In Mideast, cease-fire is a start

The cease-fire is set to take effect at 8 a.m. Monday, though fighting continued Sunday between Israel and Hizbullah.

The diplomats and politicians have spoken: A cease-fire to end a five-week conflict between Israel and Hizbullah is to take hold at 8 a.m. Monday.

The UN Security Council voted Friday for a 15,000-strong UN peacekeeping force and Lebanese Army control over southern Lebanon. But fighting continued Sunday, and deal-breaking questions remained in a conflict that the US and Iran – patrons of Israel and Hizbullah, respectively – have cast as a strategic struggle to redefine the Middle East.

"Definitely there is a race, between the new Middle East, as defined by the US administration as democratic, and the other new Middle East of resistance, the one of Hizbullah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Iran, and Syria," says Nizar Hamzah, a Lebanese analyst at the American University of Kuwait. "Where do we end this war? This is the junction."

Over the weekend, Israel pushed deeper into Lebanon, bringing troop strength to 30,000 and engaging in heavy fighting that killed 24 Israeli soldiers on Saturday – nearly one-fifth of Israel's entire troop toll.

Midafternoon Sunday, 18 Israeli shells in two minutes struck targets in Beirut's southern suburbs; south Lebanon received a constant barrage. More than 200 Hizbullah rockets hit northern Israel, showing that five weeks of war have yet to significantly downgrade guerrilla capabilities.

The view from Lebanon, and across much of the Arab and Islamic world, is that Israel – and by extension, the US – has suffered a severe blow by not achieving Israel's stated aim of destroying Hizbullah.

Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said his fighters – who have fired more than 3,600 rockets into Israel – will abide by the Lebanese government's cease-fire acceptance, and cooperate with deployment of the Lebanese Army.

But he also warned Saturday night that "the war has not ended," because Israeli strikes continued to cause casualties. As long as Israeli soldiers remain on Lebanese soil, Mr. Nasrallah said, "it is our natural right to confront them; fight them; and defend our land, our homes, and ourselves."

The UN cease-fire deal does not require Israel to withdraw immediately – a key Lebanese demand – nor Hizbullah to disarm, which has been an Israeli war aim from the start. It also does not address the two Israeli soldiers abducted by Hizbullah in a cross-border raid July 12, an act that sparked the massive Israeli response, or return by Israel of the contested Shebaa Farms area.

"The immediate results are a lot of destruction in Lebanon, but you can't judge because it's an assymetrical war, and the results will be assymetrical as well," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, an expert on Hizbullah at the Lebanese American University in Beirut.

"Israel did not achieve a single one of its aims through military force," says Ms. Saad-Ghorayeb. Hizbullah made a concession, accepting Lebanese Army and UN control of the south, which effectively pushes Hizbullah forces back from Israel's border.

"But overall that isn't much, considering what Israel expected to achieve out of this, and the US," she says. "That's how it is measured as a [Hizbullah] victory. Israel was defeated because it set the bar very high from the beginning."

The stakes have been raised further, with rhetoric from President Bush and top US officials who have framed Israel's offensive in Lebanon as crucial to the US "war on terror," and the necessary "birth pangs" of a democratic Middle East.

A frequent US and Israeli theme portrays the battle against Hizbullah as a blow to its "terrorist" patrons Iran and Syria, which have bankrolled and armed Hizbullah, or Party of God, for years. Frequently targeted in this conflict are roads from Syria to Lebanon used to transfer Iranian weapons to the guerrillas.

One alleged Hizbullah fighter who was captured has been shown on Israeli television during questioning, claiming to have received training in Iran. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz on Sunday reported that some dead fighters had tattoos that "suggest they belong" to Iran's Revolutionary Guard. But tattoos are rare in Iran, and are officially banned in cases such as sports teams. The report quoted Israeli military sources claiming that "several dozen" Guards had been sent by Iran to fight alongside Hizbullah.

Bush on Saturday said the UN resolution is designed to "put an end to Iran and Syria's efforts to hold the Lebanese people hostage to their own extremist agenda."

But that aim has a limited following here, where Lebanese deaths from Israeli bombardment Sunday topped 880 – some 22 times the Israeli toll of 40 civilians – and unity behind Hizbullah's resistance has surged. Analysts say the significance of Iran's symbiotic ties with Hizbullah are often overstated.

"It's a very strong, very solid organic relationship – similar to the relationship between Israel and the US," says Saad-Ghorayeb. In the year that Mr. Ahmadinejad has been president of Iran, those ties have consolidated. But there are limits.

"Iran does not dictate military strategy or policy to Hizbullah, as is commonly seen in the West," says Saad-Ghorayeb. "For example, the US supports Israel, [but] no one says that the US tells Israel what to do. It's the same for Hizbullah and Iran."

Hizbullah maintains closest ties to Iran's clerical establishment, and looks to Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the Shiite group's spiritual reference, or marja. It believes in the concept of velayat e-faqih, rule by a supreme jurisprudent as a pillar of Iran's Islamic regime. Nasrallah is Ayatollah Khamenei's personal representative to Lebanon – a rare and telling link.

But as Israeli officials speak of changing the "rules of the game" in Lebanon, Iran has matched the expansive US and Israeli rhetoric with its own. During the conflict, arch-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the problem could be "solved" if Israel ceased to exist.

And Mr. Khamenei last Tuesday spoke in his stark terms about the regional face-off.

Hizbullah is fighting the "enemies of Islam," by challenging "that same merciless and vicious Zionist army which was once known as invincible," Khamenei said.

"Today, it has been killing itself for one month, with all its might and using American weapons and American military assistance, and it is constantly being slapped in the mouth by a pious, struggling group that believes in nothing but God and His nation," he said.

Days before the conflict, he warned that the US would receive a "hard slap and a destructive punch" for supporting Israel.

At stake for Lebanon is its continuing role as a proxy regional battlefield, the same dynamic that tore the country apart with local militias and their foreign backers during the 1975-1990 civil war.

"The Iranians have invested more than 22 years and almost $6 billion in Hizbullah, and for that Hizbullah gives them the opportunity to extend their borders to have a common border with Israel," says Nizar Abdel-Kader, a former Lebanese general who has written a book on Iran's nuclear issue.

"Hizbullah was the most precious military asset that Iran possessed to respond to any American or Israeli attack on their nuclear facilities," says General Abdel-Kader, noting this assessment is widely held in Israel and the West. "I think it has its own logic."

But some Lebanese chafe at the Iranian role and the fact that posters of top Iranian clerics – including Khamenei and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, father of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution – have for decades adorned Hizbullah strongholds in Beirut's southern suburbs and south Lebanon.

"Some people think it's their war of liberation and resistance," says another former Lebanese general, who asked not to be named. "But I think most Lebanese see this not as their war, but as Iran and Israel's war. Nasrallah and Iran are always blaming the US."

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