US plan for Lebanon kills ceasefire hopes

Robert Fisk reports from Beirut where an American peace draft based on Israeli demands offered little prospect of an end to the bloodshed

Israel's onslaught on Lebanon appeared likely to continue last night after United States proposals to bring about an end to the bloodshed turned out to be little more than a copy of previous Israeli demands to disarm the Hizbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon and leave Israel's occupation army in place for months to come.

Lebanese ministers tried to put a brave face on the US plan - in London, Rafiq Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister, suggested it contained "positive" elements - but Farez Bouiez, the foreign minister, said in Cairo that it contradicted "all UN resolutions regarding the Middle East peace process".

The Lebanese and Syrians were particularly dismayed to find that it made no reference to the 1978 UN Security Council resolution 425 which called for the withdrawal of all Israeli troops from southern Lebanon - and which is supposed to be one of the principles upon which the overall American- Israeli peace with the Arabs is based. And despite initial hopes that both the Syrian and Iranian foreign ministers, Farouq al-Sharaa and Ali Akbar Velayati would arrive in Beirut to help secure a new peace, neither came to Lebanon. Mr al- Sharaa contented himself with offering Syria's support for an end to the violence while an expected Iranian delegation never showed up.

It would be pleasant to conclude that the US proposals persuaded Israel to cancel air attacks on Beirut for the first time in seven days but fierce storms and heavy cloud cover may have prevented Israeli raids. The Israeli bombardment of southern Lebanon continued as 10 more Katyusha rockets were fired by Hizbollah, six of them landing in Galilee and wounding an Israeli civilian, the other four in Israel's occupation zone. The Israelis may have taken some slim comfort at the news that Hizbollah has acknowledged the death of a single guerrilla, killed in the southern village of Jebel el-Butm, near Tyre.

There was confusion, however, over the scope and content of some of the American proposals. In verbal messages to Lebanese and Syrian ministers, the US said that both Israel and Hizbollah should agree to end all attacks on civilians and that Hizbollah must lay down its arms - or be disarmed - in southern Lebanon; after nine months of peace, Israel would begin discussions on a military withdrawal. In reality, it was never possible that the Lebanese or the Syrians - who dominate the Lebanese government and much of Lebanon where they maintain 22,000 troops - would allow Hizbollah to be disarmed.

Forcibly taking away their weapons - even if possible - might rekindle the Lebanese civil war and President Assad has no intention of destroying one of the most powerful weapons at his disposal in the negotiations with Israel over the occupied Golan Heights. And after seeing how Yasser Arafat's trust in Israeli withdrawal timetables was betrayed - after the PLO-Israeli peace was signed the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin announced that timetables were not sacred - neither Lebanon or Syria is inclined to believe that discussions would begin or bear fruit after nine months of further Israeli occupation.

However, in a written set of proposals handed to the Lebanese foreign ministry by the US ambassador to Lebanon on Tuesday night, there appears to be no reference to the disarming of Hizbollah. The American letter calls for a return to the 1993 Israeli-Hizbollah agreement, which called for both sides to refrain from targeting civilians. Remarkably, it also tacitly acknowledges that Hizbollah would go on fighting Israeli soldiers inside southern Lebanon - and, of course, vice-versa - providing the Israelis did not shell Lebanese villages and Hizbollah did not fire Katyushas into Galilee.

Even this watered-down version of the wider proposals seemed to the Lebanese to contain several traps. The absence of any mention of UN resolution 425 in the letter as well as the verbal proposals troubled Beirut and Damascus while the American ambassador was asked to clarify a reference in the letter to the need for a new "mechanism" to implement the ceasefire agreement.

The Lebanese were also worried that the terms of the ceasefire would allow Israel to shell villages if a Hizbollah guerrilla attacked an Israeli patrol in southern Lebanon and then returned to his home in one of the hilltop hamlets sprinkled over the terrain - the same villages in which Lebanese civilian deaths prompted the Hizbollah Katyusha retaliation that provoked Israel's counter-retaliation eight days ago.

Hizbollah has still to study the US proposals, although Mohamed Fneich, one of Hizbollah's eight members of the Lebanese parliament, last night avoided some of the more familiar rhetoric of his movement. The Americans had allied themselves with Israel against the Hizbollah at the Sharm el- Sheikh summit, he said, but nothing would prevent the guerrillas from carrying out "their sacred right to liberate their land". He listed at least 10 incidents in which Lebanese civilians had died, but carefully added: "Is America ready to start to put forward serious proposals on the core of this problem - the Israeli occupation (of part of Lebanon)? If the Israelis will withdraw and take out their troops from Lebanon, this is something else.

"If they are not going to withdraw from southern Lebanon, then we must meanwhile go back to the July (1993) agreements. If they stop shooting at civilians, the Katyushas will stop. That is the equation."

Amid all the talk of proposals - and the continued shellfire in southern Lebanon where the Israelis have killed two more Lebanese army soldiers - the French initiative for peace appears to have temporarily dissolved. The Israelis, who know that the US will dutifully reflect Israel's demands, were not likely to smile upon a European nation which, almost alone, has dared to condemn Israel for killing so many civilians in Lebanon.

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