Hezbollah seeking niche in Mideast peace

While fighting Israel, Lebanese guerrillas turn toward politics

January 27, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ARAB SALIM, Lebanon -- For much of the past year, Hezbollah guerrillas have been the only fighters in the Arab and Muslim worlds still at war with Israel, proving themselves useful to Syria, Lebanon and Iran, and heroes to the people of this front-line village.

On Tuesday, a Hezbollah anti-tank missile killed a 24-year-old Israeli soldier guarding a base in southern Lebanon, deepening the Jewish state's weariness with the fighting north of its border. The death of Staff Sgt. Rafael Zangwill, the first Israeli killed in five months of fighting, was viewed in Lebanon as a Hezbollah victory.

But peace between Syria and Israel could suddenly and drastically turn the tables on Hezbollah, the militant Shiite Islamic movement, making it a liability to Syria, a nuisance to Lebanon and a friend only to Iran, Hamas and opponents of an accord.

Hezbollah (the Party of God) is struggling to prevent this from happening, building its appeal as an uncorrupted player on Lebanon's fractious political scene.

"Hezbollah had quite a role fighting for the complete liberation of the occupied territories. If peace is going to come, definitely Hezbollah will move toward being political," former Lebanese Finance Minister Fouad Saniora said in an interview in Beirut.

At the same time, it is keeping the world guessing about if and how it will continue to harass Israel, especially whether it would keep up the fight after Israel withdraws from Lebanon.

Americans were bloodied by Hezbollah in the early 1980s, when the shadowy group was linked to the suicide truck bombings of a Marine barracks and the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, and kidnappings of Americans and Europeans.

Hezbollah guerrillas, trained by Iranian Revolutionary Guards, proved capable fighters in battles against rival Shiite Amal militiamen in the early 1990s. Since then, Hezbollah has turned its sights squarely on "the Zionist enemy." Under its leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the group has waged a disciplined war of attrition against the Israeli army and the allied South Lebanon Army (SLA), mostly in southern Lebanon.

Using outdated weapons but good staff work and intelligence, Hezbollah's 500 hard-core and 4,000 part-time fighters ambushed, bombed, shelled and fired rockets at Israelis to the point where South Lebanon came to be called Israel's Vietnam.

"Hezbollah has come a long way," said Timur Goksel, special adviser to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon.

Occasionally, Israel retaliated with such ferocity as to draw international condemnation.

This happened in April 1996, after a Hezbollah rocket barrage injured Israeli civilians in the northern town of Kiryat Shemona. As part of a major counterattack by air and sea, Israeli shells landed on a U.N. camp near Tyre, where Lebanese civilians had sought refuge, killing 91 people.

The upshot was a U.S. and Syrian-brokered agreement between Israel and a group it labeled as terrorist. The agreement barred attacks on civilians and set up a monitoring group to hear complaints. The pact again proved Syria to be the decisive actor in stabilizing Lebanon. But Hezbollah has done more for Syria than merely raise its prestige, effectively serving as Syria's proxy in keeping Israel on edge and frustrated at the lack of regional peace.

Domestic opposition to the war in Lebanon has pushed Israel to announce plans to withdraw its forces unilaterally this summer.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak would prefer to withdraw as part of a peace agreement with Syria and Lebanon, one reason he is prepared to give the Golan Heights back to Syria.

In Arab Salim, a small village tucked below the mountains bordering Israel's South Lebanon occupation zone, the prospect of an Israeli withdrawal is seen as a liberation and Hezbollah as the liberator.

It was here, Dec. 16, that shells from the Israeli-backed SLA tore into a school, injuring at least 15 students, several seriously.

Hussein Fayed Harb, 12, was in an upstairs classroom when he heard a noise "like an airplane going over us." He felt nothing as the shrapnel struck, but said that when he looked, "I saw my shoulder had fallen."

His mother, Leila Saadeh Harb, said he has lost bone in his shoulder and probably needs a complicated operation not performed in Lebanon. Hussein also has shrapnel in his lungs and kidney, she said.

The Israeli army apologized for the incident, but officials in Israel say Hezbollah and Amal fire from areas near the school, an explanation for targeting the area.

But Hussein's mother doesn't blame Hezbollah. "If it wasn't for the resistance like Hezbollah, the Israelis would have come into our homes and done worse. Israel has taken over our land. They must withdraw, and Hezbollah is making them do that," she said.

"Hezbollah is defending our land," said Ali Hattab, who runs a small kiosk in the school and helped take wounded students to the hospital on Dec. 16.

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