Islamist Group Backed by Iran Prepares for Peace
Militant Hizbullah faces prospect of losing its Lebanon base if Syria recognizes Israel
AS tourists trickle back to the breathtaking ruins of the Roman acropolis in this central Bekaa Valley town of Baalbek, the revolutionary guards of the Hizbullah (Party of God) no longer reprimand visitors for wearing miniskirts.Skip to next paragraph
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Instead, the Iranian-backed group, which is based in Lebanon and wages an armed struggle against Israel, welcomes visitors to the temples of Jupiter-Helios and Bacchus with banners proclaiming: ''Hizbullah welcomes you with our pioneer values.''
The most potent foe of the peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians is beginning to show a changing face as it confronts the encroaching reality of Middle East peace.
Hizbullah was founded 13 years ago in response to Israel's invasion of Lebanon. Its ultimate goal is to establish an Islamic state in the whole of Israel and the Israeli-occupied territories.
But Hizbullah is moving toward becoming a part of the political process in Lebanon.
''It's a good sign,'' says Ali Husseini, owner of the Grand Palmyra Hotel, the town's only hotel that once hosted the rich and famous who attended the annual Baalbek music festival.
''The Hizbullah is shifting into a different political status. They want to show that they are not only belligerent, but also politically well-established,'' says Mr. Husseini.
In the past three years, the Lebanese government - recovering from the country's disintegration following 15 years of civil war - has reestablished some authority in towns like Baalbek.
''No one can raise their voices louder than that of the government these days,'' boasts Mohammed al-Mais, the government's most senior representative in the town. But Mr. Mais was cautious not to voice any direct criticism of the Hizbullah.
More than a decade of resistance to Israel's presence in the southern security zone has given the Hizbullah a status of legitimacy in Lebanese society that no one dares to challenge.
Larger-than-life posters of the Iranian Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei - and martyrs of the Hizbullah assassinated by the Israelis - are painted on the sides of buildings here.
Barely a week goes by without exchanges of fire between Hizbullah guerrillas and Israeli soldiers in the south of the country.
''Theirs is a holy case,'' says Lebanon's billionaire Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. ''The Hizbullah has a political agenda which we don't agree with.
''But as long as the Israelis remain in south Lebanon, the Hizbullah represents the resistance to the occupation, and you cannot solve the problem - as the United States and Israel are suggesting - by disarming those resisting the occupation,'' Mr. Hariri adds.
Hariri believes that the Hizbullah will shrivel into an insignificant force once the Israelis withdraw as part of a settlement between Syria and Israel.
Although Lebanon is not formally part of the peace talks between Syria and Israel, it is tacitly accepted by both Israel and Syria - and by the American brokers - that there can be no lasting peace without Lebanon.
The US and Israel look for a Syrian guarantee that it will curb the flow of aid to the Hizbullah insurgency through its territory from Iran.
Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani recently said that Iran would accept whatever deal Syria entered into with Israel and would not stand in the way of its implementation.
''Syria will use the presence of the Hizbullah as a bargaining chip in its negotiations with Israel,'' says Adnan Iskandar, professor of political studies at the American University of Beirut.