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Southern Lebanon Waits | The Nation

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Southern Lebanon Waits

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Kefer Kila, Southern Lebanon

About the Author

Robert Fisk
Robert Fisk is Middle East correspondent for The Independent.

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The last time I saw Osama bin Laden was in a tent on a mountaintop camp in Afghanistan last year.

First, the Arab League summit here in Beirut was chaos. Then it was the nearest to Arab unity that the Middle East has seen since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The chaos, of course, was predictable.

The final confrontation between Hezbollah and Israeli troops will stand alongside Anwar Sadat's 1977 arrival in Jerusalem and the extraordinary handshake (fatal for Yitzhak Rabin and perhaps for Yasir Arafat too) on the White House lawn in 1993. In southern Lebanon in May, after all the years of bestializing every Islamic enemy as a "mindless terrorist," Israelis found the bearded, armed members of the Party of God on their frontier. Right up against the border fence. Standing next to the gunmen, I was amazed to see how awed they were by their own victory. One of the world's smallest guerrilla forces had driven one of the world's most powerful armies out of an entire country. The Hezbollah, it seemed to me, were as amazed at history's power as the Israelis. I asked one of them--a red-faced, bearded man with an M-16--what he was thinking as he looked over at the Jewish settlement of Mishgav Am. "Incredible," he said.

And he was right. Inevitably, US and Israeli journalists recalled the fall of Saigon and the collapse of the South Vietnamese Army. In just two days, Israel's Lebanese surrogates, the ragtag South Lebanon Army, had fallen to pieces. But the parallel was preposterous. In South Vietnam the national army fought on alone for years with, in its initial stages, high morale. But Israel's SLA militia fought for money--$400 a month, often paid in fake $100 bills. And they fought because they were blackmailed into service--brothers and sisters would be jailed in the notorious Israeli torture prison at Khiam if their siblings did not enlist. And they fought because they had collaborated with Israel in the past and had no other future in Lebanon.

Once the Israelis decided to leave, the SLA's disintegration was inevitable. It never had a cause to fight for. The SLA was not, as a general once boasted, the "shield of Galilee." Nor was Israel's so-called security zone secure. It was a myth. The SLA fell apart like a gang of mercenaries in central Africa. Comparisons with Vietnam are as dangerous as they are childish. The bearded images staring through the frontier wire were, alas for the Israelis, the authentic face of southern Lebanon. Many belonged to young Hezbollah men displaced from their homes in the south during Israel's military adventures in Lebanon in 1978 and 1982. Hundreds of them were embracing family members for the first time in more than a decade.

And right now, it seems, the Lebanese government is in no mood to send its entire army into the south of the country--nor to sanction a massive UN deployment. There are several reasons for this. The government in Beirut sees no reason its soldiers should act as a sandbag for the Israelis. It is not the Lebanese Army's job to protect Israel's northern border. Nor is it the United Nations'. Had Israel abided by UN Resolution 425 when it was passed twenty-two years ago, things might have been different.

And then there is Golan. All along, Syria has insisted that the "peace process" among Syria, Lebanon and Israel should be "two-track." Even the Americans went along with that. An Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, the Syrians said, must be matched by a withdrawal from the Syrian Golan Heights. And Syria's pressure point for such a joint retreat was in southern Lebanon: Bleed the Israelis in their Crusader-style forts east of the Mediterranean, and they would have to concede Golan as well as southern Lebanon.

That was President Hafez al-Assad's equation. Golan remained quiet, the 1973 battle lines frozen. The Syrians could regard southern Lebanon's battle as theirs--with the advantage that it was the Lebanese rather than the Syrians who suffered on the Arab side. Now the Israelis have left. Golan--glimmering gray with dirty white streaks of snow to the east of Lebanon--seems as isolated politically as it is geographically. Why should the Israelis leave Golan now that they have left Lebanon? No one is shooting at the Israeli soldiers on Golan.

Already, a member of the Syrian Parliament has suggested that "resistance" should begin on Golan. But this is a canard. Syria is not going to provoke Israeli attacks on Damascus. Nor is Hezbollah going to liberate Jerusalem. When its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, urged the Palestinians to follow Hezbollah's example and take their destiny in their own hands, he was telling the Palestinians that they cannot expect Hezbollah's help.

Much more disturbing are the fears of the southern Lebanese themselves--and of the Hezbollah who live there. There are rumors of disturbances to come: Lebanese troops now maintain checkpoints on every road north, searching for shells, explosives, guns. Hezbollah officials admitted to me recently that they are deeply concerned that "provocations" might be attempted in the newly liberated territories. It's not difficult to see, for example, how a car bomb in a southern Lebanese city like Nabatiyah could be presented as the work of "Israeli agents" and provoke a response from the Hezbollah or from less disciplined militias. It's easy to see how some small Palestinian group--perhaps linked to Damascus--could initiate a lone cross-border raid, however suicidal, that would provoke an Israeli attack.

Even now, the Lebanese authorities, who remain host to 21,000 Syrian soldiers, are bickering over the exact border between Lebanon and Israel. What about the Shabaa Farms, they are asking, the small tract of land taken by Israel during its 1967 offensive against Syria? Why hasn't Israel withdrawn from them too? The UN will have none of this. If the farms are Lebanese territory, it says, the Lebanese-Syrian border was too poorly defined to prove it. Yet the dispute over a few square acres of arable land could delay Lebanon's decision to deploy UN troops in the south.

And we all know why. Southern Lebanon may be liberated, but it is not safe. And it may still provide a battleground for other people's wars. The Hezbollah would like to consolidate their victory as a platform for autumn's parliamentary elections. They would like to represent the Shiites of Lebanon. The Lebanese civilians would like to enjoy their liberty. But as long as the Israelis stay on Golan, the Syrians will see no advantage in giving Israel an easy life behind the border with Lebanon. Damascus has said that it supports the UN there but added that it was "not responsible" for any events that followed liberation. As a UN officer commented cynically, "After hearing that, do they think I want to send my soldiers to southern Lebanon?"

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