The successful conclusion of a prisoner swap between Israel and Hezbollah has won the militant Lebanese Shiite party new leverage against its domestic opponents, even as fresh challenges over the fate of its formidable weapons arsenal loom.
With the Hezbollah-led opposition having recently secured a one-third, veto-wielding share of a new coalition government, the Shiite party is in its strongest domestic position since the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. His death presaged the collapse of what was then a pro-Syrian political order in favor of a new Western-backed regime.
"Hezbollah is in a much stronger position than it was after the Hariri assassination," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a Lebanese political analyst and specialist on Hezbollah. "The political victory [gaining veto power in the new government] and the prisoner exchange has consolidated its position. But the challenges it faces remain the same and the struggle has not ended."
The swap was touted as a moment of national unity in which even Hezbollah's political opponents gritted their teeth to praise the party for securing the release of the five detainees. But once the acclaim is over and the new government takes office, Lebanon's top political leaders are scheduled to discuss the future of Hezbollah's weapons as part of a national defense strategy.
Supporters of the Western-backed March 14 parliamentary block, which forms the backbone of the new government, seek to disarm the Iran-backed Hezbollah or at least place restraints on the party's ability to use its weapons. Although Hezbollah says its weapons are solely for the defense of Lebanon, its critics fear that they are intended to benefit Tehran's regional ambitions at the expense of Lebanon's stability.
Since its July-August 2006 war with Israel, Hezbollah has expanded its military assets in terms of weapons, communications, and recruits, and broadened its deployment over large swathes of southern and eastern Lebanon. Israel claimed this week that Hezbollah has tripled the number of rockets in its arsenal since the war, a figure Hezbollah has not bothered to dispute.
"The resistance managed, in spite of all [domestic] problems, to strengthen its political and military capacities. The resistance has become stronger than it was in July 2006," Sheikh Nabil Qaouq, Hezbollah's southern commander said this week.
Paradoxically, however, the return of the last Lebanese detainees in Israel has removed one of Hezbollah's chief reasons for maintaining its formidable military wing in the first place.
Still, there are many other outstanding grievances cited by Hezbollah as reason to keep its weapons. Among them are Israel's continuing occupations of the Shebaa Farms and Kfar Shuba hills, a 12-square-mile mountainside running along Lebanon's southeast border and the northern end of Ghajar, a village which straddles the border at the foot of the farms. Israel's near-daily overflights by jets and reconnaissance drones, in breach of UN resolutions, continue to rankle.
"There are many pretexts that they can use to evade this process [of disarmament]," says Joseph Alagha, an associate professor of Islamic studies at Radboud University in Nijmegen in the Netherlands. "What can be done is to discuss how Hezbollah can be merged into the Lebanese Army, but this will take a long time to achieve."
Hezbollah says it is open to discussing its weapons, but insists that even if Israel withdraws from Lebanese territory and ends the overflights, the organization's weapons will remain a key component of national defense against future threats from Israel.
"Our main and only concern is to defend our country, land, water, and sovereignty," said Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah at a speech to welcome the five freed Lebanese on Wednesday.
Hezbollah also has to contend with heightened sectarian tensions in Lebanon, particularly between Shiites and Sunnis, an outcome of the organization's brief armed takeover of mainly Sunni-populated west Beirut in May, which triggered a week of deadly clashes.
Hezbollah's leaders have long championed intra-Muslim unity, believing that the schism between Shiites and Sunnis only benefits the enemies of Islam. Yet, since May, Hezbollah has been slow to reconcile with moderate Sunni leaders, who were left looking weak and helpless before the Shiite party's military machine. Angry, humiliated, and frightened by the May clashes, Sunnis are clamoring for weapons and training, a step that the moderate Sunni leadership is unwilling or unable to take. That leaves an opening, however, for Sunni extremists to move in. And there are mounting indications that Al Qaeda-inspired militants are mobilizing. A previously unknown group called the Sunni Resistance recently circulated a list of names of Sunnis cooperating with Hezbollah, calling for their assassination.
"It's a very dangerous atmosphere. We see these tensions happening everywhere," says Abdullah Tiryaki, leader of the Fajr Forces, a Sunni armed group allied to Hezbollah.
On a regional level, Syria is engaged in indirect peace talks with Israel, a move that threatens the durability of the so-called "resistance front" grouping Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas among other anti-Israel groups dedicated to confronting Western ambitions in the Middle East. Syria is the geostrategic linchpin connecting Tehran to Hezbollah and the main conduit for the flow of weapons to the Shiite group.
Hezbollah has not commented publicly on the Syria-Israel talks, but party officials have made it clear in off-the-record conversations that they see no imminent threat from the negotiations. They believe that it will take a long time before a peace treaty is reached, assuming that the talks do not collapse, as they did in 1996 and 2000.
Regardless of the outcome of the Syria-Israel negotiations, Hezbollah insists that its weapons are a source of strength for Lebanon and therefore must be retained, arguing that they will provide Lebanon greater negotiating leverage in any future peace talks with Israel.
"There is a long way to go before Lebanon can negotiate peace with Israel, but Lebanon is in a better position [to eventually negotiate] than any other [Arab] country because of the strength of the resistance," says Ibrahim Mussawi, a political lecturer at the American University of Beirut and editor of Hezbollah's Al-Intiqad newspaper.