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Shattered nation at a critical crossroad

Hizbollah has won the war - and responsibility for the peace.
David Hirst
charts Lebanon's bloody history

Sunday May 28, 2000

The Israeli military involvement in Lebanon lasted, in various forms, for 25 years. Past withdrawals from this disastrous entanglement have had terrible consequences, and there were fears that the final pull-out last week might be no different.

In the so-called 'War of the Shouf' that erupted in the wake of Israel's gradual retreat from its 1982 invasion of Beirut, the Druze muslims took revenge for atrocities perpetrated by Christian Maronite militiamen who had behind the shield of Israeli conquest. The Druze put wire round he necks of captured militiamen and dragged them through the streets.

But the only 'body' which Hizbollah or its allies dragged through the 'liberated' south was a stone one. This was the statue of the late Major Saad Haddad, the first commander of the South Lebanese Army (SLA). With such restraint, the Hizbollah disproved all forecasts that 'the Israeli agents' would be 'slaughtered in their beds.' Even the jailers at the notorious Khiam prison were permitted to escape to Israel. There have been no reports of revenge killings, or brutality of any kind. One of the their staunchest ideological adversaries, Dory Chamoun, who once jointly led one of the more extreme Christian militias, conceded that they behaved well.

In Christian eyes, it was the Israelis who disgraced themselves, with their desertion of their predominantly Christian-officered SLA allies. 'I think,' said a Sunni Muslim, 'that in this combination - Hizbollah's good conduct and a further revelation of the true nature of Israel's involvement in Lebanon, selfish and opportunistic to the end - the education of our Christian compatriots is complete. We Lebanese are, and must be, closer to each other than we are to any outsider.'

It has been a besetting sin of this country of myriad faiths and sects for one or more of them to seek dominance over, or redress against, others by turning to outside sponsors. In the Seventies, the militant Christians turned to Israel in their struggle against the Palestinian guerrillas then implanted in Lebanon and their Muslim-leftist Lebanese allies.

The long Lebanese ordeal - composed of both all-out war and civil war - had its roots in the South, and in the reprisals which Palestinian guerrilla incursions into northern Israel brought down on the local population. Is it now, at long last, about to end there?

Lebanon is now whole again physically. That is unquestionably Hizbollah's doing. Ironically, it was because Lebanon was the weakest of all Arab states that they managed it.

'Our country', said a secular nationalist, 'is a like supermarket. You can find anything in it. Some say we are just a bordello, and we are, but in our chaotic freedom we are also capable of throwing up the very antithesis of that - a self-sacrificing body of men like Hizbollah. No other Arab state, with its oppressive dictatorships, could have done it.'

From small beginnings Hizbollah grew into the most formidable fighting force Israel has ever faced. Its triumph is already having a psychologicial impact on Arabs everywhere, not least in Palestine, where it is arousing the 'street' and making Yasser Arafat's 'realistic' school of diplomacy look more futile and subservient than ever.

The question is to what extent Lebanon is now not merely physically, but psychologically, whole. Hizbollah, with its exemplary behaviour, has struck a powerful blow for that too. What could have led to a renewal of civil war has provoked the opposite: a greater sense of common pride and belonging, transcending all the sects, than anyone can remember. But will its behaviour remain exemplary? 'Victors' in this civil war always grew arrogant - and this is the greatest victory of all.

What the overwhelming majority of Lebanese want is a permanent end to the southern war, with all its pernicious consequences, economic and political, domestic and external. They want it all the more badly because they know too well the disastrous consequences of failing to end it now. The Israelis have made it clear repeatedly that from now on 'the rules' of Lebanese warfare will change; their response to any cross-frontier raids will become more 'painful' than ever, and take in Syrian as well as Lebanese targets.

For most Lebanese the way to end the war is for 'the Islamic resistance,' its job done, to put aside arms and reap the reward of its military prowess in domestic politics. The Lebanese state must become strong again, and show its strength first by restoring its authority over the newly recovered South. The desire for that is felt most strongly by the Christians, particularly the Maronites, who always relied on the state as the guarantor of a pluralist system that guarantees their distinctive identity in an overwhelmingly Muslim environment.

But all other religious communities share that sentiment. And that includes the Shi'ites, Hizbollah's natural constituency, and especially the Shi'ites of the south. It is hard to imagine after all the scenes of joyous southerners returning to homes that some have not seen for a quarter century, but they would look on any Hizbollah decision to continue the 'armed struggle' with dismay.

The main obstacles to the restoration of state authority comes from two, inter-related quarters. One is Hizbollah's militant Islamic ideology.

As Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah put it recently, Israel is an 'imposed, usurping, illegitimate state', and it is the right and duty of Muslims to combat it. However, he judiciously added: 'Whether we fight beyond Lebanese borders we shall decide after liberation.' So, ideologically, decision time is now.

The other is the Lebanese tendency to serve outside powers at their own expense. Now that means Syria above all. For Syria, southern Lebanon and the pain which Hizbollah has inflicted there, has been a key to its diplomatic efforts to secure an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. It is a clearly in Syria's interest that Hizbollah should have a pretext to continue inflicting that pain, despite the withdrawal.

This is why, the Lebanese believe, their government suddenly began to insist that Israel should leave the 'Shebaa farms' territory in which it had hitherto taken no interest. It is also why Hizbollah hints that it will continue the armed struggle until it does go. It is decision time here too.

It is not yet clear which way Hizbollah will move. But if it responds to what most of the people want - and, privately, this is what the government wants too - it will have made a critical shift from its devotion to radical Islamic ideology and serving foreign powers to a Lebanese identity and purpose.

Nasrallah's speech yesterday pointed in that direction. Hizbollah would indeed be 'modest' in victory. Nothing would do more to make Lebanon whole again and, if Syria succumbs to anticipated pressure to withdraw from Lebanon, independent too.

Two hundred SLA members, who surrendered as the Israelis left, are to be tried for collaborating with the enemy, the Lebanese army said.


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