No end to shooting: Hezbollah debates with Israel over rules for 'fair' killings Regulations on slayings of civilians are issue

April 21, 1996|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- The crimson flag of Hezbollah wrapped the "martyr's" coffin yesterday, and the whole box was sheathed in plastic. Lowered into the ground amid chants of "God is Great," the coffin will be dug up and reburied -- without the plastic -- in southern Lebanon when the Israeli bombardment ends.

The occupant of the coffin, a Hezbollah fighter named Ahmad Cherri killed by a rocket from an Israeli jet, was a "fair" fatality, according to convoluted rules of the conflict in south Lebanon.

The diplomats seeking to arrange a cease-fire here are arguing over the rules of who can fairly be killed and who cannot. It is a macabre process, this haggling over a playbook for war. But only if the parties can agree on new rules will the current shelling stop.

It began because both Israel and the Islamic Hezbollah accused the other side of violating the old rules, so each side claimed it was entitled to intensify the violence.

Those rules, too politically sensitive even to be put in writing, were part of an "understanding" brokered in 1993 by U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

The rules said this: Hezbollah would not fire rockets at Israeli civilians, and Israel would avoid striking Lebanese civilians in its pursuit of the guerrillas.

But the understanding included the implicit threat that if one side struck the other's civilians, the opposition would reply in kind.

Israel, backed by the United States, says its bombardment of Lebanon began because Hezbollah sent Katyusha rockets into northern Israel. Hezbollah cites a longer chronology of events, arguing that its rockets were a response to the deaths of two Lebanese construction workers by Israeli shells this month.

"After those two were killed, we followed the agreement exactly. We shelled back," said Ibrahim Musawi, an official at Hezbollah's headquarters in Beirut. "We don't like shelling their civilians. But we cannot give up our right to defend our civilians."

Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres uses nearly the same words: "We have to defend our lives, the lives of our people."

Both sides see the solution as simple. Israel says Hezbollah should just stop; Hezbollah says Israel should just get out of Lebanon. Since neither event has occurred, the violence continues.

Israel wants new rules, its leaders have repeatedly said; the old ones, an Israeli official said, are "gone with the wind."

Israel has demanded a guarantee of no attacks on its soldiers in the area its army occupies in south Lebanon. But it will not get the guarantee. For Hezbollah, it would be tantamount to conceding defeat in its struggle to oust Israel from Lebanon.

It's more likely Israel will succeed in bringing in more referees. It wants guarantees by Syria and the Lebanese government that Hezbollah will not shell northern Israel, in return for uncertain promises of safety for Lebanese civilians.

Mr. Christopher was in Damascus last night to try to arrange that. But an agreement is not so simple.

The Israeli army rules over a 2- to 9-mile wide "security zone." So most Hezbollah attacks come from farmland north of it. When Israel strikes back, its forces sometimes hit villages. Israel says the guerrillas hide behind civilians; Hezbollah says the carnage at a U.N. camp Thursday shows that Israel is reckless in shooting.

Israel wants a clear line of fire at the guerrillas or wants all the action confined to the security zone, a formula that would be suicidal for the outgunned guerrillas.

Whatever the final set of rules, one change is likely: This time, it will be in writing.

Pub Date: 4/21/96

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