Israel border tension defused

Hezbollah guerrillas push back Lebanese, maintain cease-fire

A surprising turnabout

Bitter confrontations with Israeli soldiers ended at border post

Hezbollah acts to keep peace at Israel border

May 29, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Just weeks after terrorizing northern Israel with Katyusha rockets, Hezbollah guerrillas moved to shore up a fragile cease-fire yesterday by blocking public access to an Israeli-Lebanese border post that has become the scene of violent anti-Israel disturbances.

Hezbollah placed trucks to keep crowds away from the border post after Israeli soldiers responded to rock-throwing and an attempt to climb over the fence by firing into the Lebanese crowd, injuring a demonstrator.

The border, separating the Lebanese town of Kfar Kila from the northern Israel community of Metula, has drawn hundreds of angry Lebanese since Israeli troops hastily pulled out of southern Lebanon early last week, ending a 22-year occupation.

For the first time in years, Lebanese living outside the former occupation zone can get a close-up view of Israel - and at Kfar Kila are within easy shouting range of Israeli soldiers protecting the border.

What started last week as jeering at Israeli journalists filming from across the fence escalated into mob violence, with crowds hurling rocks, garbage and the occasional Molotov cocktail over the narrow divide.

On Saturday, Israeli soldiers fired warning shots into the air; yesterday, they fired across the border. Later, at another border post, Israelis wounded a Palestinian, one of hundreds of thousands of refugees living in Lebanon.

Israel sent warplanes over Beirut as a warning, creating a loud sonic boom, despite its pledge not to violate Lebanese air space.

Hezbollah's action marked a surprising turnabout. Before the Israeli withdrawal, the guerrillas used to react to casualties on the Lebanese side by attacking Israeli soldiers and their Lebanese allies in the occupation zone. When Lebanese civilians were killed, Hezbollah often fired rockets at Israeli towns across the border.

But yesterday's action indicated that, for the time being at least, Hezbollah has a strong interest in preventing disorder along the border that could escalate into renewed hostilities between Israel and Lebanon, shattering the relative calm that has been a welcome change for many residents.

Whether Hezbollah is interested in a more durable peace remains to be seen. Hezbollah officials vow that they won't give up their fight until Israel frees Lebanese prisoners and Lebanon reclaims Shebaa Farms, an area near the Golan Heights that Israel refuses to relinquish.

Yesterday's developments came during a tense interlude while all sides wait for the United Nations to certify that Israel has withdrawn completely from Lebanon. U.N. envoy Terje Larsen met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak yesterday to move the process forward.

Certification would set the stage for U.N. peacekeepers to take up positions throughout Israel's former occupation zone, and presumably for the Lebanese army to move south to keep order.

Lebanon has been reluctant to take control of the former occupation zone until Israel's withdrawal becomes official, so as not to be held responsible for any cross-border violence and thus draw Israeli retaliation. The result has been a dangerous power vacuum in the south that Hezbollah, which led the fight to push Israel out, says it doesn't want to fill. Yesterday, Hezbollah asked the Lebanese government to keep order at the border near Kfar Kila.

The Lebanese government has sent police and security agents into the zone, but they have not been able to prevent looting and robberies that have spread alarm in Christian villages.

A Muslim guerrilla shot and killed a Christian yesterday in an incident that led to contradictory accounts. Hezbollah denied any involvement. The incident was reported after a Christian bishop in the security zone said he was canceling Sunday Mass so parishioners would not have to leave their homes unprotected.

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