Israel fires barrage of threats on eve of pull-out

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The Independent Online

Another Isreali gun battery abandoned, another barrage of threats. Ex-General Antoine Lahd - he who leads Israel's proxy "South Lebanon Army" and has been sentenced to death in absentia - says that without a presidential amnesty he would not be able to stop his Lebanese militiamen taking up arms against Lebanese troops. The Prime Minister in Beirut, Selim Hoss, says General Lahd is a traitor who must hand himself over to "justice".

And Ehud Barak, the Israeli Prime Minister so feted by the world when he won the election last year, evokes King Lear's threat of "terrors of the earth".

If the Hizbollah attacks after Israeli has retreated, he says, Israel's retaliations would "systematically escalate from painful to devastating".

Really? In southern Lebanon these days, it all sounds preposterous. Only a few weeks ago, the Israeli Foreign Minister warned that Lebanon would "burn" if Hizbollah rockets exploded in Israel again. They did, last week, in retaliation for the Israeli killing of two Lebanese women. And Israel bombed a couple of electricity switching stations.

But Lebanon did not burn. So what are these threats worth as Israel - says the United States government - prepares for a total withdrawal from Lebanon in six weeks?

General Lahd - 72 years old and critically ill from an assassination attempt by a young Lebanese communist a decade ago - wants an amnesty for his ragtag militia who have been bombarding their country on Israel's behalf for 22 years.

Prime Minister Hoss understood the implications of General Lahd's threat. If Israel's proxy commander in the south couldn't "control" his own men - the general specifically threatened Lebanon's "entente" - there could be another Christian-Muslim civil war. Not so, said Mr Hoss.

"It is strange that Antoine Lahd is asking the President for a general amnesty while he is still carrying out attacks alongside the enemy of his country. He must firmly turn himself over to Lebanese justice before asking for anything."

General Lahd had offered to exclude himself from the amnesty, but later declined to hand himself over. He did insist the amnesty be based upon the truce awarded to all the mass murderers of the 1975-90 civil war, several of whom are well-known to Mr Hoss, and later sat in government as ministers. But General Lahd is on the losing side. Israel is running from Lebanon. Losers here don't make the rules.

Yesterday, the Israelis pulled out of another frontline position, destroying their militia barracks at Shyar Azur near Jezzine and pulling SLA gunmen back to the town of Marjayoun, after the neighbouring battery at Aramta was attacked by Hizbollah guerrillas last week and virtually destroyed. On the Awali river north of Sidon yesterday, the Hizbollah displayed a new logo for the coming war, a map of Lebanon with three Katyusha rockets - very real-looking missiles made of steel - destroying a Star of David.

In Amman. the UN's Middle East negotiator, Terje-Roed Larsen, said peace might prevail with the co-operation of the Israeli and Lebanese governments, adding: "We will have very exciting weeks ahead of us." He can say that again.

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