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Hezbollah Holds Beirut Rally

The militants and their supporters celebrate what leader Hassan Nasrallah calls a `divine and strategic victory' over Israel this summer.

September 23, 2006|Raed Rafei | Special to The Times

BEIRUT — Hundreds of thousands of supporters gathered in Beirut's southern suburbs Friday to celebrate what Hezbollah's leader called his group's victory over Israel in fighting this summer.

Sheik Hassan Nasrallah's speech in south Beirut, an area badly damaged by Israeli airstrikes during the fighting, was his first public appearance since the war broke out July 12.

"We are celebrating today a big, divine and strategic victory," the Hezbollah leader said, facing the crowd and a sea of yellow Hezbollah banners. As his supporters raised their fists and chanted pro-Hezbollah slogans, he added that the Shiite Muslim movement would refuse to disarm.

"No army in the world is capable of forcing us to give up our weapons," he said, including German-led naval patrols and efforts to prevent arms smuggling across the Syrian border.

Hezbollah fired about 4,000 rockets into Israel during the 34-day conflict, in which 1,200 Lebanese, mainly civilians, and 157 Israelis were killed. Nasrallah said Hezbollah still has more than 20,000 rockets in its arsenal.

Israeli officials had been evasive about whether they would target Nasrallah if he chose to appear at the rally. They warned that he should consider his life in danger.

"There is no reason for me to notify Nasrallah through the media how we will act. We will not give him advance notice," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the daily Maariv newspaper in an interview published Thursday.

Olmert has maintained that Israel won the war. For example, he says, he has been free to travel around Israel while Nasrallah was forced to remain in hiding.

"He is holding a victory march because he lost," Olmert said in the Maariv interview.

A cease-fire agreement that ended the war Aug. 14 calls for Hezbollah to disarm eventually.

Nasrallah warned U.N. troops deployed along the border with Israel not to spy on Hezbollah or try to take away its weapons. The first step toward disarmament was strengthening the weak Lebanese state, he said.

"Talking about disarming the resistance now ... with this state, this regime, this power in place means keeping Lebanon unprotected facing Israel," Nasrallah said. "The current government is not capable of protecting Lebanon, or reconstructing Lebanon, or uniting Lebanon."

The rally drew mainly Shiite Lebanese from the south, the Bekaa Valley and the southern suburbs of Beirut. But it was far from expressing the entire Lebanese population's feelings about the war.

Sunni, Christian and Druze leaders forming the pro-Western March 14 Forces criticized Hezbollah and accused it of being a tool of Syria and Iran. Political tension has been mounting since the end of the fighting, and these forces, which form a slim majority in parliament, did not attend the Hezbollah rally.

Nasrallah claimed that the United States intervened diplomatically to halt the fighting to prevent Israel from suffering a catastrophic defeat.

He mocked Arab leaders who recently urged the U.N. Security Council to give a new push to the Mideast peace process. "How would you get dignifying concession when you say, day and night, that you won't fight for Lebanon, or for Gaza or for the West Bank or even for Jerusalem?" he said.

Hajj Ali, a 43-year-old carpenter, came with his entire family from a village on the border with Israel "to express happiness about the divine victory." He expressed support for Lebanese army soldiers who have deployed to the south, "but not the international forces who are only here to protect Israel."

Times staff writer Ken Ellingwood in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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