Celebration could be short for Lebanon

Disputed territory could bring resumption of conflict with Israel

May 28, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TALABAIA, Lebanon - Now that it has won, Hezbollah faces the risk of spoiling its own victory party.

All week, the Shiite-led guerrilla movement has been showered with praise for its discipline, persistence and bravery in forcing Israel to end its 22-year occupation of South Lebanon. A huge crowd of flag-waving supporters cheered Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah on Friday in the southern town of Bint Jbeil.

The celebration continued in this small Bekaa Valley town yesterday with a sumptuous feast of Lebanese delicacies thrown for Hezbollah's local member of parliament, Hussein Haj Hassan.

But Lebanese, in ways large and small, are celebrating more than the humiliation of their mighty neighbor to the south. The withdrawal has brought a unity and peace rarely felt by Lebanese since civil war broke out in the mid-1970s.

And this moment could be cut short if fighting resumes and the Lebanese people again feel the pain of Israeli attacks. The flash point would be a patch of mostly empty territory Lebanon claims near the Golan Heights called Shebaa Farms, which Israel continues to hold.

Israeli forces have pulled out of two outposts in the area as United Nations teams prepared to complete demarcation of the Lebanon-Israel border, U.N. sources said yesterday.

Hezbollah is giving mixed signals on whether it will take up arms over this land.

In an interview yesterday, Haj Hassan reiterated the Hezbollah position that if Israel fails to relinquish Shebaa Farms, "the resistance will continue."

"All the Lebanese want to recover Shebaa Farms," he said.

But asked how the movement would fight to recover it, he said, "We will in due time declare our position about the next phase."

Hezbollah also demands that Israel release Lebanese prisoners still kept as bargaining chips in Israeli jails.

Israel has a powerful incentive not to reopen the conflict. Many Israelis are relieved to be finally out of Lebanon and grateful that their soldiers are home safe.

A signal about the future is expected to come in the next few days when the United Nations certifies that Israel has fully withdrawn in accordance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 425, adopted in 1978.

The United Nations has already said that the dispute over Shebaa Farms would have no bearing in its decision, because the maps it is using don't include the territory as part of Lebanon. If Lebanon accepts the United Nation's judgment, Hezbollah would be unlikely to flout its own government, security sources say.

In recent days, Hezbollah has joined in the national mood and acted with moderation. Although its guerrillas moved into numerous towns and villages after the Israeli withdrawal, Hezbollah said it wouldn't challenge government control of the south. It also refrained from retaliating for civilian deaths during the pullout.

And instead of administering its own justice to members of Israel's Christian-led proxy militia, the South Lebanese Army, Hezbollah has turned over the soldiers it arrested to the government for trial.

Many observers believe Hezbollah will concentrate on domestic politics, using its hard-won triumph over the Israeli occupation as a springboard in the August parliamentary elections.

But the route to civilian power will be difficult for Hezbollah, given the country's sectarian political divide and the overriding influence of Syria over the political system.

Christians are allotted half the seats in parliament, and Hezbollah has to contend for its share of Muslim seats against the dominant Sunnis and the entrenched Shiite Amal movement led by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.

"I believe all the political systems in Lebanon are unfair," Haj Hassan said. Without the sectarian apportionment, Hezbollah could get at least 30 seats instead of its current nine, he said.

Hezbollah has seized on a broader regional role: Boasting of its triumph in ending Israel's occupation, it is calling on Palestinians to abandon negotiations and seek to recover territory by force.

Haj Hassan said Hezbollah has good ties with all the Palestinian factions other than Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's, including the militant Hammas and Islamic Jihad, but he declined to say how or whether Hezbollah would help them militarily.

In the disputed Shebaa area, U.N. peacekeepers positioned more than a half-mile across a valley from the three Israeli outposts said two of the positions were abandoned Friday night.

In Israel, the army denied reports of troop activity in the area. It was not yet clear whether the outposts are part of the disputed Shebaa Farms. By evacuating the outposts, Israel would defuse an excuse for Hezbollah guerrilla attacks.

Wire services contributed to this article.

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