By Kareem M. Kamel
Researcher – International Relations

“Israel which has both nuclear weapons and the strongest air force in the region, is weaker than a spider’s web.”1Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah’s Secretary General

“The evil Zionist regime could be defeated by the strong wills and concrete faiths of the Mujahedeen of Islam.”2Ali Khamene’i, Iran’s Supreme Leader

Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners awaiting release

The long-awaited prisoner exchange between Israel and Lebanon’s Hizbullah organization was finally completed, in the midst of complex security measures. The German-brokered exchange came after years of intense negotiations and involved the release of Sheikh Abdel Karim Ebeid and Mustafa Dirani, two high-profile Lebanese leaders held by Israel, as well as 28 other detainees.

The Israelis also released around 400 Palestinians and handed over the bodies of 59 Lebanese to Red Cross officials on the Israeli-Lebanese borders. In return, Israel was handed caskets containing the bodies of three Israeli soldiers, transported from Beirut on a German military aircraft. Also on board was Elhanan Tennenbaum, an Israeli businessman kidnapped by Hizbullah after being lured into Beirut three years ago with promises of a profitable business deal.3

The prisoner exchange indicated that Hizbullah’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, was able to gain important concessions from Israel, given that his movement secured the release of Lebanese leaders and a large number of Palestinian detainees in return for the bodies of only three Israeli soldiers and a debt-ridden Israeli businessman. The exchange also highlighted Israeli intelligence’s continued failure to secure information about its missing air force navigator Ron Arad, missing since his aircraft was shot down over Lebanon’s Bekaa valley in 1986. Israeli commandos had kidnapped Ebeid and Dirani on the assumption that they could be used to win Arad’s release. The details of the recent deal between Hizbullah and Israel offered conclusive evidence that this Israeli strategy had failed.4

With the completed swap, both sides are expected to launch a second stage of negotiations, with Israel to receive concrete information on Arad within three months, in exchange for which Israel would release Samir al-Qantar, a Lebanese militant imprisoned in Israel since 1979 for killing three Israelis.5

Hizbullah’s message of defiance discredited the Palestinian Authority.

Following the prisoner exchange, both Israel and Hizbullah engaged in a war of words. In a massive rally of tens of thousands of Hizbullah supporters, Nasrallah warned that his organization would if necessary kidnap more Israelis to use as bargaining chips to secure the release of Lebanese prisoners. Turning to a huge poster of the guerilla ambush in which three Israeli soldiers were captured in October 2000, Nasrallah declared: “This is a choice.” Sharon meanwhile, speaking at a memorial service for the dead Israeli soldiers, said: “Israel will not allow any enemy or terror group to turn kidnapping and ransom into a system. There are means we have not yet used. If, heaven forbid, the circumstances are changed, we will not hesitate to use them.”6

The prisoner exchange represents an important political victory for Hizbullah that has far-reaching strategic repercussions that go beyond the traditional scope of the military and political confrontation between Israel and the Lebanese militia. In fact, the mere willingness on the part of Israel to negotiate an exchange of prisoners is a de facto recognition of Hizbullah’s political weight. Moreover, the way in which the prisoner swap was conducted, the costs incurred by both sides and the strategic consequences of the swap indicate that Hizbullah’s calculations, strategy, tactics and mode of operation have reached a remarkable degree of political astuteness and strategic sophistication. It is therefore unsurprising that the prisoner exchange prompted “a day of national celebration” in Lebanon and a “somber” mood in Israel, as the New York Times put it. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is also known to have described the situation in Israel in light of the prisoner exchange as “not a time of happiness.”7

A Powerful Non-State Actor

Among the clearest signs of Arab weakness in today’s Middle East are the occupations of Iraq and the Palestinian territories by the United States and Israel, respectively. Both the US and Israel find themselves acting without much official resistance from other regional actors or from the international community. The result has been a system of perpetual insecurity imposed on the Arabs, in which loss of life and property has been met with international silence and complacency. An example of this trend is that no official organization or institution has attempted to estimate the number of Iraqi casualties caused by the US invasion, despite the fact that unofficial estimates put the dead at about 6,000 civilians and 10,000 military personnel, with another 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers and civilians gravely wounded.8 Furthermore, Israel continues its brutal policies in the Occupied Territories without fear of any form of regional or international retribution for its brutal activities.

Sheikh Abdel Karim Ebeid leaving an Israel prison

Another important characteristic of the region is the failure of the official Arab system to produce a stable regional order, dedicated to Arab interests, accepted by its citizens, and able to keep external enemies at bay.9 In essence, the Arab regional order suffers from a high degree of political fragmentation and polarization, and, as a result, has become dominated and exploited by stronger regional and international actors seeking to establish a permanent foothold in this vital area of the world. After all, Arab states have thus far failed to create a credible deterrent capacity or even a balance of power vis-à-vis their enemies. Given the present-day impotence of Arab armies, non-state actors, such as Hizbullah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and a variety of Islamist and/or Arab nationalist movements, have taken the lead in defending Arab-Islamic interests and have taken it upon themselves to avenge the daily killings committed by occupation forces in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Islamic World.

Since its inception in the early 1980s, Hizbullah has worked against foreign presence in Lebanon and has fought the Israeli military for almost two decades. It gained notoriety for its spectacular operations against US, French, and Israeli military facilities in Lebanon in October 1983, and with the almost simultaneous bombings of the US Marine barracks in Beirut and a building housing French troops, killing 241 US servicemen and 59 French paratroopers.10 Ten days later, the Israeli military intelligence headquarters in Tyre was demolished by another bomb, killing almost 30 Israeli troops.

In May 2000, as the Israeli army completed its withdrawal from southern Lebanon, it became a self-evident reality that Hizbullah’s military activities had borne fruit, and that for the first time in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Israel had pulled out unconditionally from Arab land – without a peace treaty, without a cease-fire agreement, without even a tacit understanding that quiet would prevail on its border with Lebanon.11 In fact, both Lebanon and Syria made it clear to Israel that its withdrawal would not guarantee a peaceful situation, and Hizbullah asserted that armed struggle would continue.

Since then, Hizbullah has made impressive military and strategic gains. In fact, it has established total control over southern Lebanon, transforming the area into a reconnaissance and surveillance base for anti-Israeli military activities. In addition, the militia succeeded in building impressive military capabilities, including thousands of Katyusha and other more advanced rockets that cover Israel as far south as Hadera (between Haifa and Tel Aviv). In fact, some estimates indicate that Hizbullah’s current threat to the Israeli population is greater than that of some neighboring Arab states.12

The hostage-taking may have a “demonstration effect,” reverberating internationally.

As a result of all this, Hizbullah managed to establish a certain level of deterrence against Israeli attacks and dictate the “rules of the game.” Even when Israel tried to change those rules and strike Syrian outposts in July 2001, Hizbullah immediately retaliated by launching offensives on Israeli posts in Shib’a farms and Mt. Hermon, sending a message that the organization will retaliate immediately for any Israeli attack on Lebanon or Syria, deterring further Israeli aggression.

Some analysts suggest that “Hizbullah emerged from the tit-for-tat in mid-2001 as the defender of the Syrians in Lebanon, alongside its acknowledged role of defender of Lebanon and the Lebanese against Israeli attacks.”13 In the latter capacity, recent weeks saw Hizbullah guerillas fire an anti-tank missile at an Israeli military tractor as it crossed the Lebanese-Israeli border, killing one soldier and wounding another. Israel only responded by a few air strikes in central and western areas of southern Lebanon, and did not resort to massive assaults on Lebanon’s infrastructure, as it had in the past. In essence, Hizbullah’s deterrence strategy managed to limit Israel’s scope of retaliatory measures and contain its expansionist plans.

More importantly, Hizbullah eventually became a key strategic partner for the Palestinians in the current Intifada against Israel. As the Palestinian uprising escalated, Hizbullah began increasing its attacks on Israeli outposts in Shiba’a Farms, and some evidence points to Hizbullah’s involvement in attacks near northern Israeli towns. Other reports indicate that Hizbullah is working to recruit militants from the Israeli Arab community, to conduct operations against Israel from inside the country.14 The Arabs who make up almost 20 percent of Israel’s population have suffered discriminatory treatment by successive Israeli governments, and some have been radicalized by the ongoing Israeli carnage in the Occupied Territories.

The Significance of the Prisoner Exchange

In many ways, the strategic repercussions of the exchange are no less significant than the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000. More importantly, the prisoner swap threw into sharp relief the futility of all “peacemaking” efforts in the region, and the importance of resistance and steadfastness. It is interesting to note that neither the short-lived government of Mahmoud Abbas, nor Ahmed Qurei’s current administration – with all their regional and international connections – managed to negotiate large scale prisoner releases or secure any meaningful compromises from Israel.

Hassan Nasrallah: Hostage-taking remains an option

Hizbullah’s message of defiance not only discredited the Palestinian Authority (PA), but also showcased the fact that the path of resistance, rather than wholesale compromise, is capable of achieving results on the ground. Furthermore, Hizbullah’s ability to force Israel’s hand through hostage-taking and military preparedness seems to be emboldening other Palestinian factions to follow suit: Hamas’ leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, declared that his group is making every effort to seize Israeli soldiers.15 Moreover, the compromises that have been forced upon Israel due to Hizbullah’s successful hostage-taking strategy could have a “demonstration effect,” reverberating internationally with other Islamist groups fighting occupation elsewhere in the world.

Hizbullah highlighted one of the thorniest issues in the Arab-Israeli conflict – the need to free prisoners held in Israeli jails and to find a solution for the horrendous abuses that they have endured. There are still as many as 7,500 Palestinian prisoners languishing in Israeli jails and detention centers on charges of resisting Israeli occupation.16 In addition, some 2,200 minors have been imprisoned since the start of the Intifada.17 Palestinian or Arab prisoners in Israeli jails are usually stripped naked, blindfolded, beaten, tortured and subjected to long periods of solitary confinement; some are raped.18

Some news reports point to the existence of an Israeli secret prison by the name of Facility 1391, dubbed as “Israel’s Guantanamo,” where Palestinian and other Arab detainees are subjected to abuses on a par with those endured by prisoners in some of the worst totalitarian regimes in the Third World.19 Both Sheikh Abdel Karim Ebeid and Mustafa Dirani are known to have been tortured in Facility 1391.


The strategic gains that Hizbullah has made over the decades are indeed remarkable. The organization has secured a position of immense respect, not only among the Shi’ite community in Lebanon and in Lebanese parliamentary politics, but throughout the Muslim world. Hizbullah’s ability to drag Israel into a long-term war of attrition, and more recently its success in dictating the rules of engagement vis-à-vis the dual use of deterrence and pinpoint military strikes have made the organization a role model for other resistance groups seeking independence.

Estimates suggest Hizbullah’s threat to Israel is greater than some neighboring Arab states.

Shortly after September 11 a group of leading scholars and former government officials, including William Kristol and Richard Perle, declared in an open letter to President Bush that “any war on terrorism must target Hizbullah.” Even Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage noted that “Hizbullah may be the A team of terrorists,” while “al-Qaeda is actually the B team.”20

Despite constant US threats, Hizbullah has managed to weather the US tide by posing a complex political and strategic dilemma for decision-makers in Washington. Over the years Hizbullah has tied its activities to two regional powers, Syria and Iran, and has diversified its international relations to the extent that officials in France, Canada, and other Western nations have acknowledged the value of the organization’s social and political projects. Moreover, Hizbullah realizes that the US’ occupation of Iraq is already an immense burden, and that opening up a new front in the Bekaa Valley, a Hezbollah stronghold, would only make matters worse.21 By opting for resistance, Hizbullah has illustrated its unique role as vanguard and liberator, a lesson Arab regimes would do well to learn.

Kareem M. Kamel is an Egyptian freelance writer based in Cairo, Egypt. He has an MA in International Relations and is specialized in security studies, decision- making, nuclear politics, Middle East politics and the politics of Islam. He is currently assistant to the Political Science Department at the American University in Cairo.

1- Eyal Zisser, “The Return of Hizbullah,” Middle East Quarterly Fall 2002

2- Daniel Pipes, “Hizbullah’s Victory, Israel’s Decline,” Jewish World Review February 3rd, 2003

3- Christopher Slaney, “Israeli Prisoner Swap Success,” Middle East Times

4- Ibid.

5- “Hamas Threatens to Kidnap Israeli Soldiers,Newsweek January 30th, 2004

6- Ibid.

7- Daniel Pipes, “Hizbullah’s Victory, Israel’s Decline,” Jewish World Review February 3rd, 2003

8- Patrick Seale, “A Eulogy for the Arab State System,” Daily Star October 6th, 2003

9- Ibid.

10- Marc Sirois, “The History of Hizbullah,” Yellow Times October 24th, 2002

11- Eyal Zisser, “The Return of Hizbullah,” Middle East Quarterly Fall 2002

12- Ibid.

13- Ibid.

14- Laurie Copans, “Hezbollah Influence Grows in the Middle East,” Associated Press February 8th, 2004

15- “Hamas Threatens to Kidnap Israeli Soldiers,Newsweek January 30th, 2004

16- Khalid Amayreh, “Prisoner Swap Gives Palestinians Joy,” Al-Jazeera (English) January 29th, 2004

17- Leila el-Haddad, “The Child Prisoners of Israel,” Al-Jazeera (English) January 25th, 2004

18- Chris McGreal, “’Facility 1391: Israels Secret Prison,Jihad Unspun

19- Ibid.

20- Daniel Byman, “Should Hezbollah Be Next?” Foreign Affairs November/December 2003

21- Ibid.