When he saw TV coverage of Hizbullah members and their supporters celebrating Samir Kuntar's release on Wednesday, Tel Aviv University professor and Mideast expert Eyal Zisser wasn't surprised. But footage of red carpets prepared for Kuntar and crowds waving yellow Hizbullah flags in Beirut doesn't reflect the majority of Lebanese popular opinion on the matter, who see the event as a victory for the enemy, Zisser and other Mideast experts said Thursday.
For most Lebanese, the impact of any Hizbullah victory is negative. It had only emboldened and strengthened the Shi'ite group throughout the Arab world, said Zisser. Hizbullah faced opposition from Sunni Muslims, Christians, Druse and other groups in Lebanon, he noted.
"If you look at Lebanese politics, . . . for [Sunnis], it's one more achievement for the enemy, Hizbullah," said Meir Litvak, a senior lecturer at Tel Aviv University who focuses on trends in the Arab world. "They'll try to show a happy face, but I would guess they're not happy."
In Lebanon, Hizbullah's image depended on what it did domestically, said Litvak. While Hizbullah wielded strong influence during the 2006 war in Lebanon, its clout had since died down. Today, within Lebanon, it was supported primarily by Shi'ite Muslims, but not even all Shi'ites continued to support them, said Litvak.
However, Wednesday's celebration may increase Hizbullah's prestige and unite a fractured Lebanon. It was framed as "a national victory," Timor Goksel, a former United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon senior adviser told reporters on Thursday. "It's a way of restoring dignity," he said. "It might even contribute to Lebanese internal peace because it was not an exclusive Hizbullah event."
Hizbullah's organizers calculated it so no one in the country could oppose the return of prisoners, said Goksel. Among those who appeared at the celebrations were Lebanon's Maronite Christian President Michel Suleiman and anti-Hizbullah political leaders.
Lebanon's US-backed prime minister, Fuad Saniora, kissed the freed prisoners at the Beirut airport. Saniora is Sunni and has been in conflict with Hizbullah since his election in 2005.
Zisser said the response in Lebanon was completely different from one that would have been seen in Israel due to cultural differences. Israel wouldn't use the return of soldiers for political gain, and the celebration in Israel would have been about "the return of the individual," and not victory, he said. "This is something you can only find in primitive societies," said Zisser.
So why is there a need to celebrate the return of a terrorist known to have killed a child? "When you have an ideology that Zionism is the epitome of evil, when you dehumanize your enemy, you can justify anything," said Litvak. "He didn't kill a child. He killed a Zionist."
Moshe Maoz, a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at Hebrew University, said the need to defeat Israel was deeply entrenched in the Arab culture.
"Anything they can recover from the feeling of humiliation [following past losses against Israel] is welcome," Maoz said.