Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Israel-Hizb'ullah Prisoner-Deal

Top text: "Victory from God"

(Taken from al-Manar, Hizbu'llah's television station)

Samir Quntaar, the Lebanese Druze (non-Muslim) member of the Palestine Liberation Front, is pictured in the center. The other four, younger men are Hizbu'llah paramilitaries captured by Israel during its ground invasion of southern Lebanon in 2006. On Wednesday, the Israeli government exchanged Quntaar and the four Hizbu'llah fighters for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers captured/killed by the Shi'i party in July 2006 during a cross-border operation. Before and at the time of the operation, Hizbu'llah leader Shaykh Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah said that the purpose of capturing Israeli soldiers was in order to free Lebanese prisoners held in Israeli prisons.

The Israelis, during their 17-year occupation of ten percent of Lebanon (the so-called "security zone") from 1982 to May 24, 2000, also had a program of capturing Lebanese to use as "bargaining chips," as the Israelis put it. Wednesday's exchange marks the second such exchange since 2004 when the Israelis released a senior Hizbu'llah official, Shaykh 'Abd al-Karim Obeid, and Islamic AMAL leader, Mustafa Dirani, who were kidnapped by Israeli commandos in the 1990s to be used as "bargaining chips" in obtaining information on Ron Arad, an Israeli air force pilot captured by Lebanese militias in 1986 during Israel's occupatio
n of Lebanon. Obeid and Dirani, along with several hundred Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners, were released in exchange for the bodies of Israeli soldiers killed in a Hizbu'llah operation and an imprisoned Israeli reserve colonel. Hizbu'llah recently turned over its own report on Arad to the Israeli government, which called it unsatisfactory. This move has been interpreted as a quid pro quo for information on four Iranian diplomats kidnapped (and possibly murdered) by a radical Lebanese Christian militia allied to Israel in the 1980s during its invasion and occupation. The Iranian government alleges that the diplomats are still alive and are imprisoned in Israel.
This latest exchange has already garnered Nasrallah and Hizbu'llah political gains in Lebanon and across the region. Nasrallah, who has always promised to never stop working to free the party's members from Israeli prisons, is seen as having fulfilled his pledge. In addition to the five prisoners, the Israelis have agreed to hand over the bodies of over 200 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters killed in clashes over the past two decades.

The Israel-Hizbollah Prisoner-Deal

By Amal Saad-Ghorayeb
Lebanese (Christian) political scientist and expert on Hizbu'llah and the country's Shi'i community.
She is the author of Hizb'ullah: Politics and Religion (Pluto Press, 2001)

Published on (July 14, 2008)

The Israeli cabinet's decision to strike a prisoner-exchange deal with the Hizbollah movement in Lebanon - on the eve of the anniversary of the war between the two sides of 12 July-14 August 2006 - will not be remembered as one of Israel's most glorious moments. Even its chief architect, prime minister Ehud Olmert, has referred to the deal in terms of "sadness" and "humiliation"; while it has been staunchly opposed by the heads of Israel's internal-security agency (Shin Bet) and foreign-intelligence agency (Mossad), as well as by a number of Israeli politicians across the political spectrum. Indeed, the exchange of captives itself (or in the case of two Israeli soldiers whose seizure precipitated the 2006 war, their remains), which is planned to occur by 16-17 July 2008 at latest, can be described as a replay of what Israel's own investigative commission into that war regarded as a historic defeat.

True, Israel has made similar deals in the past - some involving the release of much larger numbers of prisoners than the five Lebanese to be freed this time. But the very nature of the current exchange, as well as its strategic implications, renders it a zero-sum game in which Israel loses and Hizbollah again emerges triumphant. In implementing it, Israel will effectively fulfil the Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's "truthful promise" to secure the release of Lebanese prisoners held by Israel (the original aim of the operation Hizbollah carried out on 12 July 2006 when it abducted two Israeli soldiers on the Israel-Lebanon border) and reconfirm his oft-repeated slogan: "just as I always used to promise you victory, now I promise you victory once again". The overall impact will be to give these popular catchphrases the appearance of strategic foresights.


The logic of force

Indeed, a wider outcome of the current prisoner exchanges with Hizbollah and Hamas is confirmation of the truism that Israel "only understands the logic of force". Hizbollah has repeatedly made this argument in attributing the liberation of Lebanese and Palestinian territory to resistance activity, while decrying the futility of diplomacy with Israel in retrieving prisoners or land. A senior official of the Palestinian Authority echoed it recently in reproaching Israel for "showing that force is the only language you understand every time. Hizbollah fights you, kidnaps soldiers and then has all its demands met. Nasrallah brings Israel to its knees every time, and how do you respond? You bring [Palestine president] Abu Mazen to his knees".

Israel's surrender to this logic is fraught with risk. By establishing anew the links between abductions and prisoner-exchange, between armed struggle and liberation of occupied territory, Israel sets itself up for renewed confrontation with its enemies. Against continued predictions that the closure of Hizbollah's "liberation file" (after prisoner releases, and the recovery by Lebanon of the disputed Shebaa farms territory) will strip Hizbollah of any pretext to retain its arms, the prisoner-exchange serves rather to vindicate the group's rationale for its armed status.

Hizbollah clearly sees itself as continuing to play an indispensable role in what Hassan Nasrallah calls an effective "national defence strategy". The party's former energy minister Mohammad Fneish echoes the point with reference to the group's achievement in securing the current deal: "when assessing future dangers we must agree that the resistance fulfils a necessity in its readiness, the experience of its fighters and commanders."

Hizbollah has sought to make the prisoner deal serve as a politically unifying factor by hailing it as a victory for the entire Lebanese nation. Nasrallah reached out to the party's erstwhile political rivals to this effect in a speech on 2 July 2008. At the time of writing, the leading figures of the 14 March pro-government camp have pledged to attend the welcoming ceremony of the Lebanese prisoners; prime minister Fouad Siniora has vowed to make the day a national holiday.

Moreover, Nasrallah's presentation of the deal as making Lebanon "the first Arab country involved in the Arab-Israeli dispute" to resolve issues of prisoners, fighters' remains and the missing-in-action also reverberates in the wider Arab world. This also enables Hizbollah to engage in some much needed damage-control after its involvement in the inter-sectarian clashes of May 2008. The fact that Kuntar is not a member of Hizbollah but belongs to the Druze community, which is commonly identified with the 14 March camp, will if anything facilitate this process.

The cost of weakness

A significant aspect of the upcoming prisoner-swap is Hizbollah's ability to appropriate for itself the moral standard (which Israel has long proclaimed when making asymmetrical prisoner exchanges with Arab resistance groups) of acting in accordance with "human value and dignity". Nasrallah alluded to this in his 2 July speech when he defended the movement's image as "civilised and humanitarian" owing to its "respect for man and for man's value and dignity", and scorned the British government's portrayal of the resistance a "terrorist" organisation. As professed by Fneish: "We have returned respect for the value of humanity - a respect stripped away by the formal Arab order."

The party's memorialisation of its dead fighters , the longstanding campaigns it has waged to retrieve its prisoners and the military actions and diplomatic initiatives it has taken to retrieve them, have underscored how valuable its living and dead fighters are to it - and begun to pay real political dividends. In this too, Hizbollah has seized the initiative from Israel, whose last military operation to retrieve its prisoners was as long ago as 1994, when it abducted Mustafa Dirani in exchange for information on Ron Arad. Nasrallah's allegation that Israel did not even raise the issue of the remains of its ten soldiers killed in the 2006 until Hizbollah offered to hand them over only reinforces this view. In the past, Israel's readiness to engage in lopsided prisoner-exchanges was once perceived as stemming from a religious-moral commitment that both rendered it vulnerable yet earned it the image of cultural and moral superiority vis-à-vis Arabs whose "price" was far lower; today, however, that same willingness is now construed as strategic weakness.


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