|Hizbullah supporters gear up for victory rally
|No word on whether party's leader will speak
Thousands of Hizbullah supporters in South Lebanon set out on foot for Beirut on Thursday to attend today's massive victory rally amid speculations that Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah would make his first public appearance since the recent war. "We cannot confirm that Nasrallah will appear for security reasons," Hizbullah spokesperson Hussein Rahal told The Daily Star.
Organizers are expecting half a million people to attend the rally, being held to celebrate the resistance's "divine victory" over the Israeli Army in the 34-day war that ended August 14.
As of press time, Hizbullah officials were keeping a tight lip on whether the victory speech would be delivered by Nasrallah in person.
"All I can tell you that it will be an exceptional speech," Rahal said.
Nasrallah went into hiding on July 12, the day Hizbullah fighters captured two Israeli soldiers in a deadly cross-border raid, although he has made several televised speeches.
Sources told The Daily Star Nasrallah will make a brief appearance during the rally, with the speech length set at 10-12 minutes, considerably shorter than his traditional half hour- to hour-long addresses.
The sources pointed to extra-tight security measures in the southern suburbs this past week, restrictions on photographers and the presence of Hizbullah's marching band in the rally are "sure signals" Nasrallah would attend the rally.
Hizbullah MPs contacted by The Daily Star said they themselves were being kept in the dark about his appearance, but assured that every step has been taken to guarantee the party leader's safety.
In a televised appearance made after a cease-fire had been reached, Nasrallah vowed to deliver a speech "soon" and "in person" to celebrate the resistance's victory.
Should anything happen to Nasrallah, his second in command, Sheikh Naim Qassem, is expected to be appointed interim leader until the party's inner council officially elects a new secretary general.
Concerns for Nasrallah's safety remain high as Israel remained evasive Thursday as to whether it would try to assassinate him if he surfaced.
The Israeli Army's delay of the final stages of its withdrawal from Lebanon until next week, after initially announcing it would complete its pullout by Friday, along with repeated air violations by Israeli planes throughout the week, have led to speculation the Jewish state may be waiting for an opportunity to eliminate an enemy.
Asked on Israeli television whether Nasrallah would be a target if he turned up Friday, Israel's army chief Dan Halutz said: "I prefer not to answer that question."
"Israel delays its withdrawal so as not to coincide with the Dahiyeh rally," read An-Nahar's front page headline on Thursday, referring to the ongoing psychological warfare between Israel and the resistance.
However, some said the expected crowds may provide Nasrallah with protection.
"I don't think Israel will try anything on Friday as there will be far too many people at the rally," political analyst Simon Haddad told The Daily Star.
"Israel will seize Nasrallah's appearance as an opportunity to get more information on his whereabouts and may try something on his exit from the rally or on another day," he added.
Haddad added that it was not in Israel's interest to assassinate the Hizbullah leader at the present time as "killing Nasrallah would cause Hizbullah to divide into factions and that will cause further problems for Israel."
"With Nasrallah as leader they know they can listen to his speeches to know what to expect next," he added.
Haddad said that Nasrallah's speech, whether made in person or pre-recorded, will likely be a "morale booster given there is some lingering resentment in Lebanon over the war."
"Disarmament is at a frozen stage, where the party will not disarm but at the same time can't use its weapons given the international forces and the deployment of the Lebanese Army in the South," he added.
In the latest sign of a growing political rift, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said earlier this week that Lebanon had "succeeded in preventing Israel from winning the war," but declined to credit Hizbullah with a defeat of the Israeli Army.
When contacted by The Daily Star, Siniora's spokesperson reiterated that the premier had not been officially invited to the rally.
Unfazed by fears of an Israeli attack, thousands of Hizbullah supporters wearing the party's yellow T-shirts and waving the party flag walked, bused and drove from the South to Beirut on Thursday.
"If Israel kills Nasrallah then Tel Aviv will be hit, so I don't think they will risk it," said Hamdi Salam as he headed to Beirut on foot from the southern town of Bint Jbeil.
"But if they kill Nasrallah then he will be a martyr who will forever by honored as a hero among his people and the world," he added.
"The walk is a message to Israel that we will keep on walking forward and will never be pushed back no matter how hard they try to destroy us," said one Hizbullah organizer in the South who preferred to remain anonymous.
Paramedics and civil defense workers accompanied what witnesses described as "the pilgrimage to Beirut" as a precautionary measure.
Several rest stops have also been erected along the route to the capital, with food and water being distributed by Hizbullah organizers.
"It will be the biggest gathering of people possible in the space set for the rally," said the head of the party's organizing committee, Hussein Fadlallah. Over 6,000 Hizbullah officials have been assigned to supervise the event.
"The big surprise will be in the number that will show up and make this rally memorable and will mark a new page in Lebanese and Arab history," Fadlallah added.
The Daily Star