BEIRUT — As Lebanon's largest political party and most potent armed force, Hezbollah has long been described as a "state within a state" -- a Shiite Muslim minigovernment boasting close ties to Iran and Syria.
But Wednesday's move across the border to capture two Israeli soldiers went a step further: Hezbollah acted as the state itself, threatening to drag Lebanon into a war.
The country's elected government was still in meetings Wednesday, arguing over what to say in public, when Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah went before television cameras with a pointed threat for the ruling elite.
"Today is a time for solidarity and cooperation, and we can have discussions later. I warn you against committing any error. This is a national responsibility," the cleric said, looking every inch the head of state.
Any criticism over the capture of the two Israeli soldiers would be tantamount to colluding with Israel, Nasrallah said, making it clear that he expected citizens and officials to heed his orders.
"To the Lebanese people, both officials and non-officials, nobody should behave in a way that encourages the enemy to attack Lebanon, and nobody should say anything that gives cover to attack Lebanon," he said.
Nasrallah was careful to frame the raid -- which occurred less than three weeks after Palestinian militant groups, including the Hamas military wing, captured an Israeli soldier in a similar cross-border attack just outside the Gaza Strip -- as a noble strike on behalf of Lebanon and Arab nationalism. Its goal was to free Lebanese and other Arab prisoners, many of them Palestinian, held in Israel by forcing Israel into a prisoner swap, he said.
Nasrallah was unclear on how many prisoners he was demanding be released.
Since Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah has generally limited its attacks on Israelis to one small patch of disputed land known as Shabaa Farms, which Hezbollah claims as Lebanese territory.
But Hezbollah had long planned the audacious change to a cross-border raid aimed at capturing Israeli soldiers. The group failed in a similar operation late last year.
"It's a very dangerous escalation," said Timur Goksel, a former United Nations spokesman and advisor who teaches at the American University of Beirut. "You can't anymore claim it's an act of resistance. It's an act of war."
The reasons behind Hezbollah's decision to flex its muscle so aggressively may never be fully explained, but the hostagetaking carried an unmistakable message of defiance that seemed aimed not just at Israel, but at fellow Lebanese, neighboring governments and the West.
A Hezbollah spokesman in Beirut said the group had seized the moment when it could.
"It's a military thing. It has nothing to do with the political atmosphere," Hussein Naboulsi said.
"Catching Israeli soldiers is not a joke. It's tough work, and it takes a lot of planning," he said. "They found this moment, and they did what they did."
That may be so, but the timing of the move could prove beneficial for Hezbollah and its allies.
In Lebanon, the action solidifies the group's position as an armed entity independent of government control at a time when it was coming under increasing pressure to give up its weapons.
In the broader region, the move lends Hezbollah and Nasrallah the credibility of taking up the Palestinian cause as other Arab leaders are standing silently by. Today's Tehran Times, for example, ran the story under the headline "Hezbollah Rushes to Help Palestinians."
But the capture of the two soldiers Wednesday could also force Hamas and Israel deeper into their standoff. Some officials of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority had appeared to be edging toward a deal to release Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier seized near Gaza last month. Now, it seems unlikely that Hamas and Israel will be able to conclude any such deal until Hezbollah is satisfied.
Internationally, the timing turns the captures into a symbolic strike for Hezbollah's chief patrons, Iran and Syria.
The raid comes as Iran remains locked in a standoff with the West, particularly the United States, over its controversial nuclear ambitions. The Bush administration also has accused Iran of improper meddling in the politics of oil-rich, war-ravaged Iraq. The Hezbollah move into Israel may, at a minimum, distract U.S. officials from their confrontation with Tehran.
Syria was publicly shamed last year when it was forced to withdraw soldiers from Lebanon. The product of international pressure and an eruption of Lebanese opposition, the Syrian withdrawal was widely seen as the loss of the last piece of strategic value that a weakened Damascus could claim -- its last poker chip in case of peace talks with Israel.