Accusing Israel of killing one of his top commanders, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, threatened Thursday to intensify his group’s conflict with Israel and to retaliate against Israeli targets anywhere in the world.
Nasrallah, who has been in hiding since 2006 because of Israeli assassination threats, spoke to thousands of mourners via a televised image at an emotional funeral for the slain commander, Imad Mugniyah. He was killed in a car bombing on Tuesday night in Damascus, Syria.
“You crossed the borders,” Nasrallah said. “Zionists, if you want an open war, let it be an open war anywhere.”
Israel, which has denied involvement in the killing, ordered its military and embassies around the world to heighten security. No one has claimed responsibility for killing Mugniyah, a famously elusive militant suspected of planning bombings that killed hundreds of Americans in Lebanon during the 1980s.
Nasrallah’s speech — his most belligerent in many months — coincided with another vast public gathering across town, in which Hezbollah’s Western-allied political adversaries commemorated the third anniversary of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s killing in a huge car bombing.
Together, the two gatherings vividly illustrated the bitter political divisions that have crippled Lebanon’s government over the past year and pulled it perilously close to open civil conflict.
In his speech, Nasrallah called the killing of Mugniyah a “big mistake” that would be avenged. “The blood of Imad Mugniyah will eliminate them,” he said, referring to the Israelis.
If Hezbollah were to strike at Israel outside the borders of the two countries, it would be a sharp departure from the group’s current policy. The last time it did so was in the mid-1990s, when Mugniyah was accused of planning bombings of Israeli targets in Argentina.
Such attacks are not seen as likely. Hezbollah’s patrons, Syria and Iran, “are pursuing strategies of their own, and Hezbollah is not really free to depart from those,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment Middle East Center in Beirut.
Iran’s close ties with Hezbollah — and with Mugniyah — were underscored Thursday when Iran’s foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, spoke at the funeral, reading a letter from President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.
“These are operations that will shorten their corrupt and filthy life,” Mottaki said, quoting the letter, which was referring to the Israelis and the killing of Mugniyah. “Their smiles will not last long. The free people and the Lebanese people have lost one hero but there are a million more Hajj Rudwans ready to join the ranks of the resistance.” Mugniyah also went by the name Hajj Rudwan.
Outside the funeral hall, a cold, steady rain fell as thousands of mourners packed the streets, where uniformed Hezbollah militants and the group’s youth brigade marched to martial music.