Peace prospects incite Lebanon

Clashes continue despite a thaw between Israel and Syria. Madeleine Albright is due next month for talks.

In the odd logic that rules this corner of the world, the war of attrition that rattles the hillsides of south Lebanon each day ought to be subsiding.

But hostilities stubbornly persist. Hizbullah, the Islamic Party of God militia, regularly trades barrages with the Israeli Army and its client ally - the South Lebanese Army - throughout Israel's self-declared security zone. In Israeli eyes, it's the only way to protect its northern communities from Katyusha rocket fire. To Hizbullah, it's a legitimate battle to eject an occupying Army.

Worried about its survival prospects in the event of an Israeli-Syrian peace pact, Hizbullah is acting primarily out of concern for domestic opinion -and with less direct control from Damascus than the Israeli government insists, United Nations officials here say.

Behind the near-daily exchanges is the understanding that Israeli and Syrian leaders hold the key to ending the conflict. Syria wants Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights, which it seized in the 1967 Middle East war. In exchange, Syria would ensure quiet in Lebanon - where it maintains de facto control and about 35,000 troops.

Israel and Syria are closer than they have been in more than three years to discussing such a formula for a comprehensive peace deal.

After the May 17 election of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, unusually warm messages were traded between Jerusalem and Damascus, with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad praising Mr. Barak's integrity and sincerity about making peace. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is due to visit the region in early September, in part to help reinaugurate Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

Disappointing results

But despite the flurry of goodwill, the level of military hostilities in the nine-mile-wide zone remains high.

In June, the conflict spiraled out of control, causing civilian casualties in both Israel and Lebanon. Tensions flared again just over a week ago, when Hizbullah fired off 39 rounds of Katyusha rockets and nine Sagur missiles in one day and Israel fired sea-launched missiles for the first time in two years. Hizbullah's roadside bombs also have been driving closer to the international border.

"Hizbullah is moving toward quality attacks, rather than quantity, deep in Israeli areas, which must be very worrying for the Israelis," says Gen. Jim Sreenan, acting force commander of UNIFIL, the UN Interim Force in Lebanon.

If the run-up to an expected renewal in Israeli-Syrian peace talks hasn't brought the military detente that some had anticipated, experts here say that's because the Hizbullah war room has more points of reference than just pleasing Damascus.

"They know they shouldn't cross the Syrians, but ... Hizbullah is also a political party," says Timur Goksel, a senior adviser with UNIFIL. Hizbullah has put increasing emphasis on its nature as a social and political movement, apparently concerned about maintaining a raison d'tre once Lebanon and Syria reach a deal with Israel.

"Hizbullah is very afraid that they will pay the price for a peace treaty with Israel," says Magnus Ranstorp, a Hizbullah expert at the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Concerned too, he says, is Hizbullah's main patron, Iran, which sees Hizbollah as the Islamic revolution's most successful export.

Postwar positioning

The ebb and flow of the conflict has a strange tinge of optimism to it, if only because it shows that its players seem riveted on what they're going to do after the war.

"A lot of what is happening is because of local dynamics," adds General Sreenan. "There is a perception that the endgame may be in sight, and people are saying, 'How am I going to be fixed afterward?' "

Villagers nearby wonder that, too. People have become more realistic about the renewed hopes May brought of an imminent peace. They realize the process will take time and will be complex.

Ali Yusef, a restaurant owner, sometimes takes his children up to the roof of his house at night to watch bright salvos being traded across the dark sky. The fireworks of south Lebanon.

"They're curious," he says of his three young children. "It's already normal for them, and I don't want them to grow up with this. I can't even take them to the beach because maybe someone planted a bomb there," he adds.

"I think the people on the Israeli side want peace, too. Nobody wants any more fighting, but it's not in our hands."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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