Hizbullah a key player in Syrian-Israeli talks

The future of a land-for-peace deal may hinge on the mysterious plans

Position 641, southern Lebanon - So far, Syrian-Israeli peace talks have focused on the Golan Heights. But the constant battling along this nine-mile-wide Israeli-occupied strip of southern Lebanon is the subtext for every Syrian and Israeli calculation about peace.

Lebanon is so far not even party to US-brokered talks, which were postponed "indefinitely" on Wednesday. But Syria and Lebanon have vowed not to sign separate peace treaties with Israel.

In this context, analysts say, the future of any land-for-peace deal may depend upon the still-mysterious plans of Hizbullah, the Islamic guerrilla force, which literally calls the shots in southern Lebanon.

Created to reverse Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Hizbullah doesn't recognize Israel and, so far, rejects any Arab-Israeli peace pact.

"Hizbullah's role has been very important in pushing the parties to peace, especially the Israelis," says Nizar Hamzeh, an expert on Islamic groups at the American University of Beirut. "The problem is how Hizbullah sees itself as part of the peace."

Israel set up what it calls its "security zone" in 1985, to protect northern Israeli towns from guerrilla attacks. But Hizbullah has inflicted increasing casualties in recent years, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has promised to withdraw Israeli troops by July.

Syria, which has 30,000 troops here, is Lebanon's powerbroker, and Syria's close ties with Hizbullah help keep the pressure on Israel.

Considered by the US as "terrorist," Hizbullah has widespread support in Lebanon for its battles with Israel, and for providing social services. Hizbullah construction crews are quick to rebuild houses destroyed by Israeli air raids. And Hizbullah politicians won seats in the Lebanese parliament in 1992.

Iran's yearly aid for Hizbullah was deemed by the US in 1996 to be $100 million, but Hizbullah's increasing appeal, Western and Arab sources say, has made it more self-sufficient.

"Both the Hizbullah leadership and [Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali] Khamenei are determined to win," says Mr. Hamzeh. "But that does not necessarily mean with armed struggle. It could be politics. Hizbullah will definitely be rewarded this way."

Far from the politicking, the endgame on the ground seems evident. The Israeli death toll since 1983 has reached 900 soldiers, along with many more of Israel's 2,500-strong proxy militia ally, called the South Lebanon Army (SLA).

"In all the Arab-Israeli conflict, there has never been such a sustained effort against Israel," says Timur Goksel, the top political adviser of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which monitors the security zone. "Both sides have a grudging respect for each other."

Today Israel relies on almost daily airstrikes, and has all but stopped aggressive commando raids, Mr. Goksel says. Israeli troops keep largely out of sight in reinforced bunkers, "holding down the fort" as they wait to go home.

From atop the ridge where UN post 641 sits, one can see bunker W134, a forward SLA position. Instead of bristling with guns and menace, the beleaguered mound of rusted barrels and concrete looks like a garbage dump.

"Hizbullah continues to push. The bombs may not be achieving anything, but the psychological impact is great."

Though Israel worries that a pullback may prompt Hizbullah to push its fight into Israel - to "liberate" Jerusalem, as its fiery rhetoric calls for - such fears are dismissed here.

"There are two Hizbullahs: One is a political party that plays the political game like anyone else," says Farid al-Khazen, a political scientist at the American University of Beirut.

"The other Hizbullah is a small fighting force, but this one will eventually have to go because it can't survive after peace," says Mr. Al-Khazen. "Hizbullah knows well the limits because they are very pragmatic. They don't want to be seen as crazy people fighting war just for the sake of war."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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