Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbollah, delivered a defiant speech in front of hundreds of thousands of supporters on Friday , passionately reiterating that the group would not disarm and claiming it still had 20,000 rockets.
In his first public appearance since the Shia militant group’s 34-day war with Israel, Mr Nasrallah said the movement had recovered all its organisational and military capabilities, and added that its focus would be now to push for a government of national unity – a direct challenge to the administration led by the prime minister, Fouad Siniora.
“It is stronger than it was before July 12 [the day the conflict began],” he said, gesturing with his right arm towards crowds of people in a sea of yellow Hizbollah flags. “The resistance will never bow down to conditions. Any words about giving [up] the arms of the resistance in the present state would mean Lebanon will be exposed in front of Israel.”
The huge display of support for the group was viewed by some as a deliberate attempt by Hizbollah leaders to intimidate the government with a show of strength following weeks of political bickering between the pro-western parliamentary majority that backs Mr Siniora and Hizbollah and its allies.
“The current government is unable to protect Lebanon, or to reconstruct Lebanon or to unify Lebanon,” he said.
Earlier, as the crowd waited for the Hizbollah leader, chants of “Siniora get out” rang around the square.
Mr Nasrallah also warned against rising sectarian tensions. Some Sunni and Christians blame Hizbollah for triggering the war, but Mr Nasrallah said anybody talking about divisions was “playing into the hands of Israel”.
“Please do not let anybody make the disunity that is politics become sectarian,” he said.
Hizbollah and its allied Christian leader General Michel Aoun have been calling for a unity government since the war ended as they seek to turn the conflict to their political advantage.
Lebanese officials and diplomats say the move is designed to give the group a blocking minority in the cabinet that would enable it to gain greater leverage and reduce the influence of the bloc that backs Mr Siniora. At present Hizbollah has two ministers in the 24-member cabinet. Amal, another Shia group also has two, while the foreign minister is a Shia approved by Hizbollah. Gen Aoun’s party is outside the government.
A Lebanese official said that while Hizbollah had not been specific, “the indications are that they want to do it, implying they need change in the government that will give them a blocking minority”.
The official said the group could also still be hedging its bets, saying Mr Nasrallah’s main concern was to stem the government’s insistence that Hizbollah’s disarmament stay on the agenda.
The government says it will not try to disarm Hizbollah forcibly, but deems disarmament, as well as the Lebanese army asserting its authority in the south, as essential to future security.
Mr Siniora has insisted there will be no change of government. The danger is that the tensions could push the country into a political crisis with an administration unable to function effectively.