War of words takes over on hate frontier

By Robert Fisk
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The Independent Online

Kfar Kila is the theatre of the absurd. Foolish, ridiculous, humiliating, mad. The Hizbollah loudspeakers chorus their victory songs across the frontier wire to the bored Israelis of Metulla. Can they hear these anthems, the Israelis, as they mow their neat lawns and sleep in their red-roofed settlements on the other side of the wire? From time to time, a lorry arrives on the Lebanese side of the border - provenance unknown - to empty a fresh load of small stones for the Lebanese children to chuck through the mesh. The Israeli soldiers watch from inside their battered, paint-splashed border posts or lounge outside in the sun, rifles over their shoulders, yawning. They have seen it all before.

Kfar Kila is the theatre of the absurd. Foolish, ridiculous, humiliating, mad. The Hizbollah loudspeakers chorus their victory songs across the frontier wire to the bored Israelis of Metulla. Can they hear these anthems, the Israelis, as they mow their neat lawns and sleep in their red-roofed settlements on the other side of the wire? From time to time, a lorry arrives on the Lebanese side of the border - provenance unknown - to empty a fresh load of small stones for the Lebanese children to chuck through the mesh. The Israeli soldiers watch from inside their battered, paint-splashed border posts or lounge outside in the sun, rifles over their shoulders, yawning. They have seen it all before.

Years ago, the Israelis used to bring American tourists up from Jerusalem to stare over the border into Lebanon, into that dark land of "terrorism" and abduction, to listen - standing on a small platform, coffee in hand - while an Israeli tour guide explained the nature of Arab duplicity. Now the propagandists are Lebanese, standing a few feet farther north, churning out their battle songs, serving Pepsis in the midday heat while a youth screams through the wire at an Israeli conscript. All along the border, within 20 feet of the Israelis, Hizbollah's supporters sit under sun-awnings selling videos of past Hizbollah attacks on Israeli troops, shot live by the guerrilla army's own camera crews, CDs of speeches by Hizbollah leaders, pictures of Shiite "martyrs", Korans, and portraits of Iran's spiritual leaders.

Beards, beards, beards, I think, as I wander this extraordinary strip. Every Hizbollah shopping concession boasts a stallholder with a beard. Every martyr has a beard. Every Iranian leader has a beard (a certain beardless President Khatami is not in evidence). Even the young men with two-way radios watching the Israelis have beards. When I walk up to the wire to read a poster attached to it ("Remember Sabra and Chatila"), one of them is by my side in seconds. "Please move back - it is dangerous to go too close," he says. How odd, I think. A couple of years ago, this is what the Israelis were telling their tourists. Now the Hizbollah are playing the same role. Or are they?

For Kfar Kila is low-intensity warfare. About as low as I've ever seen it in Lebanon, but warfare all the same. The Lebanese kids and their parents making "V" signs at the Israelis, the insults and the pebbles ("rocks", the Israelis call them, as if David himself were standing here), the wooden Katyusha rocket battery with its equally fake missiles (made from painted plastic mineral-water bottles): they are intended to worry the Israelis, to let them know how hated they still are, to remind them there is still no peace with Lebanon.

And that there is no force to protect the border on the Lebanese side. An occasional Lebanese cop will walk down the road on the far side of the old Israeli frontier gate, handcuffs jingling at his waist, grey trousers and shirt smartly pressed, but he is not interested in the frontier. He is going to buy a chocolate ice-cream from one of the Hizbollah stalls. There are no Lebanese soldiers here and the UN troops who drive by don't stop. Ever since their hapless Norwegian "peace negotiator" was foolish enough to position UN soldiers on other parts of the frontier, UN headquarters have been telling the world that they are not a frontier force.

And the world knows that Syria likes it that way. Syria would like the Israelis to rest not in peace, but in fear. And they are slowly achieving their aim. Pebbles are now being met with rubber bullets, Molotov cocktails with live rounds. In the last confrontation, an Israeli soldier shot a young Lebanese woman film director in the abdomen. He said he was shooting at a man with a bottle of burning petrol.

And the Israelis have fallen into their old trap - of threatening to invade Lebanon. Ask the Lebanese for their reaction - after two bloody Israeli invasions in 1978 and 1982 which left at least 19,000 dead, mostly civilians - and they will wave their right hand over their shoulder, a familiar Arab gesture of disdain. The Lebanese have been through this so many times, have endured the real thing, that the threats no longer impress them.

But that most stupid of conflicts, the war of words, has begun. The Israelis announced that they have "information" that Lebanese guerrillas are "planning attacks across the border", albeit that not a single gunman has tried to penetrate the wire since Israel's withdrawal in May. If Israel was attacked, Major General Moshe Ivry-Sukenik informed us, Israel could "initiate a land action". Aware that that is rubbish - what Israeli general is ever going to move his men back into what they themselves call the Lebanese "meat-grinder" - the Hizbollah's chairman, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, threatened to unleash barrages of rockets onto northern Israeli towns in the event of another invasion.

A little earlier, he had demanded the release of 19 Lebanese still held in Israeli prisons against international law, adding that Israel's occupation continues as long as these men, who include a prominent Hizbollah cleric, Sheikh Abdul Karim Obeid, were not freed. The Hizbollah, he said, would do "anything and everything" to secure their release. Note how the two sides now imitate each other. Hizbollah's threats are almost identical to Israel's.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese who used to rule this broken piece of land, the ex-members of the pro-Israeli so-called "South Lebanon Army", are having the hard time of all ex-collaborators. Those who gave themselves up to the Lebanese authorities - because they preferred the judgement of Lebanese courts to a life of exile - have found themselves in front of summary trials in Beirut which Amnesty International has described as a "travesty" of justice. More than 2,300 SLA men and other accused collaborators are now being held in the squalid prisons of Lebanon, though none so squalid as the vile torture-prison of Khiam which the SLA helped to run.

The irony is that the real war criminals of the SLA - the torturers of Khiam, who applied electrodes to the fingers and penises of Israel's Shiite Muslim prisoners - have all been given asylum in Israel and now await visas to Europe and America. Israel has been energetic in seeking new homes for these dreadful men, so enthusiastic in fact that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police has issued a confidential warning to its European opposite numbers to refuse entry to 35 named Khiam prison staff.

"The prison is associated with extensive human-rights abuses, including torture, executions and arbitrary detentions," the warning states. The Israelis have approached Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand to take in groups of unidentified SLA men and their families.

Some of the Christian SLA refugees in Israel turned up at the Israeli border wire at Kfar Kila a few days ago to honour, so they said, a feast of the Virgin Mary. "Traitors," the Lebanese screamed at them. "We are refugees in Israel," one of the SLA men shouted back. "We are Lebanese and Lebanon is our home."

Not any more, it seems.

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