During the first months of 2006, Shaikh Hasan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbullah, and Ehud Olmert, the prime minister of Israel, both set out clear goals for their people. After the withdrawal from Ghazzah the previous year, Olmert promised a solution to the problem of Hizbullah on Israel’s northern border, and Israeli and US military officials held a series of meetings in Washington and Tel Aviv to draw up plans for a war to destroy Hizbullah. In Lebanon, meanwhile, the issue of Lebanese prisoners held in Israel had been raised, and Nasrallah promised the Lebanese people that he would do everything possible to bring them back. Given Nasrallah’s record of making only promises he means to keep, and achieving the goals that he sets for the Islamic movement, few doubted that he was serious in this commitment.
These two sets of goals, on the Israeli and Hizbullah sides respectively, came to a head in July 2006. On July 12 Hizbullah launched an operation to capture Israeli soldiers to use as the basis for negotiating the release of the Lebanese prisoners. Two Israeli soldiers were captured but injured in the process and died soon afterwards. The Israeli response was to launch the planned invasion of southern Lebanon, with the stated objectives of releasing the two soldiers and destroying Hizbullah. Their followed 34 days of intense warfare, before a ceasefire was implemented on August 14.
During the war, over a thousand Lebanese civilians were killed in Israeli air attacks and shelling, hundreds of thousands forced to flee their homes in southern Lebanon, and massive damage inflicted on the Lebanese economy and infrastructure. Throughout, however, Hizbullah maintained the ability to fight back and defend the Lebanese people. When the ceasefire was agreed, neither of the Israelis’ two stated goals had been achieved. Israelis were unanimous that the war had been a disaster for them, while Shaikh Nasrallah expressed regret that the Hizbullah operation had brought such damage on Lebanon, but Hizbullah emerged with credit for its steadfast resistance and its refusal to be cowed. Throughout, Nasrallah maintained a single position on the Israeli soldiers: they would only be repatriated in return for the release of Lebanese captives held in Israel, as a result of indirect negotiations.
The agreement by which the bodies of the two Israeli soldiers were returned, in exchange for the release of five Lebanese captives and the repatriation of the bodies of 200 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters killed by the Israelis in various conflicts, was precisely the sort of agreement promised by Nasrallah. It is hardly surprising therefore that it was greeted as a triumph in Lebanon, while mourned as a defeat in Israel.
The five Lebanese prisoners released by Israel are Samir Kantar, arrested after a Palestinian raid on the coastal road near Tel Aviv in 1978; and four others captured during the 2006 war: Hussein Suleiman, Khader Zeidan, Maher Kourani and Mohammed Surour. Another long-term Lebanese prisoner in Israel, Nasim Nisr, had been released on June 1, reportedly because he had served his sentence in Israel, but apparently as a good will gesture by the Israelis to demonstrate to Hizbullah during the negotiations that they were serious about releasing the captives if an agreement were reached.
There was no formal word about two other Lebanese men that Israel is suspected of holding, although it denies it. Yahya Skaf disappeared during the 1978 Coast Road operation; Israelsays he was killed and his body never found, but some Lebanese prisoners in Israel have subsequently reported seeing him in Israeli jails. Ali Faratan is a Lebanese fisherman who disappeared; he is reported to have been captured by the Israelis. In both cases, Hizbullah appears to have accepted, for the purposes of this exchange at least, that it has no proof that they are in Israeli custody.
The exchange, understandably regarded as a political triumph for Hizbullah, was accompanied by a massive Israeli propaganda campaign to discredit the Islamic movement, in which much of the world’s media was effectively complicit. It is worth commenting on major elements of this campaign. The first element was to attack Hizbullah for capturing Israelis for use and negotiating chips in the first place, as though this was somehow an unacceptable tactic that proved their barbarism. This, however, is to ignore the fact that this is a tactic pioneered by the Israelis themselves, who have a long record of illegally kidnapping Lebanese citizens and then demanding concessions from Lebanese groups for their release. The most famous cases are of Shaikh Abdul Karim Obeid, Obeid and Mustafa Dirani, Islamic Amal leaders kidnapped from their homes in 1989 and 1994 respectively, and released in 2004 in return for the bodies of three Israeli soldiers captured in the Sheba’ah Farms in 2000.
Another element of the propaganda was to criticise Hizbullah for seeking and celebrating the release of “terrorists”, in particular Samir Kantar, arrested in 1978 for his part in a Palestinian raid on the coastal road near Tel Aviv known in Israel as the “Coastal Road Massacre”. Kantar was described as a man who had been sentenced to 542 years for terrorist offenses and smashed the head of a four-year-old child with his rifle butt. Israeli foreign minister Mjalli Whbee described him as “a man who prides himself on smashing a child’s skull.”
This line was uncritically echoed by much of the pro-Israel media around the world, but is of course very one-sided. For the Palestinians and Lebanese, the operation in 1978 was a legitimate resistance operation carried out by freedom fighters, who should be regarded as prisoners of war rather than criminals. At the time, the deaths of civilians was widely blamed on abortive Israeli attempts to release the Israelis captured by the force. Kantar was a member of the force, but has denied any involvement in the death of a child. For the Lebanese, demanding his release is an natural as it is for Israelis to seek the return of their captured soldiers. The other four released were Hizbullah soldiers captured in 2006, making the parallel even more direct. They too, however, were widely described as “terrorists” in the world media.
An unfortunate aspect of the release was that the exchange and the returnees were attacked by some anti-Hizbullah forces in Lebanon. In Tripoli and some Sunni villages, supporters of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, and some salafi-influenced Sunnis, reportedly spat and stoned the funeral processions of returned mujahideen, reflecting the anti-Hizbullah elements’ cultivation of sectarian Sunni groups in Lebanon as a counterweight to the power of Hizbullah, regarded as a Shi‘a group although it is not sectarian in outlook. This is a development that is likely to have serious consequences in Lebanon in future.