all militias. Now, Hezbollah is using its political strength to get government declaration that essentially permits Hezbollah to keep its weapons in order to continue its "resistance," a reference to its fight over a small area of disputed land captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war.

After a tense and sometimes violent spring, Lebanon seems to be accepting its fate and relaxing in time for the critical summer tourist season. "Hezbollah runs Lebanon, who cares!" shouts Fady, an expatriate Lebanese Christian as he drinks a Mojito in one of Beirut's trendier cafes. "If they try and stop us from drinking, I'll just go home to Brazil!"

"It's good for business and Lebanon," adds Fares Fares, who runs a Beirut taxi service. "Does Hezbollah run my country? Yes. Can I stop them? No. And the tourists are back. Yes. So I am happy."