Defiant Hizbollah vows it will fight to the end: Israel's arch-enemy is resolved to fight in southern Lebanon 'until unconditional withdrawal', writes Robert Fisk in Beirut

THERE never was a good war, or a bad peace.

Tell that to Hizbollah. For while its leadership was this weekend again promising to struggle against Israel's occupation army in southern Lebanon 'until unconditional withdrawal', pressures are increasing against Israel's fiercest enemy.

Washington tells Beirut that no American will be allowed to visit Lebanon until Hizbollah is disarmed. Israel tells Damascus that Syria is not sincere about peace unless it neutralises Hizbollah. Now Israel says it will not retreat from southern Lebanon until six months after Hizbollah puts down its guns.

When nine unarmed Hizbollah demonstrators were shot down by Lebanese troops on the day Yasser Arafat shook Yitzhak Rabin's hand in Washington, even CNN was moved to suggest that, in the long term, 'this may not have been a bad thing'. Israel's supporters abroad are being encouraged to demand the 'liquidation' of the movement. In Hizbollah's eyes, the New World Order is getting frighteningly close.

No wonder, therefore, that employees of a newly created Jihad Construction Company are rebuilding, under Hizbollah auspices, the civilian homes destroyed during Israel's July bombardment of southern Lebanon, an attack provoked by Hizbollah's killing of eight Israeli occupation troops. No wonder the Iranian- funded and Syrian-supported militia is now launching its attacks on that same Israeli occupation army from wadis and hill-tops rather than from villages. Hizbollah needs all the friends it can get just now, when even Syria may sign a peace treaty on that Camp David table on the White House lawn.

'If all the world were to recognise Israel, we never will - because Israel has been established on land that has been seized from others,' Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah chairman, told the Independent some weeks ago. Now he is repeating this promise, insisting that the war in southern Lebanon must continue until Israel withdraws behind its border - and that Hizbollah must strive to break any agreements made between Arab states and Israel.

Syrian defiance, Israeli demands and Hizbollah recalcitrance are thus provoking ever-greater fears in Lebanon that the final battle between those who support and those who reject the Arafat treaty will take place - as usual - in Lebanon. 'Lebanon has paid for other people's wars,' a Beirut columnist complained last month. 'Must it now pay for other people's peace?'

Israel's insistence that Hizbollah should be destroyed, however, is unrealistic. The 'Party of God' has eight elected MPs within an Islamic bloc in the Lebanese parliament, and thus has as much constitutional right to continue as a political party in Lebanon as, say, the Likud Party in Israel, which shares with Hizbollah - albeit for different reasons - its total opposition to the Arafat-Rabin accord.

Lebanese Foreign Ministry officials are now talking about a 'Lebanon first' option in the Washington peace talks, apparently an American-Israeli initiative. This would maintain the momentum of negotiations with a timetable agreed by a Lebanese-Syrian committee for an Israeli withdrawal to its international frontier, an end to 'resistance' - in other words, Hizbollah - activity, and the absorption of Israel's proxy 'South Lebanon Army' militia into the Beirut government army.

Israel's most feared opponents would thus have their teeth drawn while Syria could concentrate on a peace accord in return for Israeli withdrawal from Golan. But the Lebanese, like the Syrians, see traps in this suggestion. If Hizbollah is disarmed before an Israeli withdrawal, Israel might decide to stay on in southern Lebanon - since it would have no armed opponents left to drive it out. The plan would call for an Israeli withdrawal from Jezzine and subsequently from the rest of southern Lebanon. But that is precisely the understanding the Lebanese thought they had reached when they sent their army to take over the Palestinian camps in Sidon in 1991, only to find that the Israelis stayed on in Jezzine.

It is easy to understand why Israel desperately wants Hizbollah out of the way. Only days after a savage bombardment that was meant to cow the Lebanese from attacking Israeli occupation troops, Hizbollah in August set off a mine explosion in southern Lebanon that killed nine Israeli soldiers. Only now are details emerging of how this was done.

According to United Nations officers in the area, the Hizbollah Voice of Light radio station announced in mid-August that Israeli troops suffered 'heavy casualties' from a mine near the village of Shihin. In fact, no such mine exploded, and the Israelis, suspecting Hizbollah had botched an operation against them, waited for two days before sending a tank-led unit to search for the explosives. Hizbollah, guessing that the Israelis would be lured, waited until they approached and then detonated the mine. Hizbollah said this was to mark the 24th anniversary of the setting alight, by an Australian Christian, of al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

Since then, the Syrians are said to have cut off the supply of Katyusha rockets - but not ammunition and explosives - to Hizbollah in Lebanon. After the killing of nine Hizbollah demonstrators in Beirut, Sheikh Nasrallah demanded the resignation of the Lebanese government and reminded 'allies' - for which read Syria - of their obligations to the militia. Hizbollah later softened its criticism. Unofficially, the army acknowledges the shootings took place because ill-trained troops were unequipped to cope with a riot when a Hizbollah march took an unexpected route.

'These are difficult and dangerous times,' a Hizbollah official said in Beirut. 'It is complicated, but we understand what is happening in the Middle East. We know what the New World Order means. We believe Arafat was wrong to sign with Israel. It was a mistake. President Assad (of Syria) has said this. The resistance can continue on different levels. We cannot give up.'

(Photograph omitted)

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