Pushing for a ceasefire from behind a barrage of Katyushas
Jonathan Steele in Beirut and Ian Black in Jerusalem
Friday July 28, 2006
Hizbullah wants an immediate ceasefire and is ready to swap the two abducted Israeli soldiers "in six hours" after it comes into force, according to officials from Amal, a Shia party allied to Hizbullah.
Hizbullah has entrusted Amal with negotiations for a prisoner deal, realising that it cannot be a direct partner to talks. Nabih Berri, Amal's leader, who is also speaker of the Lebanese parliament, met Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, on Tuesday in a clear sign that Washington sees him as a conduit to Hizbullah.
"Mr Berri says he can get the Israeli soldiers sent back in return for Lebanese prisoners in six hours after a ceasefire," Ali Hamdan, the head of Amal's foreign affairs bureau, told the Guardian yesterday.
"He wouldn't say that if he didn't have assurances from Hizbullah."
Some Israeli analysts have said that Hizbullah's call for an unconditional ceasefire is a reaction to Israel's ground offensive in south Lebanon which is making slow headway in spite of relatively heavy losses among Israeli forces.
But a ceasefire call has been part of Hizbullah's position virtually from the start of Israel's air attacks and before Israeli ground troops crossed the border in strength. Criticising the US rejection of a ceasefire, Mohammed Fneish, one of the two Hizbullah ministers in the Lebanese government, told the Guardian last Saturday: "Rice is not allowing a ceasefire in order to put Israel back into a position where it is the state that controls the whole Middle East."
The ferocity of Israel's reaction to the soldiers' abduction surprised Hizbullah, Mahmoud Komati, deputy chief of the Hizbullah politburo, has admitted.
Hizbullah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has denied Israeli claims that more than 100 of his fighters have died. Israel claims the toll includes several senior commanders as well as the organisation's deputy secretary general, allegedly killed in an air strike on Tyre. Mr Komati said 25 guerrillas had been killed. Confirmation of either side's claims is impossible.
In spite of Israel's relentless air strikes Hizbullah continues to fire Katyusha rockets into Israel. Some 84 struck cities all over the north yesterday bringing the total since the conflict began to 1,400. Twenty Israeli civilians have been killed.
In his latest television appearance this week, Sheikh Nasrallah warned his viewers not to be taken in by Israeli claims. "I am stressing to you - we don't hide the number of our dead. If a large number of our men are killed - we wouldn't hide it but on the contrary we'd be proud of it ... You must listen to us and not to the enemy's psychological warfare," he said.
Hizbullah's call for a ceasefire make political sense for the Shia militia since it would mean the failure of Israel's effort to recapture its abducted soldiers without negotiations. It would also end the flight of thousands of refugees and make it easier for them to go home.
On this Hizbullah is fully in tune with the Lebanese cabinet. The government's line is that Israel must accept an immediate ceasefire, abandon the Sheba'a farms area it has occupied for almost 40 years, give Lebanon maps of the mines laid during Israel's previous occupation of south Lebanon, and pay compensation for the damage done by its relentless attacks.
Once a ceasefire is in place Hizbullah is "more than ready to sit down and talk" about disarming its forces Mr Fneish, told the Guardian. But he rejected any role for foreign powers in the issue.
"This is a matter for the Lebanese. Nobody can deny the national right to resist," he said.
Amal is emerging as a key player in the search for a new Lebanese consensus. It disarmed most of its militia after Israel withdrew in 2000 and says it has been helping Hizbullah to switch to being an entirely political party.
Professor Eyal Zisser of Tel Aviv University said Sheikh Nasrallah was facing a grave crisis. "It's not only a question of what weapons and capabilities Hizbullah has. Mr Nasrallah's ambition to turn a militia into a mass movement has been destroyed. Now he's fighting for his survival."
Meanwhile, Iran has denied an Israeli report that Sheikh Nasrallah is hiding in the Iranian embassy in Beirut.
Attacks on Israel:
Hizbullah has fired more than 1,400 rockets at northern Israel since the offensive began in Lebanon. Wednesday's total, 151, was the highest since the start of the fighting. Here is a daily list of rocket attacks, provided by the Israeli army:
July 13 125
July 14 103
July 15 100
July 16 47
July 17 92
July 18 136
July 19 116
July 20 34
July 21 97
July 22 129
July 23 95
July 24 83
July 25 101
July 26 151