Lebanon-Israel border truce at risk Syria pulls out of border truce group

Syria pulls out of monitoring group as sceptical Palestinians wait for President Clinton to revive Oslo agreement

The collapse of the Middle East "peace process" has claimed another important victim: the ceasefire committee that has monitored truce violations in southern Lebanon since last April's Israeli-Hizbollah war, which cost the lives of at least 160 Lebanese civilians. In an ominous development, the Syrians - following the Arab League's decision to freeze Arab relations with Israel - have let it be known that they do not wish to attend sessions with their Israeli counterparts in the United Nations headquarters at Naqqoura on the Israeli-Lebanese border.

The committee - which was created specifically to protect civilians - is made up of representatives of the United States, France, Syria, Israel and Lebanon, and has met at least a dozen times to adjudicate on the responsibility for truce violations over the past 11 months. While choosing its words judiciously, it has several times blamed Israel for the wounding and killing of civilians since April 1996, including the death of a young Lebanese mother.

Yesterday, however, no Syrian-Lebanese request was made to hold a meeting into the weekend Israeli shelling of the village of Beit Leif, and the Lebanese were privately informed that Syria does not wish to sit at the table with Israeli officers to discuss the matter, at least for the present.

In the aftermath of last Spring's bombardment - which culminated in the slaughter by Israeli artillerymen of more than 100 Lebanese civilians who had sought protection in the UN's Fijian battalion headquarters at Qana - all sides praised the setting up of the monitoring committee as a guarantee of safeguarding civilians who live close to the area which the Israeli army occupies in southern Lebanon.

The terms of the truce were not to Israel's satisfaction. It allowed the Hizbollah and the Israelis to continue their war inside Lebanon - provided they did not fire from or at civilian districts between the Mediterranean and the Syrian border. UN troops based in the south of Lebanon - whose observation posts allow clear sight over the terrain - provided the committee with their own record of events and helped the five powers to decide who was to blame for violations.

Although it was an imperfect institution, the monitoring group none the less provided a check on the war in southern Lebanon which has led to two Israeli invasions and two mass Israeli bombardments over the past 19 years.

The danger now is that without the committee, both the Israelis and the Hizbollah will see fit to take their own revenge for alleged truce violations and even repeat the events of last year, when a booby trap bomb which killed a Lebanese boy provoked the Hizbollah into firing rockets into Israel - which in turn prompted the Israeli bombardment and the massacre at Qana.

The Hizbollah and the Israelis have continued their war against each other ever since; only two days ago, a Sagar anti-tank rocket fired by the Hizbollah killed one of Israel's proxy Lebanese militiamen and wounded four others in an attack on an M-113 troop transporter near the Lebanese town of Marjayoun. Israeli artillery responded by firing around the village of Majdel Zoun.

Thus has the steadily worsening crisis in the Middle East and the new Jewish settlement on occupied land made another potential war-front far more dangerous.

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