What Makes Lebanon Skeptical about the Peace

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There's little joy among Lebanese today, despite the Beirut government's quick agreement to back the peace plan co-sponsored by the U.S. and France to end the war between Israeli forces and Hizballah guerrillas. Thousands of Lebanese crammed into cars and headed toward the south of the country, anxious to see if the war left their homes destroyed. The conflict took some 1,000 Lebanese lives, forced another 1 million to become refugees and caused immense destruction. Both sides largely respected the first day of the cease-fire that began Monday morning local time. But some minor skirmishes were reported and few Lebanese were confident that peace would endure.

This, after all, has been Israel's third military intervention in southern Lebanon — always followed by hopeful peace plans — going back 28 years. The latest conflict is the best proof that neither of the earlier campaigns — "Operation Litani" of 1978 and full-scale "Operation Peace for Galilee" in 1982 — brought permanent stability to Lebanon nor security to Israel. Lebanese are asking what makes the current war, and the latest cease-fire agreement to end it, any different?

The main reason for gloom is that while Resolution 1701 tidies things up on paper, it seems unlikely to change things for the better on the ground.

The best-case scenario is that Israeli forces will slowly withdraw as a beefed up international peacekeeping force moves into southern Lebanon. Hizballah, which triggered Israel's onslaught by kidapping two Israelis soldiers inside Israel on July 12, will regroup and buy some time. Lebanese civilians will gradually start rebuilding their lives once again. Israel and Hizballah will, in effect, return to a state of Cold War, putting off a final reckoning.

The worst-case scenario is that Hizballah sooner or later will provoke new turmoil, in order to reverse the losses it incurred in the war and to turn back Israel's gains. It may engineer new attacks against Israel, or even launch a guerrilla or terrorist war against the 15,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force established by Resolution 1701. Lurking amid such instability are the ghosts of Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war.

The stage may even be set, as some Lebanese see it, for Lebanon to become the battlefield in a grinding proxy war between Washington and Tehran for influence in the greater Middle East. The Iranian regime and its Syrian ally in Damascus, which sponsor Hizballah with funds, ideology and logistical support, announced their opposition to Resolution 1701. Iran and Syria are determined not to lose their influence in Lebanon, which gives Iran leverage in the international dispute over its nuclear ambitions, and gives Syria leverage in its goal of recovering its Golan Heights territory from Israel.

For his part, Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah backed the Lebanese government's acceptance of Resolution 1701, but only grudgingly. He apparently does not want to risk internal dissent that might make him responsible for pushing Lebanon toward civil war. He explicitly endorsed the resolution's demand that 15,000 Lebanese army troops replace Hizballah in southern Lebanon. But Lebanese officials regard Nasrallah's move as nothing more than a tactical retreat. " He's accepting the resolution because he has no other choice," says one Lebanese source. "Now he will see how he can get out of it."

Nasrallah is mum on Resolution 1701's demand for Hizballah to disarm altogether-something he previously has agreed merely to discuss. Instead, he is vowing to continue fighting Israel until it quits Lebanon completely. That's not just a withdrawal to the July 12 lines. Nasrallah also wants Israel out of a patch of disputed territory known as Shebaa Farms, which Hizballah, Lebanon and Syria call Lebanese but the rest of the world regards as Syrian. Resolution 1701 doesn't settle the question of Shebaa Farms, but simply calls on the parties to discuss it, giving Nasrallah an excuse to continue Hizballahs "resistance " war.

The outlook might not look so dark if it weren't for the unfortunate parallels to the 1978 and 1982 conflicts. In "Operation Litani," Israel moved into Lebanon as far as the Litani River after a Palestine Liberation Organization terrorist attacked killed 37 people in Israel. Estimates at the time said as many as 2,000 Lebanese died before the bulk of Israel's troops withdrew.

Israel's aim then seemed to be to cripple if not destroy the PLO, and at least end the group's state-within-a-state control of southern Lebanon. Resolution 425 established a U.N. peacekeeping force known as UNIFIL in southern Lebanon. Israel also set up a security belt in Lebanon along its border policed by a renegade Lebanese Christian leader. But "Operation Litani" failed to eliminate the PLO. Neither the U.N. force-which is to be beefed up now under Resolution 1701-nor the "Free Lebanon" security belt succeeded in reducing the PLO's guerrilla threat to Israel.

Thus came "Peace for Galilee" in 1982, an even bolder campaign that was intended to eradicate the PLO from Lebanon once and for all, and give the country a chance at a fresh start. The invasion succeeded in driving the PLO out of most of Lebanon within three months. (After the outbreak of the Palestinian intifadeh in Gaza in 1987, however, Israel reversed its policy of not recognizing the PLO and negotiated the Oslo peace accords with Palestinian leaer Yasser Arafat. That deal, in turn, broke down in 2000 when Israeli and Palestinian negotiators failed to agree on the terms for a final end to their conflict.)

Lebanon itself groped with greater chaos after 1982. Entering the scene for the first time was Hizballah, a group of fundamentalist Shiite Muslims established by Iranian Revolutionary Guards to oppose Israel's invasion and as part of Ayatullah Khomeini's policy of exporting the 1979 Iranian revolution. The Reagan administration pressured the Lebanese government into signing the May 17, 1983 peace agreement with Israel, and sent peacekeeping troops to Beirut. But after suspected Hizballah terrorists backed by Iran and Syria bombed the U.S. embassy and Marines barracks in Beirut, Reagan withdrew the peacekeepers and the peace agreement collapsed. Israel wound up with a new enemy. Reeling from 18 years of Hizballah guerrilla attacks and suicide bombings, Israeli forces finally withdrew from Lebanon in May 2000.

Israel's pullout gave Lebanon a chance at rebirth. Soon, Beirut became the Paris of the Middle East once again. But the fault lines from the past conflicts were close to the surface. Hizballah's victory made it the dominant political force among the rival sectarian factions in in Lebanon. In effect, Hizballah took over the PLO's old state-within-a-state.

Last year's assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, the architect of Beirut's reconstruction, provoked the freedom protests that forced the withdrawal of Syria's de facto occupation troops. With the humiliation of one of Hizballah's main sponsors, the balance of power began to swing against it. But not for long. By unilaterally taking Lebanon to war with Israel, Hizballah showed it has no intention of surrendering its power. It also means that neither Iran or Syrian will stand by as Israel, the U.S. and the U.N. try to call the shots in Lebanon.