Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned in a speech Saturday that the Shi'ite group is stronger, more skilled and better-equipped than it was before the Second Lebanon War, but stressed that he does not intend to initiate an attack on Israel or be dragged into a war.
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However, Nasrallah, whose speech was broadcast to supporters via a television link from a secret location in South Lebanon, warned of a harsh response if Israel tried to attack Hezbollah or Lebanon.
"The resistance today is much stronger and more skilled than it was in 2006, and Israel knows it," Nasrallah said. "We will not initiate a war and we are not interested in war, but if someone in Israel is thinking about attacking Lebanon, out response and force will be much more powerful than [what they were during] the Second Lebanon War."
According to Nasrallah, the regional political map would have been completely different were it not for Hezbollah's resistance and insistence in leading the struggle against Israel. Without Hezbollah, he said, Israel and the U.S. would have succeeded in carrying out all of their Middle East schemes and destroying the Palestinian resistance.
The issue of tension with Israel was only a small part in Nasrallah's speech. Most of his address dealt with internal affairs and Syria, such as new government in which Hezbollah is a part of and the issue of the group's involvement in the civil war over the border.
He justified sending his forces to a foreign war by saying that Sunni rebel groups would "eliminate everyone in Lebanon" if they won in Syria.
"The problem in Lebanon is not that Hezbollah went to Syria, but that we were late in doing so," he said. "This resistance will remain solid, with its head hung high, protecting its people and its nation."
Established nearly 30 years ago to confront Israel's occupation of south Lebanon, Hezbollah once won praise from Sunnis and Shi'ites across the Middle East. But its fight alongside Assad has lost it much domestic and international support.
Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah fighters have helped turn the tide for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the military struggle against rebels. Assad now has a firm hold on much of central Syria around the capital and the Syrian-Lebanese border.
But the three-year-old conflict in Syria has fuelled Sunni-Shi'ite tensions in neighboring Lebanon and across the wider Arab world. Syria's rebels are mostly Sunnis, while Assad belongs to the Alawite faith, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
Syrian rebel groups and Lebanese supporters have carried out several suicide bombings in Hezbollah-controlled areas in Beirut and elsewhere, killing dozens of people. They have vowed to keep attacking Hezbollah until it withdraws its forces from Syria.
Nasrallah said he first sent "tens of Hezbollah" fighters to Syria to protect a Shi'ite shrine and "avoid larger sectarian strife". Since then, Hezbollah fighters in Syria have increased significantly but exact figures are not known.
Hezbollah and Assad share the same patron, Iran, which has supported the Syrian leader throughout the revolt.
A few hours after Nasrallah's speech, a suicide bomber killed himself and three soldiers when he detonated a car bomb at a Lebanese army checkpoint in the border town of Arsal, Lebanese security sources said.
Arsal is home to thousands of Syrian refugees but also Syrian rebels and their Lebanese allies who have fled a Syrian army advance on the Syrian side of the border. Three other soldiers were wounded, the sources said.