hizbullah rally flags.
(photo credit: AP)
Kidnapped IDF reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser will be released only when all Hizbullah prisoners currently imprisoned in Israel are freed, Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said Friday in his first public appearance since July.
Nasrallah, under heavy guard and speaking behind bullet-proof glass, thanked God for whabet he called a "divine victory" against the Jewish state.
Hizbullah's leader told hundreds of thousands of supporters at a "victory" rally that his guerrillas will not surrender their weapons, including 20,000 rockets he claimed were left after the 34-day war with Israel, until a stronger Lebanese government is in place.
The sprawling gathering Friday in bombed-out south Beirut, estimated at 800,000 people, was a show of strength by Hizbullah that posed a defiant challenge to the government of Western-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, pressing it to give the Shiite guerrilla movement a greater say in power.
It also aimed to demonstrate that Hizbullah was not weakened by UN peacekeepers and Lebanese troops deploying across southern Lebanon, its longtime stronghold, with a mandate to rein in the guerrillas and prevent them from getting new weapons shipments.
In his first public appearance since Israel launched its massive offensive against Hizbullah on July 12, Nasrallah called for the formation of a new government, repeatedly attacking Saniora's administration, which he called weak and unable to protect Lebanon from Israel.
"Tears don't protect anyone," the black-turbaned cleric said in a jab at Saniora, who wept several times in speeches during the Israeli assault as he pleaded for international support.
Nasrallah said giving up weapons now "under this government ... means leaving Lebanon exposed before Israel to kill and detain and bomb whoever they want, and clearly we will not accept that."
Hezbollah's push for a larger presence in the government could deepen tensions in a country that is sharply divided in the wake of the war. The guerrilla's tough fight against Israel sent its support soaring among Shiites. But a large sector - particularly among Christians and Sunnis - opposes the guerrilla group's power and resent it sparking the fight with Israel by snatching two Israeli soldiers.
A stronger Hizbullah political role would also snub efforts by the United States and Israel to weaken the militant group and decrease the influence of its ally, Syria.
Former President Amin Gemayel, a sharp critic of Hezbollah, said parts of Nasrallah's speech were "dangerous."
"He is linking giving up Hezbollah's weapons to regime change in Lebanon and ... to drastic changes on the level of the Lebanese government," Gemayel said. "This is very surprising and dangerous, and leads us to ask, what kind of government does (Nasrallah) want for what kind of Lebanon?"
Faris Soueid, a Christian politician close to Saniora, insisted the government will not bend to Hezbollah pressure. "I believe it will not scare the government of Fuad Saniora," he said on Al-Arabiya television. "It will not fall, not in the street and not because of political speeches."
Despite his tough rhetoric against Saniora, Nasrallah offered an olive branch as well, saying he did not want to cause the government to fall or to remove people - only discussions to broaden the government to include more factions.
Saniora has repeatedly rejected a new government. A terse statement issued Friday by his office said Nasrallah's focus "on the dialogue in his speech is a good and constructive thing and opens future horizons." It did not elaborate.
The rally - made up mostly of Shiites, but also including Christian allies of Hezbollah - aimed to show popular weight behind Hezbollah demands. Nasrallah sought to make clear his force was not weakened by the new situation in the south.
"No army in the world will be able to make us drop the weapons from our hands," Nasrallah told the crowd, which cheered and waved hundreds of yellow Hezbollah flags.
He boasted that his fighters would not be affected by U.N. and Lebanese troops who are monitoring the border and airport and patrolling the coast with warships to prevent Hezbollah from rearming with weapons shipments believed to come from its allies Iran and Syria.
"I say to all those who want to close the seas, skies and the deserts and the border and the enemy, the resistance today possesses more - I underline that - more than 20,000 rockets," Nasrallah said.
"The resistance ... has regained all its military, organizational and weapons capabilities. The resistance today is stronger than it was on the eve of July 12," he said.
The 20,000 figure was even higher than the number of rockets Hezbollah announced before the fighting began - between 10,000 and 12,000 - and Nasrallah suggested he had hidden the true size of the arsenal. The guerrillas fired some 4,000 rockets into northern Israel during the fighting.
Israel lashed back after the speech, saying Nasrallah was issuing a challenge to the Lebanese government and the international community.
"The international community can't afford to have this Iranian-funded extremist spit in the face of the organized community of nations," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.
In response to Nasrallah's claim to still have more than 20,000 rockets, Regev said that under the cease-fire terms, Hezbollah "shouldn't have any rockets."
The UN-brokered cease-fire that ended the war on Aug. 14 calls for Hezbollah to eventually disarm. U.N. peacekeepers and Lebanese troops say they won't hunt out and confiscate hidden Hezbollah arsenals - leaving that to a political decision by the government. But they do intend to take weapons they encounter and stop new ones from coming in.
Hezbollah has been demanding the formation of a national unity government that would presumably add more of its members and bring in allies, including the faction of Christian politician Michel Aoun.
That would relieve pressure on Hezbollah to surrender its weapons and would likely lead to an administration friendlier to Damascus - watering down the popular wave of anti-Syrian sentiment that swept the country last year.
Nasrallah's attendance at the rally was show of defiance to Israel, which had threatened to assassinate him during the offensive. The Hezbollah leader was in hiding since the war's start, though he issued videotaped speeches and gave interviews to Lebanese television.
The rally filled a vast, 37-acre (15-hectare) lot in the southern suburbs of Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold where entire blocks were leveled by near daily Israeli bombardment during the fighting.
"We are with him (Nasrallah). I am here to say no to disarming Hezbollah," said a 42-year-old Shiite woman, Mira Ali, waving a Hezbollah flag.
"We came to participate in the victory for all of Lebanon. We came to show the (Lebanese anti-Syrian) groups that we are the majority in this country," said Roy Abi Khalil, a 21-year-old Aoun supporter from Beirut's Christian suburb of Kahaleh.
Meanwhile, Deputy-General Guy of the Givati Brigades currently patrolling southern Lebanon said Friday morning that even if Nasrallah attended the Hizbullah victory rally later that day, the IDF would not attempt to assassinate him.
"I don't think it is the correct thing to do, certainly not to the masses of people attending the rally who, although support Hizbullah, do not deserve to die," he said, adding that the IDF was unmoved by the victory march.
Nasrallah went into hiding on July 12, the start of the war, and has not been seen publicly since, though he has given interviews.
AP contributed to this report .