Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

LEBANON: Bodies Swap Brings Uneasy Triumph

Mona Alami

BEIRUT, Jul 24 2008 (IPS) - The image of 199 coffins covered with Lebanese, Palestinian and Hezbollah flags neatly aligned in a southern Beirut compound was broadcast last week on all national Lebanese TV stations. On Tuesday this week, 144 of these remains were transferred to Syria, their final place of rest. Such images have stirred varying emotions among the Lebanese population.

On Jul. 16, a massive prisoner swap operation between Israel and Hezbollah – the eighth since 1991 – took place on the southern Naquoura Lebanese border, leading to the release of the last five Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails and 199 bodies of Lebanese and Palestinian fighters. About two years after the July 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel – which erupted after Hezbollah crossed the border and captured two Israeli soldiers, paving the way for the prisoner exchange – the Lebanese are again divided.

Israel was given in exchange the bodies of the two Israeli soldiers and the remains of some others.

Hezbollah organised celebration of the release of the detainees with careful attention to minute detail: the party’s fighters paraded on horseback, and hordes of supporters waved al-Moqawama (the resistance, as the group calls itself) flags. The sky was blue and faces cheerful when the former prisoners and the bodies of others arrived.

Samir Qantar – a Lebanese Palestinian Liberation Front member imprisoned for 29 years on several counts of murder, including the killing of a four-year-old girl and her father – as well as Khodor Zeidan, Maher Kourani, Mohammed Srour and Hussein Suleiman, Hezbollah fighters captured during the 2006 war, enacted a breaking of the barriers of their Israeli jail before the attentive crowds.

“I cried while watching the rally! Can you believe that Lebanon is the first Arab country to close its detainee file with Israel, while neither Syria nor Jordan have been able to?” said Abed, a shoe store owner from Dahyeh, Beirut’s southern suburb and a Hezbollah stronghold. He and others present seemed in awe of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, who they say “always keeps his promises.”

Hezbollah built a media campaign around “al waad”, or the promise of victory, after its July war with Israel. “This event makes me proud to be Lebanese, Sayyed Hassan (Nasrallah) has been able to effectively defend and restore our honour,” said Dohaa, one of the shoemaker’s clients.

The swap operation was dubbed al-Radwan in reference to the ‘Hajj Radwan’ alias of Hezbollah’s Imad Moughnieh, who was on the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list. A controversial figure among Lebanese, he is believed to have masterminded many of Hezbollah’s military operations before his assassination in Syria this year Feb. 12.

When asked if Lebanese would be ready to face another war with Israel, Hanna, a chocolate store owner in Hamra, a shopping area in Beirut, said: “Now that we have recovered our prisoners, let us live in peace! The last war was more than enough.”

Many Lebanese, like Hanna, found it admirable that in addition to the freed Lebanese prisoners, Hezbollah successfully reclaimed the remains of 199 Arab fighters. In all 144 were buried in Syria Wednesday. “Lebanon has definitely been able to achieve yet another victory against the Jewish state, and provided Arabs with a powerful and successful resistance model,” Hanna says.

Not everyone, however, shares Hanna’s viewpoint. At a rally organised in celebration of his return in Obay, Qantar’s hometown, the prisoner was booed when he declared his loyalty to Syria, the main supporter of Hezbollah, and accused by many to be provoking trouble by creating discord among the different religious communities.

“I might be happy about the prisoner release from a humanitarian perspective, but I have a feeling that the chapter on Israel is not yet closed,” said Beirut resident Salam. “Israel will definitely find a new way to teach Hezbollah a lesson.”

The young man says Hezbollah’s “publicity stunt” has strengthened its regional position while significantly weakening the government and the general image of Lebanon.

“Lebanon (the government) was completely sidelined in the recent negotiations,” he said. “This is unacceptable if we truly believe in building our nation together.”

Carlos Edde, head of the Lebanese National Block, told IPS that though he was happy about the return of Lebanese prisoners to their homeland, the swap only undermined Lebanon’s sovereignty.

“Lebanon was bypassed by Germany, which acted as an intermediary during the negotiations between Hezbollah and Israel, with the blessing of the UN secretary-general,” he said.

Hezbollah has been accused of becoming ‘a state within a state’, and its weapons and independent telecommunications system have been criticised by many Lebanese, who want them handed over to the government. Hezbollah is the only Lebanese faction officially allowed to keep its arsenal.

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