BEIRUT — Defying Israel and the United States, Hezbollah‘s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, appeared at a giant “victory” rally Friday and declared that the militant group still possessed 20,000 rockets and would never disarm.
“No army in the world is strong enough to disarm us,” he told a cheering crowd that appeared to number in the hundreds of thousands.
Nasrallah’s presence was meant to underscore the idea that Hezbollah had triumphed over Israel, which has vowed to kill him. It was the first time he had been seen in public since July 12, when he announced the capture of two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, the event that precipitated Israel’s 34- day invasion of southern Lebanon.
His speech was both a fiery tirade addressed to Israel and the United States and a giddy celebration of Hezbollah’s strengthened position within Lebanon since the end of the war.
“During the war, I said we had 11,000 rockets, but it was really more,” he told the crowd. “Is it 12,000?” some members of the audience called out.
“Keep counting!” he replied.
“Is it 13?”
“Forget counting!” he said, to hearty laughter. “We haven’t even begun rearming, and we have more than 20,000!”
Israeli officials have estimated that Hezbollah has about 10,000 rockets, mostly short-range Katyusha missiles that could not reach Israeli territory if the group is prevented from operating south of the Litani River, the area where a UN-supported peacekeeping force is being deployed under the cease-fire agreement.
At one point in Nasrallah’s speech, which was part olive branch, part power-play, he called on the pro-Western governing coalition in Lebanon to step down in favor of a government of national unity – one in which Hezbollah would probably hold more than the two cabinet seats it won in elections last spring. He also warned UN peacekeepers not to spy on “the resistance.”
Nasrallah congratulated the crowd for what he called a “divine, historic and strategic victory” over the United States as well as Israel, and said the conflict was “an American war” because Washington provided the weapons, planning and diplomatic support that made possible the Israeli assault on Lebanon’s infrastructure.
When the fighting ended, he said, it was not because of the suffering of the Lebanese or any weakness on the part of Hezbollah, but because “the Zionists realized that if it continued, it would be a catastrophe.”
“The Americans agreed to stop the war, not for the women, not for the children of the Lebanese – they stopped the war for Israel,” he said.
He said the Bush administration had allowed the war to go forward as part of the plan to create “a new Middle East.”
“This Middle East was illegitimate,” he said, and its defeat has become an inspiration “for people who fight for their freedom and dignity” around the world.
The rally Friday once again demonstrated Hezbollah’s organizational abilities, which have allowed it to take the lead in the reconstruction of southern Lebanon, reinforcing the sense that it, rather than the central government, is the dominant force in the country.
Many people at the rally said they had walked to Beirut from southern Lebanon, setting out early in the week.
The vast area in the Beirut suburbs where the event was held was filled with one-piece white plastic chairs that had been set up the day before, with a hat of red, green or white – Lebanon’s national colors – on each chair. Thousands of yellow Hamas flags were waved steadily during the speeches and the martial choral music that preceded Nasrallah’s surprise appearance.
Some Lebanese have criticized Hezbollah for its role in the start of the war. Shortly after the cease-fire, Nasrallah said in a televised address that the cross-border raid and capture of the two Israeli soldiers was a miscalculation and that he would not have ordered the raid if he had known how fierce the response from Israel would be.
But on Friday he said that part of the Israeli and U.S. plan had been to set the rest of Lebanon against Hezbollah by inflicting widespread punishment. “They thought that we would be divided,” he said.