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LEBANON: Hezbollah chief Nasrallah ups war talk in high-stakes duel with Israel

February 17, 2010 |  3:01 pm


Analysts and columnists weighed in Wednesday on Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah's much-anticipated speech Tuesday night in which he warned Israel that any attack on Lebanon would be met with equal force and revealed provocative details some say upped the ante in the war of words between the Iranian-backed Shiite militant group and Israel.

Nasrallah spoke via closed-circuit video on the second commemoration of the death of Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyah, who is widely believed to have been assassinated by Israelis in Damascus in 2008.

Nasrallah reaffirmed Hezbollah's commitment to avenge his death by seeking "a target as big as Imad Mughniyah." He also warned of dire consequences for Israel should it attack Lebanon again, as it did in its 2006 war against Hezbollah.

"If you strike martyr Rafik Hariri’s international airport in Beirut, we’ll strike your Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv," Nasrallah told crowds of supporters. "If you hit our ports, we will hit your ports. ... Today, on this occasion, I announce and accept this challenge."

Lebanese media analysts have concluded that Nasrallah's words have "ushered in a new era" in the conflict with Israel.

Khaled Saghiyeh, editor of the daily Al-Akhbar, noted in Wednesday's paper (in Arabic) that Nasrallah's speech took the enmity between Hezbollah and Israel to a new level by vowing not only to retaliate, but to exact equal damage on Israel in case of war.

"Either intentionally or unintentionally, Nasrallah hit a very sensitive chord by mentioning by name the Beirut and Tel Aviv airports, which are named for Rafik Hariri and David Ben Gurion," he wrote. "As if instead of just putting an airport [up against] another airport, he put a Lebanese symbol up against an Israeli symbol."

He concluded, "Nasrallah’s new equation is not intended to merely overcome Israel’s military advantage and arrogance, but above all else to [reverse] Arab and Lebanese defeatism."

The popular Lebanese political blog Qifa Nabki, penned by Harvard researcher Elias Muhanna, also referred to Nasrallah's "new" deterrence strategy as a "game-changer" in light of escalating tension between Israel and Syria.

"It seems we are finally getting an inkling of how a catastrophic war between the three countries might unfold," Muhanna wrote.

Lebanese analyst Amal Saad-Ghorayeb told Babylon & Beyond that Nasrallah delivered a "historic" speech that probably signaled new weapons capabilities for the heavily armed group. "He has never been as detailed and candid," she said.

Because the loss of the able and experienced Mughniyah was so detrimental to Hezbollah, any response against Israel must also have "strategic" consequences, she said, "something that would contribute to undermining Israel's deterrence capabilities."

-- Meris Lutz and Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Photo: Supporters cheer on Nasrallah during the second commemoration for the assassination of Hezbollah official Imad Mughniyah. Credit: Joseph Eid / AFP