Just a Time Out in Lebanon's War

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Lebanon is struggling to get back to normal after the summer's war. Central Beirut, whose sidewalk cafes are usually packed with Arab tourists in August, is still a ghost town. But Lebanese families and gaggles of teenagers have reclaimed the promenade along the Mediterranean Sea, escaping the humidity and trading stories about the Hizballah-Israel conflict that recently left so much of their country in ruins.

Favorite topics of discussion include General Adnan Daoud, a Lebanese security commander who was caught on videotape broadcast in Lebanon serving trays of tea to invading Israeli forces at his base in Marjayoun. The episode infuriated many Lebanese, but they're amused with another popular subject. That's the story of the Lebanese shopkeeper who was reportedly abducted by Israeli forces, held for several weeks and eventually handed over to the Red Cross — all apparently in a case of mistaken identity. His name is Hassan Nasrallah, the same as the leader of Hizballah.

"Normal," of course, is a relative term in a country that has ricocheted between peace and war continuously for the past three decades. Little wonder that few Lebanese have much faith in the "cessation of hostilities" established by U.N. Resolution 1701 two weeks ago. As with past troubles in Lebanon, hopes for peace are bound up in wider regional, even global, disputes, like the Arab-Israeli conflict as well as the international standoff over Iran's nuclear program. Most importantly, Lebanese worry that while Resolution 1701 suited the immediate needs of Hizballah and Israel in its call for a cease-fire, it satisfied the central demands of neither.

Hizballah, the Iranian-backed Shi'ite Muslim group that triggered the war with a cross-border raid on July 12, said it abducted two Israeli soldiers in order to bargain for the release of Lebanese jailed in Israel. Yet, neither the soldiers nor the Lebanese prisoners were released under the cease-fire. Israel's attack on Lebanon sought to disarm Hizballah, but the truce's language conveniently sidestepped that explosive issue, vaguely leaving the job of keeping the peace in southern Lebanon to the Lebanese Army, with perhaps the support of international peacekeepers. The Lebanese government seeks Israel's withdrawal from the disputed Shebaa Farms territory as a prelude to disarming Hizballah, but Resolution 1701 merely calls for talks on Shebaa.

The diplomatic wrangling so far over the international peacekeeping force has only confirmed Lebanese's worst suspicions. Almost from the moment the cease-fire was official, Europe has hesitated in contributing substantial numbers of new forces to the 28-year-old United Nations peacekeeping mission known as UNIFIL. France took the lead in co-sponsoring Resolution 1701, but then dispatched only 200 engineers, the first of which came ashore in southern Lebanon in dinghies. France has wanted clearer guidelines on when its troops can use force, lest they be left helpless if the conflict heats up again, though President Jacques Chirac agreed Thursday night to dispatch another 1,600 soldiers to the effort. Complicating matters, the Syrian government, perhaps exploiting Europe's dithering, is rejecting Resolution 1701's call for U.N. troops to police the Syrian-Lebanese border as a means of halting future arms transfers to Hizballah. Syrian President Bashar Assad this week called the proposal a "hostile act" against Syria's sovereignty.

On the bright side, Israeli officials have told European counterparts that Israel would not launch any new attacks on Lebanon. For the moment Hizballah looks content to focus on what it calls the "jihad for reconstruction." The organization put up banners throughout the country proclaiming its "Divine Victory" over Israel as its officials throw themselves into helping refugees and rebuilding urban neighborhoods and rural villages. Hizballah is busy handing out $10,000-to-$12,000 packets of cash to Lebanese whose homes were destroyed or severely damaged in the war.

Yet, just how fragile the peace can be became clear last weekend when a gunfight erupted in Lebanon's central Bekaa Valley only days after Resolution 1701 was adopted. Israel said that a commando operation was aimed at preventing a fresh shipment of arms from reaching Hizballah guerrillas. Hizballah officials believe that the commandos sought to abduct or kill Sheikh Mohammed Yazbek, a prominent Shi'ite cleric and Hizballah official with close ties to Iran.

Whatever the motive, Israel's raid brought swift criticism from U.N. officials, who went on to suggest that the cease-fire in Lebanon could remain fragile not only for days or weeks, but for months to come. Perhaps ominously, that's the way HIzballah sees it, too. As one Hizballah official told TIME this week: "The other shoe can drop any time. We know it. Israel knows it. The CIA knows it. [Resolution 1701] is a superficial solution and it's not going to work." Without stronger efforts to support the peace, both Hizballah, and the average Lebanese still fearing the worst, may well be proven right.