BEIRUT â€” As Lebanon prepares for what is being hailed as its first free vote in years, the powerful Shiite movement Hizbollah was flexing its military muscle and vowing to fight on against arch-enemy Israel.
Hizbollah is projected to win possibly 12 seats in the elections kicking off in the capital Beirut on Sunday â€” the same number it has now â€” after forging alliances with anti-Syrian opposition forces in some electoral districts.
The group’s firebrand leader Hassan Nasrallah told tens of thousands of supporters in southern Lebanon Wednesday that his militia had more than 12,000 rockets that put northern Israel within firing range.
His declaration defied international calls for the disarming of Hizbollah in line with UN Resolution 1559, which paved the way for Syria’s withdrawal of its forces from Lebanon after a 29-year military presence.
“Our priority is to evacuate Israel from the Shebaa Farms and to fight against UN Resolution 1559,” said Hizbollah parliamentary candidate Hassan Fadlallah.
The Shebaa Farms district remains the main bone of contention between Hizbollah and Israel, which pulled out of southern Lebanon five years ago this month after a 22-year occupation.
Seized from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war along with the rest of the Golan Heights, the Shebaa Farms is now claimed by Lebanon with Syrian blessing although Israel rejects the arrangement.
“Some people think we have 12,000 rockets,” Nasrallah told supporters. “I tell you, we have more than 12,000.”
Referring to northern Israel, he said: “The whole of the north of occupied Palestine as well as its settlements, airports, fields and farms are within the firing range of the fighters of the Islamic resistance.”
But Israel downplayed the threats as political posturing. “Nasrallah’s declarations are principally trying to improve Hizbollah’s political standing before the elections,” an Israeli military official said.
Hizbollah was formed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982.
Thousands of active fighters belong to the group, which is also a key provider of social, cultural and educational services to traditionally impoverished Shiites.
Hizbollah won 12 seats in the last elections in 2000, the highest number of Hizbollah MPs since the group entered parliament in the first post-war polls in 1992. It has nine Shiites, two Sunnis and one Christian.
Experts believe the group will garner about the same number of deputies in the four-round elections starting Sunday, after it forged alliances with opposition forces in Beirut and the Baabda-Alley district east of the capital.
Washington considers Hizbollah a “terrorist” organisation because it has been linked to numerous attacks on Americans, including a 1983 Beirut truck bombing that killed more than 200 US Marines.
But US President George W. Bush in March left the door open for Hizbollah to play a political role, urging the movement to “prove” it does not deserve to be branded a terrorist group.
“I would hope that Hizbollah would prove that they’re not [a terrorist organisation], by laying down arms and not threatening peace” between Israel and the Palestinians, he said.
Lebanese government officials, including members of the anti-Syria opposition, say the question of disarming Hizbollah should be discussed later.
Druze opposition leader Walid Jumblatt, who has proposed a plan to integrate the Shiite movement into the Lebanese army by creating a “reserve army,” said the issue required “calm dialogue” after the elections, which wrap up June 19.
On a visit to Beirut Thursday, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi lent his support to Hizbollah, saying it was a “resistance movement” and therefore should not have to disarm.
Hizbollah has already expressed willingness to discuss the future of its army with Lebanese leaders.
And although Hizbollah’s pronouncement of rocket capacity marked the first time the group has outlined in detail the strength of its arsenal, Hizbollah’s chief refrained from further belligerent words.
“We don’t want to get the region involved in a regional war,” Nasrallah said. “We want to protect our country and keep our weaponry.”