Israel: Nasrallah speech 'spit in face' for international community
Hezbollah chief says group still has 20,000 rockets, and that no army in the world can make the group disarm.
Israel on Friday blasted the leader of the militant Hezbollah organization for his declaration that no army in the world could make the group disarm, calling it a "spit in the face" for the international community.
United Nations resolution 1701, which ended the 34-day conflict between Israel and Hezbollah on August 14, calls for the "disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon." The international community has sent thousands of troops to bolster the Lebanese army and an existing UN peacekeeping force in the south of the country.
"Nasrallah is challenging not only the government of Lebanon, but the entire international community," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. "The international community can't afford to have this Iranian-funded extremist spit in the face of the organized community of nations."
In his first public appearance since the start of the war with Israel on July 12, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah told a mass rally in Beirut that his group would not hand over its weapons until a new government was established in Lebanon.
"The current government is unable to protect Lebanon, or to reconstruct Lebanon or to unify Lebanon," he said, calling for a new "national unity government".
Nasrallah said giving up weapons now "under this government ... means leaving Lebanon exposed before Israel to kill and detain and bomb whoever they want, and clearly we will not accept that."
An estimated 800,000 people, mostly Shi'ite Muslims, turned out for the rally in a bombed-out suburb of the Lebanese capital to celebrate Hezbollah's "divine victory" in the war.
Nasrallah said Hezbollah emerged from the war stronger than it had been before it. "[It] has recovered all its organizational and military capabilities," he said. "It is stronger than it was before July 12."
"The resistance today, pay attention... has more than 20,000 rockets," he told the crowd.
Regev also noted that according to the UN cease-fire resolution, Hezbollah "shouldn't have any rockets."
The huge turnout in a country of just four million was a gesture of defiance to Israel but also marked a challenge to the U.S.-backed government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.
Hezbollah has two ministers in the cabinet, but most cabinet members oppose the group's alliances with Syria and Iran.
Nasrallah said he had decided to appear at the rally despite threats to his life.
"They said that this square would be bombed and this stage would be destroyed to frighten the people and keep them away," he said.
Since the war, Israeli officials have said they would continue to target Hezbollah's leadership but Prime Minister Ehud Olmert refused to comment on Thursday on whether Israel would try to kill Nasrallah if he appeared at the rally.
Nasrallah debated with his aides until 30 minutes before the rally, about whether to attend. "But my heart, mind and soul did not allow me to address you from afar," he said.
"You are proving by attending this victory celebration that you are more courageous than on July 12 and August 14," he said, referring to the beginning and end of the month-long war.
The crowd roared with cheers as Nasrallah appeared waving to the crowd, flanked by his bodyguards as an announcer said "The leader has arrived."
The Hezbollah leader had been in hiding since July 12 when the group's cross-border capture of Israel Defense Forces reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev and killing of eight more troops sparked the war.
The UN-brokered cease-fire calls for Hezbollah to eventually be stripped of its weapons, but Nasrallah has so far been defiant.
Rally leaves Lebanese roads congested Roads toward Lebanon's capital were packed with cars and buses waving Hezbollah flags Friday, hours before what was billed as the country's largest rally to showcase the group's insistence that it won't disarm. Hundreds of Hezbollah supporters from across south Lebanon began marching toward Beirut a day earlier.
Two hours before the rally, thousands of people had already arrived at the site on foot, in buses and in cars, chanting Nasrallah's name and waving Lebanese and Hezbollah flags.
In the southern port city of Tyre, some 200 people, including veiled Shiite Muslim women clad in black and holding their children, boarded large minivans bound for Beirut.
Hezbollah's Al-Manar television said thousands of buses, minivans and cars were streaming toward Beirut from the south and the eastern Bekaa Valley. Members of Christian parties and pro-Syrian groups in northern Lebanon were also traveling to the capital to participate in the rally, the broadcast said.
Al-Manar said late Thursday that Friday's rally would be "the biggest referendum on the resistance choice." It said "waves of humans" would pour into the bombed-out southern suburbs of Beirut to support the guerrillas.
During the war, Israel threatened to kill Nasrallah. An attempt to assassinate him now was considered unlikely since it would risk plunging the region back into conflict. However, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would not say in comments published Thursday whether Nasrallah remained a target.
The gathering is intended as a show of strength by Hezbollah at a time of increased friction with the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
Butros Harb, a lawmaker who supports Siniora's government, said Hezbollah's refusal to disarm was unacceptable and expressed concern about the rally.
"We can't have an illegal army at the heart of our state, all weapons must be held by the Lebanese government," he said.
At the rally site in south Beirut, workers set up tens of thousands of white plastic chairs facing a podium and organizers prepared tens of thousands of banners and flags. Past Hezbollah rallies have drawn up to 800,000 people.
Hezbollah, whose popularity among Shiites soared after it withstood weeks of punishing Israeli bombardment and kept up a barrage of rockets into northern Israel, has refused to give up its weapons.
In a television interview last week, Nasrallah boasted that his armed fighters were still on the border with Israel.