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Hizbullah holds cards close to chest

When Hizbullah allows reporters to visit senior officials here, aides drive them from one building to another through south Beirut's back streets, then walk them through a labyrinth of rooms and hallways with the intention of raising uncertainty as to where they're being led.

Similarly, the Tehran-backed guerrilla group says it isn't giving the world any road maps as to how it will function if Israel withdraws its troops from its self-declared "security zone" by July, without a peace accord.

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"If it will be a full withdrawal, with no conditions, then we will announce clearly how we will behave," Sheikh Naim Qassem, the deputy leader of Hizbullah said in an interview.

But as the July deadline draws nearer with little evidence of Israel and Syria finding a route to renew stalled talks over the Golan Heights, some here say that the absence of a peace accord could reopen the door to chaos and conflict that has haunted Lebanon since its civil war began a quarter century ago.

"Our aim is to liberate Jerusalem," Mr. Qassem says, "and there are no divisions inside the party about that. But as for a realistic scenario on the ground, the question of whether we will have a role in that will be answered at a later time."

Israel has long worried that Hizbullah's intentions might not stop at the international border. But most here say they realize that Israel would be viewed as justified in responding with tough retaliatory attacks should Hizbullah continue launching Katyusha rockets into its territory after a pullout.

The Clinton administration had hoped for a comprehensive peace agreement, which would include an Israeli withdrawal from all or most of the Golan Heights that Israel captured in 1967. Syria would then disarm Hizbullah as it did other militias after Lebanon's 15-year-long civil war.

Without such a deal, Syria may be poised to turn up the pressure on Israel. Lebanese Defense Minister Ghazi Zaiter says Syria, which maintains 35,000 troops in Lebanon, might deploy in the south of the country in case of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal.

Moreover, many armed groups may rush to fill the vacuum an Israeli withdrawal could leave in its wake.

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"In the absence of an agreement, Syria will give Hizbullah a free hand, and there will be no dismantling of the resistance," says Nizar Hamza, a political scientist at the American University of Beirut. That might leave the more extreme faction of Hizbullah to team up with Palestinian rejectionists - drawing on some of the 375,000 refugees in Lebanon - to form a new anti-Israel alliance. A similar scenario, many here are quick to remind, was what spurred Israel's 1978 incursion into Lebanon in the first place.

"One could argue that the stage is set for a wider resistance," says Hamza. "In the absence of a treaty, many Palestinian Islamic factions will be brought in, especially if the refugee problem is not solved. We have to wonder what the repercussions are for Lebanon itself, because this country is still so fragile ... another civil war is possible."

With a sense of impending instability almost as palpable here as the Beirut smog, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud has asked UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to ensure that the multinational force that would be expanded in conjunction with an Israeli withdrawal also disarm Palestinian militias.

In a Monitor interview, Prime Minister Selim Hoss expressed concern that Lebanon's many Palestinian refugee camps would be fertile ground for recruiting militants to attack Israel. "The Palestinian issue remains a time bomb," he says. "And unless it is solved, it will be a destabilizing factor."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society


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