Weakened Hezbollah tries to maintain political clout

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jerusalem | Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah, the radical Lebanese Shi’ite organization, is one of the most articulate Arab leaders around — yet he consistently confounds Western observers who try to predict his behavior.

In recent years, Hezbollah has expanded from a purely guerrilla organization into a political movement with vast social services and 23 seats in Lebanon’s 128-member Parliament.

It would make sense, therefore, that the party would don respectable political garb and stop playing with fire along the border with Israel. Playing it moderate, one would assume, would give Hezbollah more time to establish itself as the dominant power in southern Lebanon and would silence anti-Hezbollah elements in Lebanon’s complex political system.

But Hezbollah’s political logic seems to work in exactly the opposite direction.

Last week the organization staged a daring but futile attack in the Arab village of Rajar along the Israel-Lebanon border. Some 25 Hezbollah fighters penetrated the village, apparently intending to kidnap Israel Defense Forces soldiers stationed there, but were forced to retreat, leaving behind four of their own dead fighters. The group also initiated a heavy artillery duel with the IDF along the border.

Aware of the explosive situation, Israel’s reaction to the attack was restrained. Moreover, when Lebanon’s government officially asked Israel to hand over the bodies of the Hezbollah fighters, Israel regarded the move as an indication that the Lebanese government — which until now has flouted U.N. Security Council resolutions ordering it to exert control over the southern part of its country — finally was ready to assume responsibility in the south. The bodies were returned without bargaining and haggling.

Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze’evi, the IDF’s intelligence chief, warned in a weekend television interview that Hezbollah would try to kidnap Israeli businessmen abroad.

Hezbollah says its planned “kidnapping offensive” is necessary to release Lebanese prisoners held in Israel, primarily Samir Kuntar, a terrorist who broke into the apartment of Danni and Smadar Haran in Nahariya in 1979.

Kuntar’s team murdered Danni and his 5-year-old daughter, Anat, on the beach. Smadar and her daughter Yael, 2, hid in a closet in their apartment, but Smadar, trying to smother Yael’s cries, ended up suffocating her.

Kuntar, the longest-held Lebanese detainee in Israeli prisons, has served nearly 28 years of a 542-year sentence for the attack. His release is atop Hezbollah’s list of demands from Israel, but Israel refused to release him in earlier prisoner-exchange deals because of a policy of not releasing murderers.

“Hezbollah feels that its time is running out,” said political analyst Thaer Abu-Saleh, a Druze resident of the Golan who teaches at Israeli colleges. “It needs to score points in Lebanon’s political arena in the wake of growing demands in Lebanon that all militias — including Hezbollah — lay down their arms. It believes that if it succeeds in kidnapping Israelis, it will bring about the release of Kuntar and other prisoners.”