BEIRUT (AFP) – Lebanon’s Hezbollah opposition chief Hassan Nasrallah declared “open war” on Israel on Thursday while hundreds of thousands of Lebanese filled the streets of central Beirut in support of the government.
“Zionists, if you want this kind of open war, then let the whole world listen: Let this war be open,” Nasrallah said in a fiery speech broadcast on a giant screen at the funeral of slain top Hezbollah commander Imad Mughnieh.
The militant was killed on Tuesday in a car bombing in Damascus that Hezbollah has blamed on Israel.
“The blood of Imad Mughnieh will contribute to the disappearance of the Jewish state,” said Nasrallah, whose Hezbollah fighters claimed victory in the July-August 2006 war against Israel.
“You killed him outside our natural battleground,” he said. “Our battleground with you is on Lebanese territory and you have overstepped the border.”
In Israel, which has welcomed Mughnieh’s killing but denied involvement, military radio said Nasrallah was now openly threatening Israeli targets abroad.
The crowd, waving the yellow flags of Hezbollah, repeatedly punched the air as their charismatic leader who is on top of Israel’s most wanted list stressed his points with a pointing finger.
With Mughnieh’s coffin covered in the movement’s flag, Nasrallah said: “We must start marking the beginning of the fall of Israel.”
“The July war is not over, it is ongoing and no ceasefire was ever declared,” he said, referring to the 34-day long Israeli offensive which failed to recover two captured soldiers or halt rocket attacks on northern Israel.
A spokesman for the Shiite Muslim group said 20,000 people were inside the complex located in the Hezbollah stronghold of southern Beirut and thousands more were gathered on the streets.
On a day of mass rival rallies, there had been fears of clashes between rival pro- and anti-Syrian factions and troops and security forces were deployed in force.
Supporters of the Western-backed government packed a rain-sodden Martyrs’ Square in downtown Beirut for ceremonies marking the third anniversary of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri whose death by a car bomb plunged Lebanon into crisis.
Members of the political majority, led by Hariri’s son Saad, have blamed Syria for Hariri’s death and those of other anti-Damascus figures who have died in the past three years.
Syria which like Iran supports Hezbollah has repeatedly denied involvement.
Members of the Western-backed ruling coalition demanded an end to the country’s presidential deadlock and accused Syria of meddling in Lebanese politics.
Lebanon has been without a president since last November when pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud stepped down at the end of his term.
Saad Hariri told the crowd waving the red-and-white Lebanese flag: “Today you have come again to say we want a president. And we say to you we will have a president.”
He added: “The enemies of Lebanon are still trying to assassinate the Lebanese people just as the Israeli enemy tried to assassinate the Lebanese people during the 2006 July war.”
Meanwhile, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sent his condolences to Nasrallah, hailing Mughnieh. “It should make the Lebanese proud to have given the world such great men,” he said.
Mughnieh, in his late 40s, was on America’s Most Wanted list for his role in a string of attacks in the 1980s and 1990s against US and Israeli targets, including the bombing of the US marine barracks in Beirut in 1983.