Homecoming for a Child-killer

Global Politician -17/07/2008

The deal for the return of convicted terrorist Samir Kuntar, four Hizbullah men captured in the 2006 Second Lebanon War and a number of corpses in return for the remains of kidnapped IDF soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser comes at an opportune moment for the Hizbullah leadership.

Indeed, some analysts have suggested that group leader Hassan Nasrallah accepted a less favourable deal than he had originally held out for, in order to conclude the negotiations as speedily as possible. What is clear is that the prisoner swap is having the desired effect for Hizbullah – rebuilding its legitimacy. Most (though not all) of the leaders of the pro-western and pro-Saudi March 14 movement appear to be accepting the portrayal of the swap as a victory for Lebanon, and the consequent depiction of the infanticidal Kuntar as a Lebanese national hero.

Why did Nasrallah need the deal so badly? In May of this year, Hizbullah brought 18 months of smoldering political tension to a head. The March 14-led government had attempted to move against Hizbullah’s control of security at Rafik Hariri Airport in Beirut, and to limit the growth of Hizbullah’s extensive internal communication system within Lebanon.

Hizbullah saw this as an assault on its independent military infrastructure. The movement, which had been engaged in a campaign to bring down the Saniora government since the end of 2006, reacted swiftly. Hizbullah and its allied forces poured onto the streets of West Beirut and other key parts of the country – inflicting an unambiguous military humiliation on their enemies in the Sunni-led al-Mustaqbal movement of Saad Hariri and Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, which leads the March 14 coalition. Hizbullah then went on to negotiate a deal reflecting this victory with Qatari mediation in Doha.

But Hizbullah’s achievement had come with a substantial price. Throughout its history, the movement, despite its Shi’ite nature, had tried to claim for itself a role above the Lebanese sectarian framework. It had justified its uniquely-tolerated military infrastructure by claiming that it existed for the sole purpose of fighting Israel – and would never be turned against fellow Lebanese. This pledge had now been broken. Hizbullah was in increasing danger of appearing unambiguously as a Shi’ite Islamist client of Iran.

The attempts to swiftly form a government following Doha have also run aground, amid wrangling over portfolios. Hizbullah was therefore in need of a gesture, a spectacle which could enable it to recall the 2006 war, and wrap itself in the flag of victory against Israel.

The prisoner swap looks set to provide this opportunity. Hizbullah long ago made the cause of Samir Kuntar its own. Kuntar, a Lebanese Druse and member of the Palestine Liberation Front, took part in an operation in Israel in 1979, in which he was responsible, among other things, for the murder with his own hands of a four-year-old girl, Einat Haran. Prior to killing Einat, Kuntar had shot and killed her father, Danny, before the child’s eyes.

The freeing of Kuntar was the purpose for which Hizbullah carried out the raids – intended to secure captive IDF soldiers for use as bargaining chips – which began the Second Lebanon War. Securing his release would thus add significant weight to Nasrallah’s claims of victory in 2006, despite the extensive damage and loss of life among Lebanese Shi’ites.

The news of the planned swap has been greeted with enthusiasm from politicians on both sides of the divide. Lebanese President Michel Suleiman has told Hizbullah that he would like to take part in the welcome-home ceremony for Kuntar. Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Druse Progressive Socialist Party and a major March 14 figure, said that a PSP delegation would visit Kuntar to welcome him home and congratulate him on his release. He called the return of the Lebanese prisoners a “national occasion” which would bring people together.

Other March 14 leaders spoke in similarly glowing terms. Saniora said that “the success of Hizbullah in the negotiations led by a third party is a national success for the party and for the struggle of the Lebanese because it secured national goals which Israel always refused to respect.”

Saniora, according to one Lebanese newspaper, As-Safir, is “inclined in principle” toward taking part in planned events to welcome the prisoners home. As-Safir also reported that there are plans to make the day of the return of the prisoners a national holiday.

From Israel’s point of view, the remarks made by the March 14 leaders, while edifying, are of secondary interest. Israel has never placed a great deal of faith in either the intentions or the abilities of the individuals in question. Of greater importance, however, is the extent to which the prisoner swap is serving to strengthen Hizbullah. In so doing, it is delivering a very significant achievement to the movement, and to its regional supporters – Israel’s sworn foes – in Damascus and Teheran.

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