One man's hero...

While most Western and Israeli media described Samir Kuntar as a terrorist and a child killer, Lebanese politicians from all sides lined up to bask in the glory of a national hero. MENASSAT's Saseen Kawzally explores how Lebanon's media covered this week's controversial prisoners exchange between Hezbollah and Israel.
Lebanon's political leadership welcome the 5 Lebanese prisoners freed by Israel in an official celebration on Wednesday. R.R.

BEIRUT, July 18, 2008 (MENASSAT) – The recent prisoner exchange with Israel has been hailed in the Arab media as a great victory for Lebanon, with Lebanese public opinion celebrating the occasion as a moment of true national unity. But is everyone truly happy about Hezbollah's latest achievement – one that brought an end to the issue of Lebanese detainees held in Israeli prisons?

As the main player on the Lebanese side, there is little doubt as to what this whole event has meant to Hezbollah. The prisoner exchange was a promise fulfilled by its leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.

Over the last two years, and particularly in the time since the 34-day war with Israel in the summer of 2006, Nasrallah has said in repeated declarations to Arab and Western media outlets that no Lebanese prisoners would be left to languish in Israeli jails (BBC, September 12, 2006).

He also made it clear that Hezbollah would hand over the two prisoners it captured in a July 2006 raid only through indirect negotiations (Al Bawaba, July 12, 2006).

This week, five Lebanese prisoners, including the longest serving Arab prisoner in an Israeli jail, Samir Kuntar, were turned over in exchange for the remains of the two Israeli soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. In addition, the remains of some 197 Lebanese and Arab fighters who died fighting Israel in the past decades were also handed over.

The Israeli press has called it a "high price to pay," and most Israeli media lamented what was perceived as a lopsided exchange for Israel (Jerusalem Post, July 15, 2008). Locally, the Lebanese dailies confirmed this perception (An-Nahar, July 17, 2008; Al-Manar TV, July 17, 2008).

Critics silenced

With the return of Kuntar, Nasrallah made his first public appearance since 2006 before a throng of supporters and media representatives in the southern suburb of Beirut.

"The era of defeats is over; now is the era of victories," he said after embracing the five freed prisoners.

The Lebanese media reflected the newfound national unity over the prisoners exchange.

"The second July, freedom for the prisoners," headlined As-Safir, a daily newspaper close to Hezbollah, linking the prisoners exchange directly to the July 2006 war, an implication that both events were victories in the eyes of Hezbollah and its  supporters.

Nasrallah was quoted in nearly all of Lebanon;s newspapers, saying, "The main factor in reaching today's achievement was the steadfastness and victory in July's 2006 confrontation… If we had lost in 2006, Samir and his brothers would not have returned."

[Al-Akhbar, another newspaper close to Hezbollah, reported that Nasrallah, upon greeting Kuntar, whispered to him,"Come closer Samir... The whole (2006) war was for your sake."]

But what of the media critical of Hezbollah? How did they manage to transform the controversy over Hezbollah's capture of the two Israeli soldiers in 2006 and the ensuing 34-day war into praise over the prisoners exchange?

After all, the reception for the five prisoners at Lebanon's Rafiq al-Hariri International Airport included some of the most ardent critics of Hezbollah, both from politics and the media.

But no criticism was in evidence this week.

Al Anwar newspaper, usually a strong critic of Hezbollah, joined the bandwagon and declared the event to be an example of "national unity at the historic reception of the liberated prisoners."

Al-Mustaqbal newspaper, a vehicle for the pro-western Future Party of MP Saad Hariri, saw its offices attacked and surrounded by pro-Hezbollah fighters during Hezbollah's brief takeover of West-Beirut last May.

But Al-Mustaqbal too declared Wednesday's events "a unifying Lebanese celebration of the return of Kuntar and his comrades."

Don't believe the hype

A cursory analysis of Lebanon's media would have it seem that voices previously calling for Hezbollah to disarm are now silent. Does this mean that everyone is now convinced of the need for Hezbollah to hold on to its weapons?

Not quite.

The most widely distributed newspaper in Lebanon, An-Nahar, boldly proclaimed in an editorial, "After the return of the prisoners and the remains, the state must now implement the international resolutions."

The editorial continued, "The initial assessment by the parliamentary majority and the majority cabinet was that Sayed Hassan Nasrallah's speech on Wednesday generally contained positive signs of political cooperation."

Other media sources have been busy pointing out that Nasrallah spoke about three new concessions: an openness to any discussion regarding a national defense strategy, a readiness to discuss and resolve all internal political issues, and a call to all of Lebanon's sects to help defend and protect the country.

Analysts in the Lebanese press have said it represents a new approach by Nasrallah and Hezbollah where the role of the state is concerned, particularly with regard to the Lebanese army.

But it would not be the first time that Lebanese politicians, and the mainstream press, use the same words to mean very different things. We shall all have to wait and see how long yesterday's celebration of national unity will last.