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Three Years After Israeli Withdrawal, Lebanese Refuse to Keep Border Quiet

Three years ago this week, Israel fulfilled a key U.N. resolution by withdrawing its last troops from southern Lebanon, bringing an end to a costly 22-year occupation.

But Security Council Resolution 425 didn’t stop there.

It also required the Lebanese government to re-establish its authority in the south and have its forces take control from Hezbollah, the Syrian- and Iranian-backed militia that made Israel’s occupation so costly.

Three years later, Lebanon has yet to fulfill its end of the bargain: Hezbollah, which has fortified its position with thousands of missiles trained on Israeli cities, continues to strike at Israel’s northern border.

It also claims that parts of Lebanon remain occupied, a charge the United Nations has investigated and rejected.

Israel says it has recorded 100 “terrorist attacks” by Hezbollah through December 2002 — reportedly killing eight soldiers and five civilians and injuring 50 people — with “dozens of incidents since then,” according to Arye Mekel, Israel’s deputy permanent representative to the U.N.

Yet in contrast to the period when Israel’s violations of Resolution 425 brought repeated censure, the international community has little to say about Lebanon’s flouting of its obligations.

Mekel says he plans to send a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to mark the three-year anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal and complain that the world body must put more pressure on the Lebanese and their political masters in Damascus.

“You know our situation at the U.N. is not always fair and balanced,” Mekel said in an interview with JTA, referring to the large bloc of Arab and Muslim states that often dictates the U.N.’s agenda. “And because so much else is going on in the Middle East, this situation pales by comparison.”

Hezbollah and Lebanon may soon be back in the spotlight as the Bush administration refocuses attention on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the wake of its war against Iraq, Washington has warned Syria and Iran to curb support for Hezbollah, which last week was caught sending a boat to the Palestinian territories with weapons and instructions for making suicide bombings more deadly.

As Richard Armitage, U.S. deputy secretary of state recently put it, Hezbollah is on the “A team” of terror groups.

It was believed to be a Hezbollah suicide bomber who struck the U.S. barracks in Beirut in 1983, killing 241 Marines in the worst anti-American attack prior to Sept. 11.

In a May 3 visit to Beirut, Secretary of State Colin Powell urged officials to crack down on Islamic radicals with alleged ties to Al-Qaida and rein in Hezbollah forces in the south.

Days after Powell’s visit, Lebanon began rounding up alleged Islamic extremists. Some four dozen are now detained, though critics deride it as a trumped-up move to appease the United States.

As for Hezbollah, some media had speculated that Lebanon might send 2,000 more troops to bolster the 1,000 stationed in the south since Israel’s withdrawal.

Instead, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud praised Hezbollah as a legitimate political party and resistance movement against Israel — and said Lebanon would not take responsibility for the border region.

“We are not concerned in securing any interests for Israel as long as it rejects such a peace that guarantees the liberation of occupied territories and the return of Palestinian refugees to their country,” Lahoud reportedly said on a visit to southern Lebanon to mark the three-year anniversary.

For its part, Hezbollah said it would not lay down its arms and urged other Arabs to emulate its fight against Israel.

On this issue, all roads seem to pass through Damascus. Syria has up to 25,000 troops in Lebanon, and U.S. analysts say little of significance is decided there without Syrian approval.

Since a 1974 cease-fire, Syria has kept its own border with Israel quiet, perhaps out of fear of Israeli reprisals. Instead, observers say Syria uses Hezbollah as a proxy to apply pressure on Israel to return the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Hezbollah, the “Party of God,” was formed soon after Israel’s 1978 invasion of Lebanon, ostensibly to liberate Lebanese soil.

Analysts say that its weaponry, much of it reportedly financed by Tehran, could only have made its way to Lebanon through Syria.

The U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 425 days after the Israeli invasion, which was designed to stop the frequent cross-border terrorist attacks the PLO was carrying out from southern Lebanon.

The resolution, which carries the weight of international law, demanded that Israel cease military action and withdraw from Lebanon immediately.

The Security Council also created a small peacekeeping contingent, the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL. Its mission included assisting “the Government of Lebanon in ensuring the return of its effective authority in the area.”

Tired of the slow bloodletting in its security zone and under intense international pressure, Israel completed its withdrawal from southern Lebanon on May 25, 2000.

U.N. surveyors painstakingly checked the Israeli withdrawal against the 1949 armistice “Blue Line” between Israel and Lebanon and the 1924 border the French and British drew between Le Grand Liban and Mandatory Palestine. In some cases, the United Nations ordered Israel to correct its positions by a matter of several feet to correspond to the line exactly.

Within weeks, the United Nations certified Israel’s withdrawal as complete — but declined to recognize the border as permanent, leaving that for a final peace agreement between Israel and its neighbors.

Critics say that allowed Hezbollah a small opening.

The movement quickly protested what it said was Israel’s ongoing occupation of Shebaa Farms, a 9-square-mile tract of land now located at the confluence of Israel, Lebanon and Syria. Israel seized the land from Syria during the 1967 Six Day War.

The U.N. investigated the claim and rejected it, saying the area is part of Syria and must be addressed in peace talks between Israel and Syria.

But Hezbollah insists it won’t give up the fight until Israel hands over Shebaa Farms, plus another seven villages it claims as Lebanese.

Some observers suggest Hezbollah will continue to find pretexts to wage an eternal jihad, or holy war, against Israel.

“Those who thought that after Israel’s withdrawal Hezbollah would simply fold its guerrilla factions misunderstood the nature of Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian sponsorship,” says Matthew Levitt, a senior fellow in terrorism studies at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Even if Israel were destroyed, I don’t think they would give up their larger jihadist agenda. Jihad is central to their agenda, their world view.”

Meanwhile, Israel criticizes the U.N. role.

First came Hezbollah’s October 2000 cross-border kidnapping — while UNIFIL soldiers reportedly watched — of three Israeli soldiers on patrol. The trio is believed to have been killed.

Then there are the U.N.’s assessments of Lebanon’s efforts to reassert control.

In January, when UNIFIL’s mandate was extended to July 31, the Security Council commended Lebanon “for taking steps to ensure the return of its effective authority throughout the south.”

“It’s a case of seeing the glass half-full or half-empty,” Mekel says. “The U.N. sees a quiet situation with some violations. We believe it’s a very volatile situation with some periods of quiet.

“The U.N. believes in the ‘carrot approach,’ that if they once in a while say a few good things about Lebanon, it will encourage them to do more,” Mekel says. “We disagree. If they are not fulfilling their obligations, the referee should call it as it is. If Lebanon has done anything, it’s unnoticeable.”

A U.N. spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah and its supporters are fighting back.

Over the weekend, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, commemorated the Israeli withdrawal by vowing to fight on.

“They want to disarm us, but we refuse to do so,” Nasrallah reportedly said. “What we want to confirm is that what happened May 25 is not an exception” but “can happen in any country whose land is occupied and whose people have chosen to resist.”

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