Victory. Kuntar's gala welcome
The poster on the Lebanese side of the border said it all: Israel sheds tears of sorrow, Lebanon sheds tears of joy.
The pictures from Naqoura were the ones Israelis had been dreading for two years since Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were seized by Hizbullah – an event that sparked off the summer war in southern Lebanon and northern Israel. Two simple black coffins were presented to the media.
Pictures of Samir Kuntar, Hassan Nasrallah and Imad Mugniyah adorn roads leading to Sidon; al-Manar television network celebrates 'divine victory'. Return of Israeli family's murderer to launch 'party of the decade' in Lebanon
On the Israeli side of the border the families and friends of the two burst into uncontrollable tears on witnessing the pictures relayed from the Hizbullah-controlled al-Manar TV.
It is not all that Hizbullah controls in Lebanon today. Indeed, the handover of the bodies in exchange for five living Lebanese, including Samir Kuntar, the man serving four life sentences for his role in a terror attack in Israel in 1979, is arguably the icing on the cake in two wonderful years for Hizbullah and its pro-Syrian allies.
It is hard to argue that Israel achieved either of its stated aims in the 2006 war – it failed to return Regev and Goldwasser and it did not weaken Hizbullah by pushing it to lines behind the Litani River.
A year after the war, a senior intelligence officer in the Israel Defense Forces admitted to The Media Line Hizbullah was more heavily armed, with more sophisticated, longer-ranged missiles than it was prior to the summer campaign.
The Iranian-and Syrian-backed Hizbullah is not only militarily more powerful, but as a result of its claimed victory over Israel and a consequential two-year domestic political stand-off, the organization now holds the power of veto in the Lebanese government. Of the 30 cabinet positions, the pro-Syrian grouping holds 11, more than the third necessary to block decisions.
Hizbullah’s popularity at home has skyrocketed as average Lebanese, not necessarily Shiites, believe only the movement’s leader Hassan Nasrallah is capable of defending Lebanon against “the Zionists” as he still refers to Israel.
While Israel was well aware of the power Hizbullah wielded just north of the border prior to the war, it now sees through field glasses an emboldened ambassador of Tehran.
Acrimony and bitterness
Hizbullah declared a national holiday for the prisoner exchange celebrations and the country’s leadership promptly agreed – Hizbullah flags flying next to the Cedar of Lebanon in Beirut, the president himself attending the festivities and another official opportunity to declare victory over Israel.
On the Israeli side of the frontier there is nothing but acrimony, bitterness and rancor. The nation remains deeply divided over the Lebanon war. The country’s premier, Ehud Olmert, survived a commission of inquiry and the initial bold calls for his head eventually petered out into a distant bleating. The aftermath of the war suggested that men like defense minister and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak were more interested in political self interest than morality and the greater good of the country.
A couple of brave souls on the political scene were prepared to resign on matters of principal. First and foremost was Ophir Pines, a Labor minister, who should now perhaps be the toast of the country, but instead is languishing in political isolation, a pariah who was prepared to take the moral high ground, only to have the national carpet pulled from beneath his feet.
The Israeli military speaks of “the lessons learned” from the Lebanon war and its poorly planned ground assaults that left soldiers for dead in unknown territory, shamed by defeat in hand-to-hand combat. Yet to this day military experts, among them retired generals, suggest that should another war break out with Hizbullah, the result would not be that different to the debacle of 2006.
And all of this is symbolized in the prisoner exchange: the Lebanese celebrate a homecoming as Israel buries its fallen.
David Harris is News Director, Middle East & North Africa, at The Media Line