Iran and Syria Curb Hizbullah Attacks, But Group Gains
NICOSIA, CYPRUS — ISRAEL'S attempts over the past 10 days to break the spirit of Hizbullah - the radical Shiite movement in Lebanon - have been counterproductive, according to diplomats and analysts. But, they add, the fear of a deeper Israeli thrust into Lebanon has prompted governments in the region to restrain the pro-Iranian organization.
Last Sunday several hundred Hizbullah and other Muslim militiamen pulled out of positions in southern Lebanon close to Israel's self-declared security zone. The move was in accordance with an agreement brokered a day earlier by the Syrian and Lebanese authorities.
At a meeting in Sidon, militia leaders agreed to scale down their presence in the border area and - more importantly - stop Katyusha rocket attacks against Israel. These began after Israel assassinated Hizbullah leader Sheikh Abbas Musawi Feb. 16.
In response, Israel and its client Lebanese militia bombarded Shiite villages and launched a 24-hour ground offensive Feb 20.
After the Israelis had withdrawn, jubilant Muslim militiamen swarmed back into the region. In defiance of threats from the Jewish state they launched a further salvo of Katyushas.
"It was chaos," a defense expert in south Lebanon says. "People were firing off in all directions, and everyone had his own agenda."
Western diplomats in Beirut say that at this point - with a strong possibility of the conflict becoming even more dangerous - the politicians intervened. President Hafez al-Assad of Syria contacted the leadership in Iran, the country which sponsors Hizbullah. He also spoke to President Elias Hrawi of Lebanon, and as a result the Sidon meeting was convened.
"Syria was embarrassed," one senior diplomat commented. "The Syrians have a treaty with Lebanon, and people were beginning to question why Damascus was doing nothing - neither restraining Hizbullah, nor giving them military support."
Within hours there was a sudden and remarkable easing of tension in southern Lebanon.
Security sources in the area say Hizbullah was told by Iran to stop firing the Katyushas because they were inflicting minimal hurt on Israel, but might provoke even stronger Israeli retaliation.
"Hizbullah was able to accept this without loss of face," a Shiite political commentator in Beirut says, "because within the Muslim community the movement was perceived as having scored a victory - forcing Israel to end its ground offensive after 24 hours, with two soldiers killed."
The spiritual leader of Hizbullah, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, said that the firing of rockets was no longer necessary "now that the enemy has been defeated and forced to retreat."
In this sense, Western diplomats in Beirut say, the Israel onslaught on Hizbullah was a failure. "The movement has strengthened its authority within the Lebanese Shiite community," a diplomat says. "A large number of Lebanese who never had any time for Hizbullah were angered by the arrogance of the Israelis in deliberately assassinating a political figure."
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Beirut for the funeral of Musawi. Lebanese political commentators say this reflected a surge of popular support for the movement.
The Lebanese government, with strong backing from Syria, has said that attacks in future should be launched only inside the security zone. The country's Supreme Defense Council announced also that militiamen would not be allowed to operate in areas under the control of the Lebanese Army.
But security sources in southern Lebanon are not optimistic that the Sidon agreement will last. They point out that many of the gunmen are still in the border region and that guerrillas from radical Palestinian factions had been fighting alongside Hizbullah. They might not feel bound by outside restraints.
"Many of the weapons are still here," one security expert in southern Lebanon says. "All it needs is someone to fire off a single rocket, and we will have a disaster on our hands."