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.
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."