BEIRUT, Lebanon – Rocket launches, air strikes and artillary barrages fell silent Monday, replaced with a new war of words between Hezbollah's fiery and defiant sheik and Israel's embattle prime minister, each declaring victory in the 34-day conflict.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, facing challenges from rivals at home, told parliament that the offensive had changed the strategic balance in the region, ending the "state within a state" run by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. He said most of the guerrilla group's arsenal of weapons was destroyed.
Hezbollah's fiery leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, meanwhile, went on Hezbollah's al-Manar Television to declare a "strategic, historic victory" against Israel — a declaration that prompted celebratory gunfire across the Lebanese capital.
"We came out victorious in a war in which big Arab armies were defeated (before)," the bearded, black-turbaned cleric said in a taped speech.
The counter claims of victory came as Lebanon announced it would begin preparations to send 15,000 troops into south Lebanon under the terms of the United Nations-brokered cease-fire agreement that went into effect at 1 a.m. Monday in the region.
The Lebanese troops were to be joined by a beefed-up international force, a step that Israeli and Lebanese leaders hope will effectively end Hezbollah's domination of the area and make it more difficult for guerrillas attacks on northern Israel.
The well-armed guerrilla group, however, has not been eliminated — and the real extent of damage to its arsenal is not known. Nasrallah quickly moved to defuse domestic pressure for his movement to disarm, scolding Lebanese critics for bringing up the issue.
"This is immoral, incorrect and inappropriate," he said, underlining that the Shiite community that forms the backbone of Hezbollah support had made "the most sacrifice" in the battle and that critics shouldn't disturb the national unity behind his movement.
He also moved to blunt any resentment over the vast devastation wreaked in an Israeli campaign sparked by Hezbollah's snatching of two Israeli soldiers on July 12. He said Hezbollah members on Tuesday would fan out across the south to help rebuild shattered homes and said the group — which is believed to receive large amounts of money from Iran — would help people to pay rent and buy furniture until their homes are rebuilt.
Nasrallah defended Hezbollah's arsenal, saying he could "proudly claim" that Israel now understood that future conflict "will not be a picnic. It will be very costly."
Hezbollah will likely find it more difficult to replenish its weaponry in the south. The Lebanese army long turned a blind eye to shipments of weapons from Syria, but they will now have international troops watching over them.
Hezbollah's opponents in the Lebanese government have pressed behind the scenes for the guerrillas to be disarmed, and the presence of the U.N. force will boost their demands. But Nasrallah, whose movement has two members in the Cabinet, can call on strengthened Shiite support to resist the pressure.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah's popularity has grown in Lebanon and swelled enormously across the Arab world for putting up the toughest fight Israel's war machine has ever faced.
In Jerusalem, Olmert anticipated that another war with Hezbollah could come in the future, saying his government would review "deficiencies" in the way the war was conducted to "do better" next time.
"We will continue to pursue them everywhere and at all times," he said. "We have no intention of asking anyone's permission."
He advised patience for his critics who believe that the war fell short of Israel's original goal of dismantling Hezbollah. "We don't plan to apologize," he said.