After Israel, Hezbollah and Disarray Rule South Lebanon
Susan Sachs -New York Times Service
Wednesday, January 10, 2001
BINT JBAIL, Lebanon:  The Israeli occupation of south Lebanon is over, but the area remains a tense and barren battleground for forces outside the control of the people who live here. Much as it was during the 22 years of Israeli control, the rocky landscape is littered with unexploded mines and abandoned farms. The villagers who fled their homes in search of work and security elsewhere have not returned. Water, electricity, heating oil, schools, police officers - all are still in short or unreliable supply seven months after Israel left. In something like suspended animation, southern Lebanon remains a dangerous place. The military flash point is a remote and rugged plot of land known as Shabaa Farms, which stretches along six kilometers (four miles) of the Israeli-Lebanese border and has been under Israeli control since 1967. In late May, after Israel withdrew from the south, Lebanese officials suddenly raised a claim to the land, saying it had not been Syrian, as Israel contended, but Lebanese territory. The United Nations has certified the Israeli withdrawal as complete, and said the Shabaa Farms issue is a matter to be decided between Lebanon and Syria.Lebanon's claim provided a justification for the Hezbollah militia, the Syrian-backed Shiite Muslims who fought a long guerrilla war against the Israeli occupation, to maintain its own grip on the south.

It also served the traditional strategy by Syria, the dominant power in Lebanon, of using Lebanese militias to keep Israel's northern border volatile. Despite specific Israeli threats to retaliate for attacks by the Hezbollah, or Party of God, and the chilling effect those warnings have had on potential investors, Lebanese government officials said they were powerless to prevent them. "For us, we would like to keep the stability in the region and we would like to solve the problem through negotiations," said Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who took office in late October on a pledge to cure the ailing Lebanese economy. "But at the same time," he said, "we cannot stop the Lebanese that try to liberate their land. This is our position."

The government in Beirut, just 90 minutes by car from this stunted provincial center in southern Lebanon, has been ambivalent at best toward its newly recovered territory. The Lebanese Army, with 65,000 troops, has sent just a few hundred soldiers to the area and keeps them far from the border with Israel. A few hundred more Lebanese police officers are stationed in the main towns. The government forces, like the government, still defer to Hezbollah. In October, Shiite militants captured three Israeli soldiers in Shabaa Farms. The Hezbollah leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, said he might be willing to trade them for, among other things, Lebanese and Arab prisoners in Israeli jails, and is said by his aides to be negotiating with a German mediator to arrange a possible exchange.

Mr. Hariri said he has not asked Hezbollah officials about the location or the condition of the captive Israelis. But he did meet with Sheikh Nasrallah and said they agreed that it would not be a good idea to give Israel a pretext for bombing Lebanon. The next day, Hezbollah guerrillas killed an Israeli soldier in Shabaa Farms. And Israel indeed responded with air strikes on positions in south Lebanon, as it often did in response to Hezbollah attacks during the occupation.

If the timing of the bomb attack on the Israeli patrol was meant to send a message, Mr. Hariri said with a shrug, it may have simply been a declaration of Hezbollah independence. In the political vacuum of southern Lebanon, Hezbollah has also fortified its domestic image as the most efficient service provider in Lebanon. Hezbollah has begun rebuilding homes for the displaced. It is opening low-cost private schools to teach Islam, along with the state curriculum. And it has taken the opportunity to upgrade its weaponry in the south, militia leaders said. In Bint Jbail, once a town of nearly 40,000 people, the Hezbollah influence is evident everywhere. The local hospital, once subsidized by Israel, has been run by Hezbollah doctors using Hezbollah-financed supplies since the Israeli withdrawal. A billboard with Sheikh Nasrallah's picture towers over the building.

"Israel needs the Lebanese government to take a strong hand here," said Waji Charara, a native of Bint Jbail who recently opened a small restaurant on its main street. "But the Lebanese government doesn't want to do what Israel wants." Mr. Charara immigrated to Dearborn, Michigan, 10 years ago but recently returned to make a fresh start. Instead, he struggles each day with erratic electricity, water supply problems and a cash-strapped population. Few of the thousands who left south Lebanon over decades of war and occupation have been willing to gamble that stability or prosperity will return any time soon. "For us a return of people to the villages is a very key point for the security of the area," said Timor Goksel, a spokesman for the United Nations monitoring force in south Lebanon. "Once people are living in a place, the local groups would not dare to use it as a base."