Hizbollah raises stakes in Lebanon fighting

Israel's border war: Civilians pay the price when the unwritten rules of the conflict are broken and the bombs fall on villages
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The Independent Online
"My congratulations to our martyrs," Hassan Nasrallah told a memorial service for one of his Hizbollah militiamen this month. But the humanitarian worker tramping the stony foothills near Tallousa found a Hizbollah gunman far beyond congratulation. "He'd been killed by an Israeli shell and we had been told where to find him - both sides agreed we could retrieve the corpse," he said.

"He'd been dead two weeks and when we turned him over there were worms all over his face, all over his Kalashnikov. He was decaying but he was still clutching the rifle. I just put him and the rifle in a big plastic sheet together. I guess they buried him with his gun. That's the war in southern Lebanon."

Brutal, nasty and long is not a bad description of the conflict. Israel's occupying army is still assaulted daily by Hizbollah guerrillas and only now, after 5,000 Israeli shells have been fired into the lower Bekaa valley and a flurry of Hizbollah Katyushas landed in Galilee, has the usual threat of "massive military retaliation" died down. The dangers inherent in the latest battles have not gone away, for both sides broke the rules that they agreed last year to reduce the war in southern Lebanon.

It began with a long and unexplained Israeli bombardment of the southern Bekaa. In just over a month, the Israelis fired 5,000 175mm shells into the valleys, in what local UN units in the region believed was little more than target practice. "The Israelis are phasing out their 175mm artillery," one official said. "So this was an opportunity to use up old ammunition. But there are ordinary people in the lower Bekaa and if you're going to use the land they live on as target practice, you're going to get hit back."

Under the unwritten rules between Israelis and Hizbollah, the conflict must be confined to military targets inside southern Lebanon. If the Israelis fire into villages and kill civilians, the Hizbollah will fire Katyushas into Israel. The Israeli bombardment fell outside the terms of the agreement since it did not specifically target villages. But the Hizbollah became worried, not least when Israeli shells fell close to the village of Bradchit.

"The Israelis were trying to push at us by avoiding the agreement," a bearded Hizbollah factotum said in Beirut. "They tried to lay down a curtain of fire in the Bekaa to prevent our fighters getting through to attack their army, but they failed. When their shells fell near Bradchit, we believed it was time to strike back."

On 27 November, more than two dozen Katyusha rockets were fired into Galilee. A day later, Said Harb, the local Hizbollah leader in the village of Jibchit, just north of the occupation zone, stepped into his booby- trapped car and was blown to pieces. The Hizbollah blamed the Israelis and fired Katyushas across the border.

Harb's own story is a revealing one, and apparently involves the Israeli northern army commander, Amiram Levine.For on 17 September, General Levine and Moshe Shahal, the Israeli Interior Minister, along with the Israeli army's liaison officer in southern Lebanon, Giora Inbar, were almost killed by the Hizbollah who set off a roadside bomb beside their convoy on the road between Kleiya and Marjayoun. Harb is said to have planned the attack.

"We are not impressed by Levine," said a Hizbollah man. "We know all about him - we almost got him in September: our bomb was only 30ft away from him". Witnesses say the bomb exploded 90ft from the Israeli army commander.

"How were we supposed to react when the Israelis fired all these shells? Only a week earlier the Israelis bombed Palestinian `General Command' positions at Nahme, south of Beirut, but the `GC' had not carried out any recent operations against the Israelis. This was just provocation."

According to the Israelis, the US envoy, Dennis Ross, was forced to read the riot act to the Syrian ambassador, Walid Mouallem: order the Hizbollah to stop or the Israelis will strike into Lebanon "in a devastating way".

Local security sources remain unimpressed. "The Israelis don't have the stomach for another major operation in Lebanon," one of them said. Oddly, however, the Hizbollah appear to have questioned their own response to Israeli attacks.

In his speech at the Beirut memorial ceremony to honour the Hizbollah "martyr" Neameh Hassaykayeh, Hassan Nasrallah said: "Perhaps our retaliation, with 30 rockets or so, was a bit over the limit compared to other times. But the important thing was to wake up the world and this we succeeded in doing. We are told that the US was unhappy with our retaliation ... a few Jewish settlers were hurt, some holes were made in their roofs and they had to spend all that time in their shelters. Breaks my heart! A few Katyushas fall in Israel and the whole world suffers a nervous breakdown. But what about our people in Bradchit, Hadatha, Shaqra and scores of others ... don't they count?"

Mr Nasrallah had another message for his guerrillas: "Let me tell you about the trap Israel is setting up. They want our resistance to stop for six months and the Lebanese army to disarm the resistance as a prelude to withdrawal. Then they make this nonsense sound like a new peace proposal. And many, including some in this place [Lebanon], actually believe them."

In fact, Israel only offered to "talk" about withdrawal if there was a six-month ceasefire, hardly an offer that would commend itself to President Hafez al-Assad of Syria whose control of Lebanon is near-total. The Hizbollah's war is painful enough for the Israeli army, and the Syrians are unlikely to worry about Israeli casualties unless Israel stages a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, has proclaimed a "peace revolution". But if the Israelis are still looking for partial withdrawal on Golan, Mr Assad is not going to be impressed, the war will continue and that lonely humanitarian worker is going to be wrapping many more corpses in plastic sheets, with or without the posthumous congratulations of their former leader.