Stalemate as trust dries up in Lebanon

Israeli attack: Prospects for cease-fire look bleak Israel fight on
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The Independent Online
Somewhere inside the great earthen Israeli artillery compound above this smashed village lies the first reason why the five-power Lebanese ceasefire monitoring committee - meet-ing 20 miles east of here on the Mediterranean coast yesterday - will fail in its endeavours.

On Tuesday, two Hizbollah mortar rounds landed on the Bradchit compound. The first wounded two Israeli soldiers who scrambled into a Merkava tank for cover. The second landed on the roof of a bunker, killing instantly an Israeli medical officerabout to go to the aid of the wounded men. But afterwards, everybody - the Israelis, the UN peacekeepers and the villagers of Bradchit - admitted they had not the slightest idea from where the mortars had been fired.

Just a day earlier, the Hizbollah's local television station in Beirut had shown pictures of what it called a "new-style" mortar that could not be detected. The broadcast revealed no more about this supposed wonder- weapon, but in Bradchit it raised some questions. How, for instance, would the US- Israeli-Franco-Syrian-Lebanese monitors discover the provenance of Tuesday's attack? It was, after all, an offensive that, under the April truce agreement between the Hizbollah and the Israelis, might have been within the rules so long as the mortars had not been fired from a civilian area.

Under this same ceasefire, both sides had promised to consult the ceasefire committee before taking retaliation. But Israel did not wait before taking its revenge yesterday. Before dawn, Israeli jets bombarded a Hizbollah radio transmitter and a fuel dump near the eastern Lebanese city of Baalbek, causing no casualties but provoking a storm of rhetoric from the guerrilla movement. The air-raid was a "violation of all international rules" which, the organisation said, would prompt Hizbollah's own retaliation.

The Israelis trumpeted a strike against "terrorists", failing to mention that the radio station opened its routine transmissions on schedule, three hours later. In Bradchit, villagers noted with relief that Israel's revenge had been cast 70 miles to the north.

In the UN's headquarters at Naqqoura on the Lebanese-Israeli border, meanwhile, the Israelis, Syrians, Lebanese, Americans and French of the ceasefire committee managed tosit down together - to agree that they would be meeting again.

Such is the dangerous nature of the south Lebanon truce that not a single reporter was allowed near the UN camp, let alone in to the conference room where the generals and colonels had met with cold courtesy just before midday. The US delegate, David Greenlee, shook hands with Jean- Michel Gaussot of France, but Syrian Brigadier General Adnan Balloul and Israeli Brigadier General David Tsur pointedly refused such rituals.

The Syrians have no trust in Israel's new government,and they had already refused an offer of an Israeli escort to Naqqoura through Israel's occupation zone in Lebanon. They arrived with intelligence advisers and Lebanese delegates, in a UN helicopter from Beirut. When the one-hour meeting finished, they lunched in the Irish UN canteen.

The Israelis drove back to their own country while Mr Greenlee flew to Israel by private helicopter and then back to an equally sparse office in Cyprus. No practical decisions had been taken about the methods of monitoring the guerrilla war in southern Lebanon.

Nor did the UN - deeply sceptical about the work of the five-power committee - offer any advice. After 18 years in southern Lebanon, the UN have, after all, learned to recognise a dead horse when they see one. And the ceasefire committee is an animal doomed to expire almost as soon as it tries to start work. The Israelis and Americans see the institution as a method of disarming the Hizbollah; the Syrians want it to legitimise the Hizbollah as a resistance organisation.

The French and the Lebanese will have to watch impotently as this battle is fought out in the former UN commander's conference room. Since the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon ended last June, following the Israeli massacre of refugees at the UN post at Qana, 10 Israeli soldiers - including the medical officer who died on Tuesday - have been killed. At least the same number of Hizbollah have died, and already both sides are re-writing the ceasefire terms.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the new Israeli Prime Minister, has promised that Israeli soldiers occupying south Lebanon will not be allowed "to turn into a punching bag for terrorists", while the Hizbollah says it will fight Israeli occupation "until liberation". The UN, it should be added, has wisely asked its headquarters in New York for more armoured vehicles.