BEIRUT — It has long been feared that the Palestinian intifada would widen into a regional confrontation, and that South Lebanon would be the flash point from which it does so. With Israel’s first deliberate attack on a Syrian military target in Lebanon since its 1982 invasion of the country, that confrontation could be getting under way. And Lebanon, resuming its former role as an arena for other people’s conflicts, is now trapped — in the words of its most sharp-tongued politician, Druze chieftain Walid Junblatt — “between Hanoi and Hong Kong.”
Hezbollah embodies Hanoi. It was Hezbollah’s killing of an Israeli soldier on Saturday that prompted the air raid against a Syrian radar station Monday morning. He was the third to die in such cross-frontier raids since Israel withdrew last May from its South Lebanese “security zone.” The withdrawal had been a triumph for Hezbollah, and there had been high hopes among many Lebanese that it would exploit the prestige it had garnered in a domestic political role. But that was not to be.
Hezbollah cites three motives for keeping up its resistance — national, Islamic, and regional.
Nationally, the liberation of South Lebanon is incomplete. There still remain the Shebaa farms. These were under Syrian control when Israel captured them in the 1967 war. Suddenly, in the last months of the Israeli occupation, the Lebanese government staked a claim to sovereignty over them. The claim furnishes Hezbollah with the justification for its continued operations. These are all are confined to the Shebaa area. But Hezbollah retains its writ along the whole frontier, for, with the dispute over Shebaa as its justification, the Lebanese government has declined to deploy its army in the south, despite the West and U.N.’s repeated calls on it to do so.
In Islamic terms, with the “liberation” of Jerusalem as a basic ideological tenet, Hezbollah sees itself as a model for the Palestinian intifada. It takes pride in the great prestige it has won in Palestine and the Arab world. Its satellite television station is avidly watched through the region. Its leaders have repeatedly indicated that, with raids like Saturday’s, its role will from time to time shade into that of active accomplice.
Hezbollah serves the purposes of its Iranian and Syrian sponsors. South Lebanon, and the pain that, via Hezbollah, Syria could inflict on Israel there, had long been a vital asset in its negotiations for a peace settlement. With Israel’s withdrawal, it seemed to be losing that asset, and that is why it promoted the Lebanese claim to the Shebaa farms.
Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri personifies “Lebanon as Hong Kong.” The billionaire came to power with a mandate to mastermind Lebanon’s postwar reconstruction — though what he faces is an economic decline that threatens to turn into outright financial collapse. He desperately seeks foreign confidence and investment. Nothing will scare investors off like renewed hostilities in the south. Though he has acquiesced in principle to the legitimacy of continued resistance, in practice he is deeply at odds with Hezbollah — and by extension with Syria — over the need for these trans-frontier operations. The newspaper al-Mustakbal, a mouthpiece of Hariri’s, declared Sunday that “no group has the right to decide on Lebanese actions that risk damaging the national consensus,” and demanded “a clear and urgent explanation” from Hezbollah for why it had struck now.
It is hard to separate the economic crisis from another political one centered on Syria’s controversial hegemony over the country — which has lately become so serious as to remind the more despondent local commentators of the atmosphere preceding the outbreak of civil war in 1975. Under the 1989 Taif agreement, the foundation of the postwar order, Syrian troops should have withdrawn from the rest of Lebanon to the Bekaa Valley in 1992. In effect, the continued Israeli occupation of South Lebanon became their main pretext for staying.
But since Israel withdrew, agitation for Syria to do so has intensified. Like most nonsectarian conflicts in Lebanon, this one has ended up taking a grave sectarian turn. Though everything suggests that a reduction in the Syrian presence — political and economic at least as much as military — would be welcomed by all the country’s religious communities, or at least large swaths of them, the agitation is strongest among the Christians. Whatever they really think in private, most Muslim leaders insist that the Syrians’ presence is for the foreseeable future “legitimate and necessary.”
Hostilities with Israel, and their impact on political and economic life, can only deepen this crisis. Referring to what most Lebanese believe to be the main pretext for Syria’s continued presence in the country, its utility as a bargaining counter in peace negotiations, the leading newspaper al-Nahar recently asked, “Why should Lebanon be more royalist than the king; why does not Syria itself open up the Golan for military operations aimed at its liberation?”
Syria has not responded in kind to the Israel attack because it lacks the means. The question is whether it will ask Hezbollah to do so. It appears likely that Hezbollah will keep quiet because it has no civilian fatalities to avenge, and it realizes how unpopular it could make itself with Hariri and much of the public. But if it is faithful to its rhetoric, as it has been, the raids and reprisals will go on.
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