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Israeli 'understandings' run into difficulties: Beirut government prepares to send troops to UN zone in south

SO WHAT was the 'understanding' that the Israelis claimed they reached with their enemies and friends four days ago?

The Lebanese army, so the Beirut government claimed yesterday, is about to move into the United Nations zone in southern Lebanon and thus - for this is the implication - reduce Hizbollah attacks against Israeli occupation troops. Talks opened yesterday between the government and UN officials over the proposed Lebanese deployment.

But Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader, still insists there is no agreement of any kind between his guerrilla army and the Israelis. 'The Israelis stopped their war so the resistance, which reserves the right to retaliate, stopped its rocket fire (into Israel) because the aggression had ended,' he said. 'But there was no understanding over this.'

Nabbi Berri, the speaker of the Lebanese parliament and leader of the Shia Amal movement, trumpeted a 'day of return' for the refugees who fled Israel's bombardment, describing it as 'a march of defiance' - as though it was his militia rather than Hizbollah that fought the Israelis. And east of Sidon there was a tiny, sinister warning of how fragile understandings can be when an Israeli artillery battery shelled the Iqlim el-Tofah district for 15 minutes.

The Lebanese government's decision to send its troops south has anyway already run into problems with the UN administration in southern Lebanon. Two previous attempts to introduce Lebanese troops into the UN zone failed because Israeli artillery shelled them. And the UN still has no desire to share its barracks and checkpoints with Lebanese soldiers.

The reasons for the UN's uneasiness are not difficult to understand. If, for example, the Israelis staged a land incursion into the UN's area of southern Lebanon, the government army would be honour bound to fight them - and thus involve UN troops in the combat. And if the Lebanese army decided to fight Hizbollah, then the UN would find itself drawn into the same battle. As a result, UN officials have already proposed that Lebanese troops may be stationed in their zone, but in separate barracks and without any joint patrols or checkpoints.

In fact, Lebanese soldiers were already positioned within traditional Hizbollah territory before last week's Israeli offensive. Lebanese troops at a checkpoint south of Tyre were attacked by an Israeli missile-firing helicopter - one soldier was killed - while the Lebanese army position at Kfar Sir was bombarded by an Israeli gunship. I came across the wreckage of the Lebanese soldiers' jeep on Sunday on a hillside above the Litani river, torn apart by a missile.

The Lebanese military establishment has been reconstituted since the civil war with ex-militiamen brought into its ranks and members of all religious minorities in senior positions. Gone are the built-up boots and cigarette-holders once affected by junior officers. For the first time in 17 years, Lebanese troops look like real soldiers with smart turnout, new combat fatigues and real discipline. But placing them opposite the Israelis and their ragtag 'South Lebanon Army' militia in southern Lebanon could prove a sore test.

Yesterday, however, the army announced the disarming of three Hizbollah fighters, and there are already clear signs of a division in Iranian support for the militia. Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, founder of Hizbollah and head of the radical Islamic faction in Tehran, has asked the Lebanese Hizbol lah 'to attack American interests and their spy centres in Lebanon'. In its battle with the Israelis, he said, 'Hizbollah must not limit its actions only to Lebanon'. Mr Mohtashemi went on to condemn the Iranian Foreign Minister for participating in 'secret negotiations' to end the Israeli attack on south Lebanon.

Hizbollah officials in Beirut, however, pay no heed to such demands, insisting that their target is the Israeli occupation army inside southern Lebanon, and that Katyushas have only been fired into Israel in retaliation. With eight party members in the Lebanese parliament and an aversion to memories of kidnapping and car bombs, Hizbollah's raison d'etre is now supposed to be that of an anti-Israeli resistance movement, a role it has filled with enthusiasm. It will have to maintain it if it is to survive.

Letter, page 19