Freedom fighters or terrorists?

Lebanese of all stripes praise Hizbullah for ousting Israeli army and say they're not terrorists.

Abdullah Qassir, who represents the Shia Muslim Hizbullah organization in the Lebanese parliament, is unimpressed with President Bush's executive order to freeze the group's financial assets. If anything, he takes pride in it.

"We feel strong when the United States deals with us as a worthy adversary," Mr. Qassir says. "Hizbullah is known in the region as a resistance party. We were never a terrorist group."

But Washington believes differently. At the beginning of the month, Mr. Bush slapped the order on 22 groups listed by the State Department as terrorist organizations in a bid to neutralize their activities. Although the list encompasses organizations based around the world, few Lebanese doubt that the executive order was primarily aimed at radical organizations opposed to Israel and the stagnant Middle East peace process.

Since Hizbullah's fighters ousted the Israeli army from South Lebanon 18 months ago, ending a 22-year occupation, the organization's activities have centered on a sporadic guerrilla campaign against Israeli troops occupying a mountainous district known as the Shebaa Farms along Lebanon's southeast border with the Syrian Golan Heights. Some in Lebanon, including Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, had begun to question the wisdom of the Shebaa Farms campaign, fearing further instability in the country. But if Bush thought the executive order would encourage the Lebanese government to curb Hizbullah's activities, he was wrong.

"The US classification of Hizbullah as a terrorist faction is unacceptable altogether," Mr. Hariri said. "The Lebanese government holds Hizbullah in high esteem for expelling the Israeli army from occupied south Lebanon last year, and the people of Lebanon are united with the government in this stance."

The mood of outrage at the US decision crossed Lebanon's sectarian divide, uniting right-wing Maronite Christians with Shia Muslims.

Former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel, a Maronite whose father founded the Phalange party, a key ally of Israel in the early 1980s, described the executive order as "definitely an act of arrogance." He said, "There is a difference between resistance to occupation and terrorism, and we need no lessons from anyone in this matter."

Yet Hizbullah is connected to a bloody history of anti-American attacks in war-torn 1980s Lebanon. They include the devastating suicide truck bombing of the US Embassy in 1983 that killed 63 people. Six months later, another explosive-laden truck was driven into the US Marines barracks beside Beirut airport. The blast killed 241 servicemen.

But since the end of Lebanon's civil war in 1990, Hizbullah has undergone a considerable transformation, channeling its energies into fighting Israeli forces in southern Lebanon. The organization has turned into a respected political party, represented in parliament. It has established an effective social welfare network of schools, clinics, and hospitals, bringing basic services to those impoverished parts of the country traditionally ignored by the government.

The US even tacitly recognized the organization as a legitimate military force when it co-chaired with France a five-nation group to monitor a 1996 understanding that forbid both Hizbullah and the Israeli army from targeting civilians.

European diplomats in Beirut regularly meet with Hizbullah's leadership. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan even drove into Hizbullah's stronghold in the southern suburbs of Beirut in June last year to meet with the party's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.

Edward Walker, president of the Washington-based Middle East Institute, says that while no one disagrees that civilians have been attacked by Palestinian groups subject to the executive order, such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas, Hizbullah's case is more "complicated."

"They have [attacked civilians] in the past," Mr. Walker says. "What their [terrorist] activity is now, I don't know. The State Department still seems to think that they are engaged [in civilian attacks] - that's what they say. But they haven't given any evidence."

Walker, a former US ambassador to Israel, was in Lebanon as part of a fact-finding tour of the Middle East. The Monitor accompanied him to the mountainous Shebaa Farms front line in south Lebanon.

The US does not recognize Lebanon's claim to the Shebaa Farms and condemns Hizbullah's attempts to drive Israeli troops from the area. But Walker concedes that Hizbullah's occasional hit-and-run attacks in the farms were directed solely at military targets.

"What I see Hizbullah having done is to fire at Israeli troops and not fire at civilians," he says. "You can argue about Shebaa and whether it's a legitimate target or not ... but it's not global terrorism, and it's not against civilians. So it does not fit into the categorization that the president has made."

Proof is required, Walker says, if any group is to be accused of terrorism. "The State Department ... should indicate what it is that Hizbullah has been doing" to warrant inclusion on the list.

Walker is not alone in noting the ambiguity of Hizbullah's terrorist classification. Earlier this year, the British government passed new antiterrorism legislation, which resulted in its first-ever list of terrorist groups. The British, however, distinguished between Hizbullah, the political party, which maintains an armed wing, and what it called Hizbullah's External Security Organization. The ESO was a name devised by the British under which to lump all the terrorist acts of the 1980s that have been associated with Hizbullah.

A European diplomat acknowledged that the ESO was created simply as a device to confer legitimacy on Hizbullah's mainstream political activities.

"Is there any proof that the ESO actually exists? No," he says.

But the distinction leaves open the possibility of dialogue between London and Hizbullah without compromising Britain's new antiterrorism laws.

Mr. Qassir, the Hizbullah member of parliament, says the organization was created in response to Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and not as a means to attack the West.

"There was no Hizbullah before the Israeli invasion," he says. "Our resistance will stop when the Zionist terrorism stops."

Qassir also says that US interests in the Middle East are being undermined by Washington's support for Israel.

"Arabs do not have any hostility against the American people, and we want them to live in peace," he says. "But America's support for the Zionist entity is exacting a high price. It's raising hostility among Arabs."

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