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Copyright 2003 Jerusalem Post
September 23

HEADLINE: Analysis: Hostage swap boon for Hizbullah

BYLINE:Matthew Gutman

Bringing Elhanan Tannenbaum and the three kidnapped soldiers home will be a Pyrrhic victory for Israel. For Hizbullah, which will lap up both the domestic and inter-Arab laurels thrown its way, it will likely be the greatest boon for the group since Israel withdrew from the security zone in southern Lebanon in May 2000.

Hizbullah is flexing its muscles on a number of fronts. To the Palestinians they are showing that it is Hizbullah, not PA Chairman Yasser Arafat or Hamas's Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who can "bend Israel over its knee" and force the release of Palestinian and other Arab prisoners in Israeli jails.

To their local audience they prove that they are a body with international significance and legitimacy. "It is Hizbullah that pushed Israel out of South Lebanon and it is they who can squeeze concessions from Israel," says Yoni Fighel, senior fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

It is reported that along with the Lebanese detainees Mustafa Dirani and Abdel Karim Obeid, Israel will release up to 400 Palestinian and other Arab prisoners.

"They are trying to show the Lebanese and the Palestinians that while Arafat talks, they do," said Fighel.

Hizbullah's centrality in the hostage swap also highlights the failure of Arab leaders to achieve strategic success vis- -vis Israel.

Analysts also view the deal as an effort to recoup the group's raison d'tre, which was lost following Israel's withdrawal to the internationally recognized border with Lebanon in May 2000. For 20 years, Hizbullah had struggled under the banner of ejecting Israel from Southern Lebanon. And then one day Israel left.

"But you can't build a Jihadist organization over a few villages or hills in the Sha'aba Farms [bordering Mount Dov, contested by Hizbullah as part of Lebanese territory] that no longer exist. It is important for Hizbullah to be seen as a major player," said Matthew Levitt, senior fellow for Terrorism Studies, at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The group has been playing an increasing role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, smuggling weapons and operatives into the territories. It is an investment in the primary symbol of Arab and Muslim world which the dividends of which Hizbullah would like to reap one day, Levitt noted.

Also, sitting across the negotiating table from Germany's No. 1 security man Ernest Uhrlau gives the group, which is on the US list of terrorist organizations, "an incredible amount of legitimacy," added Levitt.

That diplomatic achievement gives the group, which has seen the post-September 11 world cave in on it, reason to be proud. Hizbullah emissaries across Europe were rebuffed about two months ago when they asked to set up political offices. Germany was one of the nations that sent the emissaries home empty-handed. Europe is still deliberating whether or not to add Hizbullah to its list of terrorist organizations, as it did with Hamas on September 6.

Hizbullah was also sent reeling when Australia and Canada banned the group, adding it to their terrorist list and cutting off major sources of support, according to Levitt.

Being viewed as a responsible regional player which cares for the Palestinians, and acts "maturely and responsibly in negotiations," also reaps political support in Lebanon.

Hizbullah managed to gain 12 of 128 seats in the Lebanese Parliament in the September 2000 elections based on its record of social welfare and expelling Israel from the security strip in southern Lebanon. But with Israel gone, Levitt posits, Hizbullah fears sagging domestic support.

It hopes to beef up these credentials by proving itself politically nimble and moderate by dealing with Germany and indirectly with Israel.

But internal pressure has been mounting for years. The families of guerrillas killed in combat in Israel, and those of Obeid and Dirani clamored for the release of their kin, prompting Hizbullah Secretary-General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and others to bring the boys home.

Another primary audience for Hizbullah is the several hundred thousand Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. While this sector is forbidden to vote in Lebanon, it could provide a critical column of support for the group, observed Fighel.

The Hizbullah leaks of negotiations the latest being the possible release of Nablus Al Aqsa chief Nasser Aweis indicate both Hizbullah's eagerness to see the deal through and its hopes of squeezing the maximum amount of good publicity from the swap.

And Hizbullah seems to be gaining traction even among relatively moderate Palestinians in the territories. Fatah leader Kadura Fares and former PA minister Saleh Abdul Jawad both pleaded with Hizbullah Tuesday night to include their sons in a prisoner swap, the Hizbullah run Al-Manar TV station reported.

While some see the developments as the emergence of a new Hizbullah desirous of a piece of the Lebanese parliamentary pie, Levitt sees it as a negative development. With pressure growing on Iran to cough up its nuclear weapons programs to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran might lash out through its proxy, Hizbullah.

Hizbullah has already shown its long arm of an international terrorist network. It is held responsible for the two massive bombing attacks on Jewish and Israeli sites in Argentina, attacks against foreigners in Lebanon, and the Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia. Its international terrorist network is now feared stronger than ever.

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