Hizbollah scatters to escape revenge strikes

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The Independent Online


"Will they bomb Dahi?" my bank manager asked yesterday, as if it was only the target that the Israelis had yet to choose. Dahi is that area of the southern suburbs where the Hizbollah maintain their Beirut headquarters; but the pro-Iranian guerrilla army has already decided where Israel's retaliation for the Hamas suicide-bombings might fall. All across southern and eastern Lebanon, their leaders have left their homes, closed the Hizbollah's offices, clinics and pharmacies and ordered their men to be ready for a sustained air attack.

In Baalbek, too, the Hizbollah moved to "safe" houses on the instructions of their Beirut leadership as Israeli jets continued to fly reconnaissance missions over Lebanon.

Rafiq Hariri, the Lebanese Prime Minister has asked Richard Jones, the new American ambassador to Beirut, if Lebanon is again to be made to pay the price for other people's conflicts. Mr Jones said he "didn't know" if the bombings in Israel would have repercussions in Lebanon. In the past, such remarks by US diplomats have usually preceded air raids.

The Hizbollah have been quite prepared to court Israel's revenge. They have now described their Monday night attack on Israeli occupation troops in southern Lebanon - which left a colonel and three other Israeli soldiers dead - as "a tribute to the martyrs who staged the suicide bombing attacks against the enemy". The slaughter in Israel, they said, was part of a "heroic holy war". The Hamas spokesman in Beirut, Moustafa al-Liddawi, held a press conference in the city in which he described the quadruple bombings and the death of at least 60 people as "legitimate and heroic operations in line with Hamas policy".

Hamas has nothing to do with Lebanon - and nothing to offer the 400,000 Palestinian refugees here whose demand to return to their homes in what is now Israel has never been addressed by the Islamic Palestinian movement. But the press conference could be regarded as another provocation. Israel cannot target Islamists in Jordan - with whom it is now at peace - and can scarcely bomb Syria since it would bring an immediate end to any chance of an Israeli-Syrian peace accord. Which leaves only Lebanon, a country as small as Israel but one whose ability to defend itself is in inverse proportion to Israel's ability to attack it.

The Lebanese government's distress has been increased by a statement from the Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, that he has given the Israeli intelligence services permission to deport up to 100 Hamas members from Israel and the occupied territories. If this threat is followed up, the deportees can be sent only into Lebanon; Jordan, Syria and Egypt, which is at cold peace with Israel, can no longer be used as dustbins for Palestinians whom Israel wants to be rid of.

Some Lebanese were speculating yesterday that Israel may even target Iran, which is now being blamed by Israel and the United States for inspiring the Hamas suicide bombings. Iran's Martyrs' Foundation staged a memorial service in January at Tehran's Ark Mosque for Yahyah Ayyash, the Hamas bomber whose assassination by Israeli agents set off the latest bombings. It is also true that on a visit to Damascus last week, the Iranian vice- president, Hassan Habibi, met Imad Alami, a Hamas politburo member in Syria, and Ramadan Abdullah Challah, the head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement.

But Mr Habibi, who visited Syria for talks with government ministers, also met officials of the Lebanese Amal movement whose head is the speaker of the Lebanese parliament. However unlikely, no one in Lebanon doubts that Israel would use such contacts to make the case that the suicide bombers acted on the instructions of Iranian mentors.

"No Hamas people are going to be trained to be suicide bombers in Iran," a Palestinian official in Beirut said last night. "You don't need to send someone to Iran to learn how to commit suicide. You just have to grow up under Israeli occupation in the filth of the camps in Gaza and the West Bank to understand how to kill yourself."