Lebanese return - sadder, wiser and united by Israel

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April was the cruellest month. And when the Lebanese went home in their tens of thousands yesterday - half a million of them clogging the roads back to the devastation of the south - they did so without joy or the promise of peace.

In broken cars and cattle trucks and station wagons, the vehicles five abreast, the ceasefire only two hours old, they turned east from Tyre to find their homes smashed and a 30ft deep mass grave already prepared for the 120 victims of the Qana massacre, still unburied eight days after Israeli shells slaughtered them.

Three women in Qana broke into shrieks of grief when they discovered that their father and brother had died under the Israeli shellfire directed at the UN base in the town. A megaphone carried the distorted voice of a cleric reading from the Koran. And on the highway south and the cratered roads, Hizbollah, who never stopped fighting, handed leaflets to the thousands as they trekked home. "All of us are now in the resistance," the papers said.

Few disagreed, for the ceasefire declared by the United States, Syria, Israel and Lebanon on Friday has left Hizbollah still under arms, still permitted to attack Israeli occupation forces - providing they do not do so from the cover of villages - but has also left Israeli troops in 440 square miles of southern Lebanon. Iran said yesterday that Hizbollah has been strengthened by its battle with the Israelis - which is undoubtedly true - and that it would continue its resistance to Israeli occupation forces.

And indeed few doubt that a "Qana Martyrs' Brigade" will soon declare itself, or that the roadside bombs and ambushes so often set for Israeli soldiers inside Lebanon will explode again. Nor will the Lebanese be sorry when this happens, for the hopeless, bloody onslaught Israel unleashed 17 days ago has created something which never existed in Lebanon since the end of the 1975-90 civil war: a real Muslim-Christian alliance.

"I'm not praising Peres, but what he did was to unite the Lebanese against one enemy," Rafiq Hariri, the Lebanese Prime Minister, told me yesterday. Mr Hariri believes the written ceasefire accord will protect Lebanon from further Israeli attacks on its infrastructure - indeed that the war highlighted Lebanon's efforts to rebuild itself. "Ironically, Peres advertised my reconstruction projects," he said. "I've always said we were rebuilding for peace."

Syria, it transpires, dictated the terms of the truce, stripping Israel of any rewards for its air, sea and land bombardment of Lebanon, refusing to countenance any cessation of Hizbollah attacks on Israeli occupation forces - only agreeing with the Lebanese and Israelis that civilians must not be targeted by either side. True, Israel will no longer suffer Katyusha rocket attacks - but that was the same agreement that applied before this war, broken only when Lebanese civilians were killed by the Israelis and Hizbollah retaliated across the border. Israel was given the truce it was so desperately seeking after its war on Lebanon ran out of control; the Syrians, it seems, still want Shimon Peres to win the Israeli elections on 29 May.

For both the Syrians and the Lebanese, there were some lessons learned. Both came to the conclusion that Dennis Ross, President Clinton's special Middle East adviser and a former pro-Israeli lobbyist, was running the American shuttle between Jerusalem and Damascus, and that Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, accepted Mr Ross's advice without question. Both also learned something more about the nation with which they are being encouraged to make peace. As a Lebanese businessman put it, "I'll make peace with Israel when the terms are just - but after these past two weeks, I'll never do business with the Israelis, with people who just did what they did to my country."

The last shells and Katyushas were fired only minutes before the truce took effect at 4am yesterday. At dawn, the first trail of cars was snaking through the dry olive orchards to avoid the craters that Israeli bombers had made in the roads of southern Lebanon.

Most Lebanese, once they reached what had been their homes, found they had neither water to drink nor electricity to cook with. For in the last two days of its bombardment, the Israeli air force had systematically bombed the reservoirs that the farmers of southern Lebanon need to survive.

Israel's failure, page 16