Hezbollah gets its way

Why Lebanon isn't euphoric about the impending pullout of Israeli forces.

Published May 13, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Israel has vowed to withdraw its troops from southern Lebanon in a few weeks, which will close a chapter of violence and occupation that lasted for 22 exhausting years. But paradoxically, the prospect is causing more concern than euphoria in Beirut.

Only the Islamic guerrillas who have fought Israel to a standstill are poised to celebrate -- with extra gunfire -- as the Israeli soldiers pull out. The guerrilla group, known as Hezbollah ("The Party of God"), will be one of the few Arab military groups ever to succeed in forcing Israel to back down. In the past few days, Hezbollah has stacked three rocket launchers on a pedestal on the Mediterranean seafront here and draped the installation with a banner proclaiming loudly, "Resistance is the answer."

The guerrillas, backed by Syria and Iran, have tried the patience of the Israeli public by inflicting a steady hemorrhage of human losses on Israel since 1985, when Israel established a 9-mile-wide "security zone" in southern Lebanon. The painful casualties made Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's electoral promise to pull out by July 7 a hugely popular pledge in Israel. At the same time, the war has earned Hezbollah patriotic credibility and political support in Lebanon.

Hezbollah propaganda aside, the Israeli withdrawal raises more questions in Lebanon than it answers. The dismantling of Israeli military outposts is only in its early stages, but already there are jitters in Lebanon. The change threatens to crumble a decade-old arrangement in which Syria ensured Lebanon's stability and Lebanon was hostage to Syrian interests.

In editorials and student demonstrations in April, the Lebanese started to challenge the overbearing presence of Syria in their country. Some 35,000 Syrian troops, ubiquitous spies and interference in domestic affairs have made Syria the de facto ruler of the area since the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990.

The students -- mostly Christian supporters of exiled Lebanese Gen. Michel Aoun -- have vocally equated Syrian occupation with Israeli occupation and called for the end of both. The Lebanese army (loyal to Syria) crushed recent demonstrations in which 14 students were injured and several arrests were made. Some fear the crackdown could lead Lebanon into a new round of sectarian violence.

Given all that, "people aren't sure how they should respond to Israel's withdrawal," said Michael Young, a political analyst at the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies in Beirut. "On the one hand, people hope the situation in the south will be neutralized after the pullout," he said. "On the other, people fear Syria will attempt to create violence." Violence would help Syria preserve the status quo in Lebanon and maintain some leverage against Israel in its bid to recover the Golan Heights.

Indeed, the guerrilla war waged by Hezbollah against Israel in southern Lebanon has been at the heart of Syria's strategy to reclaim the Golan Heights, a strategic wind-swept plateau that overlooks the Sea of Galilee and has been under Israeli control since 1967.

Syria's calculation was that Hezbollah would bleed Israel until it agreed to give back the Golan Heights in exchange for peace on its northern border. Israel also envisioned a withdrawal from Lebanon within the framework of a peace agreement with Syria. But that plan fell apart in March when Israel and Syria failed to agree on the borders of the Golan. Barak then announced that he would stick to his electoral promise and withdraw his troops from Lebanon anyway.

"The contingency plan became the plan," said Gebran Tueni, publisher of Lebanon's biggest daily, An Nahar. Analysts now speculate that Syrian President Hafez Assad will scramble for ways to sabotage the unilateral Israeli withdrawal and keep pressure on Israel to hand back the Golan. "For the first time the Syrians are reacting and not acting," said Tueni.

Assad has showed in the past few weeks that he may be willing and able to keep up the pressure. One way of achieving this is to question the comprehensiveness of the Israeli withdrawal and to challenge the new border being drawn by United Nations cartographers. Shebaa Farms, for example, a fertile patch of land near the ill-defined border between the Golan and Lebanon, cropped up seemingly out of nowhere last week, all groomed to become an apple of discord in diplomatic talks. (The Lebanese claim the farms are theirs, although U.N. maps place them south of the border.)

A more likely scenario for post-withdrawal mayhem, according to analysts, has Syria hiring new proxies capable of making Israeli lives unpleasant across the fence. Some expect that Hezbollah will decide to rest on its laurels and concentrate on politics after an Israeli withdrawal. But Lebanon shelters plenty of other groups that could easily be persuaded to play Syria's game: hawkish Palestinian refugees stuck in miserable dead-end camps in southern Lebanon, a multitude of semiclandestine Islamic organizations, even freelance terrorists. "All you need is someone lobbing the periodic Katyusha [hand-held Soviet-made rockets] into Israel," noted one analyst. "It's a perfectly credible line of threat."

After intense lobbying by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the Syrians accepted last week the idea of giving the U.N. Interim Forces in Lebanon a beefed-up role in policing southern Lebanon after an Israeli withdrawal. But few analysts predict UNIFIL -- a contingent of foreign "peacekeeping" troops that has been in Lebanon since the outbreak of the civil war -- will be capable of protecting Israel's border.

Israel has warned Syria that it will retaliate harshly against any attacks and put the blame squarely on Syria's doorstep. "I don't recommend that anyone, directly or indirectly, try to attack Israel, its residents or its army after we withdraw," Barak told Israeli Army Radio on Monday. "Anyone who tries to harm us will get what he deserves."

When the Israeli air force bombed two Lebanese electricity plants on May 4, after Hezbollah had killed an Israeli soldier, the Lebanese were infuriated. The strikes, which caused power cuts and costly physical damage, gave the Lebanese the feeling that, once again, they were being asked to pay the price for unfinished business between Syria and Israel.

The threat of similar retaliatory attacks on Lebanese infrastructure after the Israelis leave partially explains the noticeable lack of enthusiasm on the eve of the pullout. That threat also fuels the current resurgence of anti-Syrian sentiment here. Although few of Lebanon's problems would be solved if Syrian troops marched home tomorrow, the Lebanese blame their Arab Big Brother for keeping them in a state of war.

"When foreign powers want to wage war, they do it in our country," complained a student at Christian St. Joseph University in Beirut, who was active in the anti-Syrian demonstrations in April. "We've been at war for 25 years although Lebanon has no weapons industry. We pay for all the Arabs."

But the grumbling can only go so far. "Everything we do now can be exploited as a possible point for Israel," said Tueni, who penned a groundbreaking anti-Syrian editorial in March but urged the students to keep a low profile in April. "We must wait until after July," he said in an interview. If Christian students demonstrate in the streets, the Syrians can bring out thousands of loyal Muslims -- and that will "bring back the kind of sectarian conflict that served as a pretext for the Syrian presence in Lebanon in the first place," he said.

By Flore de Preneuf

Flore de Preneuf is a Jerusalem writer and photographer.

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