Beirut reactions to Hizbullah's prisoner exchange

Analysts argue the move is a victory for Hizbullah, but claim that the timing is related to domestic political calculations.

Hizbullah fighters 224.8 (photo credit: AP [file])
Hizbullah fighters 224.8
(photo credit: AP [file])
The announcement that Israel and Hizbullah will exchange prisoners is being received in Beirut with mixed feelings. Most analysts argue the exchange is a victory for Hizbullah, but claim that the timing of the exchange is primarily related to domestic political calculations. Ahmad, a resident of the predominantly Shi'ite southern suburbs of Beirut proclaimed, "Hizbullah said they would do it, and now they have. Hizbullah always keeps its promises." Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah addressed the nation about the prisoner exchange on the evening of July 2, claiming that this victory was for Lebanon and that Hizbullah would not use the exchange for domestic political purposes. He provided some details of the exchange, and promised that more would be revealed once the prisoners were returned. Nasrallah noted that the negotiations had taken place under United Nations auspices, not under the aegis of the German government, as some media reports have claimed. Some Beirut residents see Nasrallah's speech as entirely political. Tony, a student at the American University of Beirut, who watched the speech with others at an open-air café commented, "the speech makes it sound as if this was pre-planned, like it's just a continuation of what Hizbullah wanted the whole time. But it's not. Why did he do it now? "For political reasons, he is politicizing something that should unite all of Lebanon." Ghassan, a shop owner in Beirut's Hamra district and a supporter of Sunni political leader Sa'ad A-Din Al-Hariri, contests Hizbullah's victorious claims arguing, "this is not just about the prisoners. Hizbullah got the prisoners, but it is not about the numbers in the exchange. Thousands of people in Lebanon died in the 2006 war. It was destruction. The economy was ruined. For what? You cannot start a war for just this." Dana M., an employee at a Beirut public relations firm, observed, "I am so angry with the Sunni political leadership, who are bending over backwards to praise Hizbullah's prisoner release. I supported [Prime Minister] Siniora and [Future Movement leader] Al-Hariri through all the conflicts, even after they did nothing to protect their supporters in Beirut [during Hizbullah's May 2008 invasion], but now I'm angry. "Hizbullah started a war to free a notoriously evil man who is in Israeli prison for smashing a little girl's head with a rock. This man definitely does not deserve a hero's welcome." Hizbullah tarnished its image when it, along with other Lebanese opposition parties, attacked Beirut and the Chouf mountains in May 2008. The party claimed it would never use its weapons against other Lebanese and would only use them to protect Lebanon against Israel, but then struck at the heart of the nation. Hizbullah's prisoner exchange is seen as an effort by the party to return to the media spotlight as a victor against Israel, not as an abuser of its countrymen. Osama Safa, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, contends that, "this exchange is a testament of what Hizbullah put forward as their promise to the people. This is a revalidation of the role of the resistance after what happened in Beirut. Hizbullah has gotten the prisoners back before the next election." Lebanese political parties are preparing for the 2009 parliamentary elections, which will take place under a new electoral law. This law creates dramatically different electoral districts from those in place since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war. Imad Salamey, a professor of political science and international affairs at the Lebanese American University says that, "two-thirds of the parliamentary seats are predetermined," given that most regions are known as bastions of one political faction or another. "The main battle will be in the Christian regions," he maintains. After Hizbullah's actions in Beirut, sectarian divisions in the country are raw, and even Hizbullah's political allies worry that Hizbullah is too powerful and too sectarian to be trusted with weapons, parliamentary authority and government influence. Salamey notes, "the perception of Hizbullah, especially by Sunni and Christians, turned extremely negative in terms of the weapons. Hizbullah is reversing these perceptions. This [prisoner exchange] could also be utilized in the upcoming elections, not so much among the Shi'ite population - because it is a secure base - but particularly among Christian voters, and especially the [Hizbullah-allied] Free Patriotic Movement. It needed to prove to them that Hizbullah's weapons would not be pointed at them or at other groups." The prisoner exchange also reminds Lebanese that Hizbullah is the most decisive actor in Lebanon. All other Lebanese political factions are currently bickering over the formation of a new government, which Hizbullah's allies have blocked from coalescing. The Lebanese have not had a government for over a month, and violent actions are taking place across the country. Yet, in this time of instability, Hizbullah single handedly acts on behalf of the country. By taking immediate action on the prisoner exchange, Hizbullah avoids giving the government any credit. "The prisoner exchange issue has never been under Lebanese government auspices. The government specifically and legally acknowledges the resistance's right to this. Hizbullah is legally fulfilling the government's statement," argued Safa. But, with a new president and without a government, Hizbullah will receive all the accolades for something the government ceded to it, anyway. Despite Hizbullah's rhetorical victory for keeping its promise, and despite the possible implications the prisoner exchange may have on the upcoming parliamentary elections, Hizbullah is losing a key justification for remaining armed. "The exchange is a partial victory," Salamey remarked. "It comes at a high cost for Hizbullah. It has pulled out a major pretext for its armed existence in the south. Hizbullah will now have a harder time justifying its military presence." With Syria negotiating with Israel over the Golan and increased international support for ceding the Israel-controlled Sheba Farms - which Hizbullah claims is Lebanese - to Lebanon, Hizbullah is losing its justifications for remaining armed and separate from democratic authority. Ghassan, the Beirut shop owner, observes, "If Syria is negotiating over a huge territory like Golan, why won't Hizbullah negotiate over a tiny piece of land like Shebaa?" Hizbullah finds itself in the awkward position of successfully fulfilling the parts of its agenda it used to justify existing as a non-state military actor. Hizbullah's claims to fight on behalf of the Palestinian cause and the liberation of Jerusalem might appeal to ideological allies, but does not convince a democratic and sectarian body politic which has experienced Hizbullah's attacks against other Lebanese communities. Their claim that they must remain armed to defend Lebanon so they can act as a rapid reaction response to potential Israeli aggression inherently undermines the position of the Lebanese Army, specialforces and government institutions sworn to protect Lebanese sovereignty and citizens. "The sporadic violence occurring now throughout Lebanon is the awakening and revealing of the cracks of the Sunni-Shi'ite schism. The genie is out of the bottle, and this is something we are trying so hard to squeeze back in," says Safa. At the moment, Hizbullah can manifest itself as the Arab and Islamic front against Israel, but internal Lebanese pressures are bearing down on the Party of God.