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Tuesday, 8 February, 2000, 11:24 GMT
Gloves off in Lebanon
hezbollah  target
Smoke billows from suspected Hezbollah targets
By BBC News Online's Martin Asser

With Israel again bombing Lebanese infrastructure and the inhabitants of northern Israel cowering in their shelters fearing retaliation, it looks like the gloves are well and truly off again in Lebanon.

Both combatants, the Israeli military and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia, have threatened in more or less clear terms to harm civilians on the other side of the border.

And this was supposed to be the year that brought peace to the last active Arab-Israeli battlefront.

The Israelis have been most blunt, having already hit targets as far north as the city of Tripoli, near the Syrian border.

Cabinet Minister Haim Ramon has declared an agreement of 1996 to avoid civilian casualties null and void.

Not that the understanding, which followed Israel's bloody "Grapes of Wrath" bombardment that year, has provided anything more than a set of rules to be broken at will by either side.

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Hezbollah, meanwhile, has given itself the right to avenge a recent attack on one of its commanders in which civilians were wounded "at the time of its choosing".

On the rocks

This is happening just weeks after officials and commentators were speaking of the "prospects of peace within months" between Israel and Syria, followed, as day follows night, by peace in Lebanon.

The fact is the Syrian track is on the rocks again, with Damascus unwilling, unlike the Palestinians, to accept a peace deal before all the land captured by Israel in 1967 is returned.

To complicate matters, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has promised to withdraw Israeli troops from their exposed and dangerous outposts in Lebanon by July, a popular pledge to end a 22-year entanglement that has cost the lives of hundreds of Israeli troops.

Analysts say a July withdrawal from Lebanon, which is still on the cards according to the government, could be catastrophic without co-operation from Syria, the main player in Lebanon's fragmented power structure.

Indeed, the Lebanese themselves have much to fear from a southern meltdown caused by unilateral Israel withdrawal - at best, an unstable power vacuum, at worst, another bloodbath.

Despite the pain and insecurity of life for those southern Lebanese living either side of the battle lines, at least there have been fixed battle lines, not to mention the increasingly regular morale boosters provided by the Shia guerrillas as they hit at the Israeli occupiers.

But with a power vacuum, and a well-equipped pro-Israeli Lebanese militia left behind, there are the potentially explosive ingredients of a return to civil war.

Syria's problem

There is little doubt that Syria has always sat comfortably on the sidelines as Israel squirmed in "Lebanese mud", as popular Israeli parlance has it.

Perhaps it is now Israel's turn to sow some discomfort among its northern rivals.

Louder calls for unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon have been heard this week, in the wake of more funerals of more Israeli soldiers killed by guerrillas.

Israeli minister Haim Ramon also said on Tuesday that Israeli withdrawal would be effected with or without Syrian consent.

"If we don't reach an arrangement (with Syria) in a month or two," he warned, "I believe the government will convene in April or May, and then take a decision on a unilateral redeployment along the international border."

But whether this show of Israeli muscle and resolution will soften Syria's own resolution at the negotiating table is another matter.

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See also:

25 Jun 99 |  Middle East
Q & A: Southern Lebanon
03 Jun 99 |  Middle East
Lebanese militia quit key town
24 Dec 99 |  Middle East
'Peace in Lebanon' - for two days
30 Jan 00 |  Media reports
Hezbollah hails 'great breakthrough'
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