US brokers Lebanon peace deal

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A complex ceasefire agreement negotiated between the United States, Syria, Israel and Lebanon was due to bring an end today to the cross-border war between Israel and Hizbollah, which has cost around 200 Lebanese civilian lives and caused millions of dollars of damage. But, under the terms of a written agreement, Hizbollah guerrillas are free to renew their attacks on Israeli troops in occupied southern Lebanon.

Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, announcing the ceasefire in Jerusalem, said: "We have achieved the goal of our mission, which was to achieve an agreement to save lives and end the suffering of people on both sides of the Israel-Lebanon border."

Even if the ceasefire marks the end of one war, it also marks the institutionalisation of another. Israel had wanted immunity for its troops in the occupation zone, but the war will continue there, under new rules.

Sources close to Hizbollah said in Beirut last night that their first assault on Israel's army in the occupied zone might be staged within 48 hours, since the agreement permits the Israelis to remain in occupation on Lebanese soil and only forbids the guerrillas from using civilian cover for their attacks or from firing Katyusha rockets across the border into Galilee. And after the Israeli army's massacre of Lebanese refugees in the UN compound at Qana nine days ago, Hizbollah's revenge is likely to come swiftly.

Both sides seemed determined to continue the war until the ceasefire was due to come into effect at 4am today. After the truce announcement, Israel staged another 10 air raids against southern Lebanese villages and the Hizbollah fired 10 Katyushas from near the village of Qleile, two of which landed in Israel.

The ceasefire calls for the setting up of a monitoring group endorsed by the US, Israel, Syria and Lebanon to ensure the accord is respected and, if its terms are strictly adhered to, will permit the immediate return home of up to half a million Lebanese refugees and thousands of Israelis who fled their homes in northern Israel.

It will also permit Lebanon to continue its post-civil war reconstruction programme. Neither Israelis nor Hizbollah are permitted to shoot at or from civilian areas in southern Lebanon.

In essence, it amounts to little more than a written version of the 1993 Israeli-Hizbollah accord, which also declared civilian targets out of bounds and which was increasingly broken by both sides in recent months. Lebanese ceasefires have a bad track record: there are believed to have been more than 5,000 in the past 20 years.

Given the nature of the war in southern Lebanon, it can only be a matter of time before Israeli gunfire or Hizbollah Katyushas hit a civilian target - accidentally or otherwise. Even the United Nations, whose 4,500 international peace-keepers have had to watch the slaughter and whose compound at Qana was targeted by the Israelis, had no idea last night what role they might be expected to play in monitoring the more limited guerrilla war.

Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon remains intact - there was not a single reference to UN Security Council Resolution 425, which calls for Israeli withdrawal from Lebanese territory, and Israel's demand that Hizbollah be disarmed has been ignored. In reality, therefore, the conflict in southern Lebanon has been restored to the status quo which existed a month ago.

Shimon Peres has gained little strategically from his operation. He is expected to travel to the US today and will be feted by President Bill Clinton, who is sparing no effort to ensure that the Israeli Prime Minister is re-elected on 29 May.

Mr Peres is unlikely to suffer political damage in Israel, though the opposition Likud party will probably accuse him of mismanaging the campaign. Israel suffered no military casualties and only three civilians were seriously wounded by Katyushas during the operation.

He can also say he showed, contrary to what his detractors claim, that he is tough on security and not afraid to use force.

In practice, the pledge by both sides not to target civilians and the monitoring system will hamper Israel more than Hizbollah because Israel has much superior firepower. The level of fighting will be dependent on Syrian goodwill. Few military campaigns can have failed so uniformly to achieve their ends.

The Israeli aim was to weaken Hizbollah and Syria. But 16 days of bombardment have only left them more powerful.

The only other Israeli war to produce similarly disastrous results was its invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Qana's horrors, page 11