UNITED NATIONS ó With Iran's foreign minister in attendance, Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, declared "open war" against Israel at the funeral of a top terrorist, Imad Mugniyeh, in southern Beirut yesterday. American officials called the threat "alarming," while Jerusalem raised alert levels but vowed not to "panic."
Both pro-Iranian and pro-Syrian factions were at the ceremony for Mugniyeh, who was killed by a car bomb in the heart of Damascus on Wednesday. Simultaneously, their political rivals mourned the third anniversary of the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, whose death in a 2003 car bomb was widely blamed on Syria.
Iran was the only country in the region openly showing support during the funeral of Mugniyeh, who for decades coordinated Hezbollah's military activities with the secret services of Iran and Syria, and who also maintained ties with Al Qaeda. Far from an indigenous Lebanese political party, Hezbollah's detractors consider the group to be Iran's military proxy in a war against Israel and the West.
Arab diplomats at the United Nations largely refrained yesterday from commenting on Mugniyeh's death. France failed to unite the Security Council behind a statement on the Hariri anniversary, but the opposition was chiefly due to concerns by some council members about "outside interference" in Lebanon's affairs.
"As far as I know, no one brought the issue of Mugniyeh up," a diplomat from Libya, the current Arabic representative at the council, said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
By killing Mugniyeh, Israel has "crossed the border," Sheik Nasrallah told tens of thousands of supporters who attended the funeral service in southern Beirut's Dahiyeh neighborhood, according to Al-Jazeera's English Web site. "With this murder, its timing, location, and method ó Zionists, if you want this kind of open war, let the whole world listen: Let this war be open."
Mr. Nasrallah's speech was presented on a video screen as Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, attended the funeral, where supporters raised clenched fists. Mugniyeh is "not the first martyr, nor will he be the last on this path," Mr. Mottaki told the crowd, reading a statement of condolences from President Ahmadinejad of Iran, according to the Associated Press. "There will be hundreds and millions more" like him, he added.
"We are facing a political, security, and terrorist presence of the Syrian and Iranian regimes," a top politician in Lebanon's ruling coalition, Saad Hariri, said, addressing government supporters on the third anniversary of his father's assassination, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute. "There are in Lebanon those who wish [Lebanon] to remain political and security collateral in the hands of the rulers of Damascus and Tehran."
While many feared the Mugniyeh assassination might renew the hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah, some said the loss of one of the top military planners in the world of terror might have weakened the Iranian-backed organization's hand. "Such an assassination will raise the suspicions of the movement's leaders and force them to focus more on internal issues than perpetrating terror attacks," a former Israeli deputy defense minister, Ephraim Sneh, told Israel Radio.
Israel attempts on Mugniyeh's life date back to even before the killing in 1994 of his brother, Fouad Mugniyeh, which, according to Western press reports, was designed to lure Imad Mugniyeh to a funeral where he could be assassinated. The ever-cautious Imad, however, was absent at his brother's Beirut funeral.
"Israel is a strong country," Israel's foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, said in Washington yesterday, where she attended a memorial service for Senator Lantos, a Democrat of California, who died earlier this week.
Reacting to Sheik Nasrallah's speech, she added, "Our response to terrorism is clear, and comments from one terrorist or another would not change it. We are not going to panic." Hezbollah is a terrorist organization, she said, but "Israel has been under threat since the day it was established. We know how to handle such threats."
Nevertheless, according to the Israeli prime minister's Web site, "Hezbollah has repeatedly blamed Israel for the death of Imad Mugniyeh, thus increasing the danger of its terrorist threats against Israeli targets abroad. Therefore, the National Security Council Counterterrorism Bureau recommends that Israelis abroad avoid places where there is a high concentration of Israelis." Detailed threat advisories were issued and sent to Israeli diplomats, representatives of Israeli-based international companies, and Israeli foreign correspondents around the world. El Al and other Israeli airlines also raised security levels.
Statements like Sheik Nasrallah's "are quite concerning, and they should be alarming to everyone," the State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, said. "Hezbollah has a long record of carrying out violent acts and acts of terrorism around the globe. You have a pathway of violence that stretches from Buenos Aires to Kuwait and a lot of places in between."