Unresolved: disarming Hizbullah

Cease-fire took hold Monday as residents returned after five weeks of intense conflict.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Moments after a cease-fire calmed Israeli and Hizbullah guns Monday morning, loyalists of the Lebanese guerrillas were on the streets, handing out preprinted posters announcing a "divine victory."

Peace, however fragile, finally prevailed after a five-week war that has taken more than 1,250 lives. Lebanese Shiites – some celebrating Hizbullah's resistance, some tearful with grief – began flooding back to ruined homes.

But the conflict has not settled a key issue: the fate of Hizbullah's arms. Disputes over disarmament postponed a Lebanese cabinet meeting Sunday. How far Hizbullah can present the conflict as victory in a necessary war, to Lebanese and the wider Muslim world, may determine how it withstands pressure to disarm.

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Hizbullah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, in a televised statement Monday night, said his fighters had won a "strategic and historic victory" over Israel, and that it is the "wrong time" to discuss disarming.

"Who will defend Lebanon in case of a new Israeli offensive?" Mr. Nasrallah asked, adding that the Lebanese Army and new UN force were "incapable of protecting Lebanon."

It is "immoral, incorrect, and inappropriate" to discuss disarming Hizbullah publicly now, Nasrallah said. "It is wrong timing on the psychological and moral level, particularly before the cease-fire."

Nasrallah promised that from Tuesday morning, Hizbullah teams would assess and repair damage to homes as well as pay a year's rent and the cost of furniture to every owner of some 15,000 destroyed homes.

In the hours after the cease-fire, yellow Hizbullah flags flew triumphantly, along with posters of Nasrallah and Katyusha rocket launchers, that read in Arabic: "Believe in God's Promise."

"It's no matter when we come back, we don't mind living in a tent," says Salina Maki, a mother of three who returned to her half-wrecked apartment to retrieve children's shoes and kitchenware. She says the war was worth it. "The destruction of Israel is the most important thing," insists the black-clad Mrs. Maki. "God help the resistance, and Sheikh Nasrallah."

Other returnees, clearly shaken by the damage, and unconvinced, refused to give their names, and sometimes even to speak. Some just wept.

Nasrallah has promised to abide by the UN deal and cooperate with a Lebanese Army deployment to the south. The UN Security Council resolution passed Friday does not demand that Hizbullah disarm, though past resolutions require all militias to give up their weapons. Friday's resolution does forbid Hizbullah from bearing arms south of the Litani River.

Until this conflict, debate in Lebanon swirled around the issue, often along sectarian lines among Lebanon's Shiites, Sunnis, and Christians. Earlier this year, the Lebanese government designated Hizbullah a "resistance" group, to skirt the requirement to disarm "militias."

Speaking last year, in the context of a national dialogue that raised the question of political parties with arms, Nasrallah warned that "any thought of disarming the resistance is pure madness," adding that "any such step is an Israeli act, and any hand reaching for the resistance's weapons is an Israeli hand and we will chop it off."

That quote reverberated across Lebanon, where some used it as a ring tone on their cellphones.

"It is one of the more medieval references that Nasrallah usually doesn't employ, which means 'We're [very] serious about this,' " says Nicholas Noe, a Hizbullah scholar and editor of Mideastwire.com in Beirut. "It's going to be immensely difficult, and Hizbullah won't [disarm], unless you remove the reasons for Hizbullah having arms."

The UN began to marshal a 15,000-strong peacekeeping force to bolster 15,000 Lebanese Army troops due to take control of south Lebanon. As UN, Lebanese, and Israeli commanders met Monday to work out details, divisions emerged in the Lebanese government.

Some believe that Hizbullah accepted disarmament when it agreed to cede complete control of the south to the Lebanese Army. Others – including the two Hizbullah ministers in the government – refute that, and say that pulling back is enough.

The four main claims, which Hizbullah often calls the "bleeding wounds" that spur its resistance, are barely addressed by the UN cease-fire deal. They include:

•the return of a strip of Israeli- occupied land called the Shebaa Farms, which UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is to address within a month;

•the return of three Lebanese prisoners held in Israeli jails;

•an end to Israeli overflights and naval incursions;

•a demand for maps of land mines left behind when Israel ended an 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000.

"If you took care of these four 'bleeding wounds,' that alone won't disarm Hizbullah," says Mr. Noe. "But for the average person on the street, you have taken away the four reasons Hizbullah needs its arms."

"The only thing they could [then] rest on is that Israel is inherently aggressive, and the Lebanese Army can't stand up to them," adds Noe. Solving the four issues "can change the internal dynamic in the country, to pressure Hizbullah to work faster to give up these arms."

But such change may take time in the aftermath of a conflict that – while sparked by Hizbullah's abduction of two Israeli soldiers on July 12 – has proven the guerrilla's battlefield efficiency. In 34 days of fighting, Hizbullah fired more than 4,000 rockets into northern Israel – perhaps the most serious attacks absorbed by the Jewish state in its 58-year history.

Despite weeks of Israeli bombardment of Hizbullah positions, guerrillas on Sunday were still able to launch their largest single-day barrage – 250 rockets.

"Why disarm?" asks Ibrahim Mussawi, the head of foreign news at Hizbullah's Al-Manar television. "Hizbullah and the Lebanese people are even more convinced now that Hizbullah should not be disarmed."

"Nobody believes anymore that this war was revenge for taking two soldiers," says Mr. Mussawi. "Israel is the enemy for Lebanon, and Hizbullah wants to make sure there is a deterrent for Israel, so it can't kill our people."

But that issue has proven divisive in sectarian Lebanese politics and raises questions about the role of Lebanon's weak military forces. Many Shiite soldiers, who constitute more than one-third of the force, are also loyal to Hizbullah.

"Unfortunately, I see that Hizbullah will never accept to be disarmed," says a retired Lebanese Army general, who asked not to be named. "If Hizbullah is not disarmed, I see certain civil war."

"There is big tension between the Shiites and Sunnis; the Sunnis think Nasrallah destroyed Lebanon," says the general. "What victory? What do I gain if I beat an Israeli brigade but I destroy my country?"

Sectarian militias that fought the 1975-1990 civil war here disarmed long ago, but that does not preclude a flare-up, this general says. "You don't need arms for that; you can use knives for civil war."

But such questions are not likely to be answered on the first day of a cease-fire. Fighting by both sides persisted until moments before the 8 a.m. deadline. Mr. Annan said Monday that the truce was "generally holding," though Israeli troops shot and killed six Hizbullah fighters after the truce went into effect.

Hizbullah fighters emerged in their destroyed Beirut stronghold of Haret Hreik, wearing black uniforms and ammunition vests for the first time since the conflict began. During the fighting, they had shifted to civilian clothes, with only the tell-tale Motorola radio giving them away.

"We are here. We are standing against the will of the Jews," says Hussein Kanaan, standing on top of 11 floors of rubble, above his buried supermarket.

"The Israelis lost more than 100 soldiers, saw the destruction of Haifa and the burning of northern Israel," says Ala Abdallah, the young owner of a pastry shop, now crushed, that stood next to the supermarket. "Was it worth it [for the Israelis], for two people?"

"Now they say they can exchange their prisoners for our prisoners," says Mr. Abdullah. "Why didn't they say that at the beginning?"

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