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Last Updated: Friday, 30 January, 2004, 17:12 GMT
Analysis: Changing times for Hezbollah
The BBC's Kim Ghattas
By Kim Ghattas
BBC correspondent in Beirut

Hezbollah defence workers cover the coffins of Lebanese guerrillas
The prisoner swap was welcomed unanimously in Lebanon
The first stage of the long-awaited prisoner exchange between Israel and Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrilla movement has now been successfully completed.

The focus will soon turn to the much more complex second phase during which the two sides will try to deal with the long-standing unresolved matter of the missing Israeli airman, Ron Arad.

Israel will release the longest-held and only remaining Lebanese prisoner in Israeli jails, Samir Qantar, in exchange for definite information about Mr Arad - whom Israel believes is in Iran.

Until now, the swap has been described across the Arab world as a tremendous victory for Hezbollah and its leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has been hailed as a hero for achieving gains in the Arab-Israeli conflict that no other Arab figure has realised.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Nasrallah
Effective resistance was the main factor behind our success
Hassan Nasrallah
After taking credit for Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon, ending a 22-year long occupation, Hezbollah has scored again and for party members as well as their supporters, there is no doubt left that armed struggle against Israel is the way to go.

"We should not fall under any illusions and let ourselves believe that peaceful negotiations are an alternative to military resistance," Hassan Nasrallah said during a rally on Thursday evening to honour of the released prisoners.

"Effective resistance was the main factor behind our success," he added.

In what was a relatively belligerent speech, Hassan Nasrallah warned that if Israel did not fulfil its side of the deal's second phase, Hezbollah would kidnap more Israeli soldiers.

"Next time I promise you we will capture them alive," he declared as the audience erupted into applause.

'Extreme measures'

Fears have been expressed in Israel that the lopsided agreement between the two sides would encourage more kidnapping as a means to put pressure on Israel.

Ariel Sharon has however warned he would take extreme measures if there more abductions of Israeli soldiers.

"Extreme measures" could mean military strikes against Lebanon, a price not all Lebanese are ready to pay.

There was a great show of unity on Thursday in welcoming the released prisoners back home - Druze, Christian and Muslims politicians as well as clerics were present.

But there is less unanimity around Hezbollah's other declared aim - forcing Israel out of the Shebaa farms, a disputed peace of land on the border between Israel Lebanon and Syria.

Few Lebanese believe it is worth endangering the stability of the country for the sake of a small piece of land no one had heard of before May 2000, when Israel withdrew and Hezbollah came up with a new reason to continue fighting Israel.

Time for transition

In Lebanon, questions are now being asked about how long Hezbollah can remain a guerrilla movement without endangering its growing role as a mainstream, albeit religious-based, political party.

"Less than four years ago, Hezbollah had all the legitimate excuses it needed to maintain its war against Israel," Hussain Abdel Hussain wrote in the English language newspaper, the Daily Star.

Hezbollah can contribute to intelligent, fair Arab-Israeli diplomacy for justice and peace
Lebanon's Daily Star
"With the prisoners' issue taken care of, Hezbollah loses another one of its strong alibis for fighting the Israelis. True, the deal boosts the party's pan-Arab position, but this effect will not last for long."

Mr Sharon appears eager to put an end to unfinished business with Hezbollah and reports are now surfacing about the possibility of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Shebaa Farms.

If new reasons are then cited by the party to justify continued armed struggle, its credibility in Lebanon will be greatly harmed.

Hezbollah is already half guerrilla movement, half political party, represented in parliament by nine legislators - but it will have to make the transition to a fully political movement.

The question is can it achieve this transition without loosing all of its raison d'etre.

Observers believe this is possible if Hezbollah starts focusing very quickly on achieving political victories.

"Hezbollah... can play a more forceful role in bringing about sorely needed reforms in Lebanon (thanks to) its rich experiences in local development and providing of social services," said the Daily Star's Friday editorial.

"It can contribute to intelligent, fair Arab-Israeli diplomacy for justice and peace. It can be a decisive player in the process of democratisation in Islamic societies."

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