Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah made his first public appearance in months at a massive rally here on Friday, praising what he called a "divine, historic and strategic victory" over Israel.
Sheikh Nasrallah, 46, appearing before a rapturous crowd which Hezbollah said numbered in the hundreds of thousands, rejected calls for his group to disarm and claimed it had more than 20,000 rockets.
"We are celebrating a great divine, historic and strategic victory," the charismatic, bearded cleric told the crowd in Beirut's shattered southern suburbs waving thousands of yellow flags, the color of Hezbollah.
"The resistance is stronger today than on July 12," when Hezbollah fighters seized two Israeli soldiers along the Israeli-Lebanese border, triggering a month of fierce clashes, Nasrallah said. "Stronger than ever before."
"The resistance today has more than 20,000 rockets," he said, rejecting Israeli claims to have inflicted heavy damage on the guerrilla group.
One of Israel's stated aims in the offensive which ended in mid-August was to eliminate Hezbollah's capacity to fire rockets, thousands of which were launched at the Jewish state during the conflict.
Nasrallah said his movement would not give up its weapons as long as there was a weak Lebanese state incapable of defending itself from Israel.
Nasrallah, a hero for many Arabs but public enemy No. 1 for Israel, had not been seen in public since the day war broke out more than two months ago. While his whereabouts remained secret, he made a string of television appearances.
His predecessor was assassinated by Israel during a Hezbollah rally in 1992, and Nasrallah said he decided to make his first appearance since the start of the war only about half an hour before the start of Friday's rally.
"Standing here before you ... incurs dangers on you and me," he said, but his "heart and mind" could not allow him to appear on a television screen.
The Shiite heartland of the Lebanese capital was a sea of yellow flags on Friday and Hezbollah's Al-Manar television said the rally was attended by hundreds of thousands.
The rally took place in southern suburbs laid waste by Israeli air raids. On Friday the area was transformed into a huge show of force.
Hundreds of hardcore Hezbollah supporters marched on Beirut from villages in southern Lebanon to attend the rally, wearing the yellow T-shirts of Hezbollah and caps marked "Divine Victory."
Asked on Israeli television whether Nasrallah would be a target if he turned up on Friday, Israel's army chief Dan Halutz said: "I prefer not to answer that question."
Nasrallah's predecessor Abbas al-Musawi, his wife and three-year-old daughter were killed in an Israeli air strike after a Hezbollah rally in 1992.
The rally comes amid an unprecedented deployment of UN peacekeepers and Lebanese army troops in southern Lebanon from where the Israeli military has delayed its complete withdrawal initially planned for Friday.
On Wednesday, Israel announced it was holding up the promised withdrawal until after the Jewish New Year holiday which ends Sunday evening.
Israel had said that it would complete its withdrawal once the UN force, which is eventually mandated to total up to 15,000 troops, had deployed 5,000 soldiers, a threshold that commanders say it has already reached.
On the domestic front, Prime Minister Fuad Siniora has rejected Hezbollah calls for a government change and stopped short of declaring a victory, after a war which cost Lebanon billions of dollars on top of more than 1,200 deaths.
Hezbollah, which has two representatives in the government, has called for a new national unity cabinet to include its allies in a bid to boost its role in the country's decision-making.