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Middle East: Lebanon's Hizbollah Not Planning To Disarm

The Lebanese Shiite Hizbollah has achieved its aim of forcing Israel from the country. But the militia shows no signs of laying down its arms. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the reasons why.

Prague, 31 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- For most of its history, the Hizbollah has refused to say what it would do after driving Israeli forces from south Lebanon.

That goal alone was enough to attract fighters and to assure support from Iran and Syria. And it made the Hizbollah popular enough among Lebanese Shiites to enable the militia to branch out into social and political activities and win seats in parliament.

But with Israel now out of Lebanon, the time has finally come for Hizbollah to reveal its next step. And that, it said last week, will be to continue to battle Israel.

The announced goal: to gain a disputed border area called Shebaa farms -- land Syria, Lebanon, and the Hizbollah regard as Lebanese territory but which Israel says it captured from Syria.

Magnus Ranstorp, an expert on the Hizbollah at the Center on Terrorism and Political Violence in Edinburgh, Scotland, says the militia has two motivations in continuing the fight against Israel. One is to maintain itself as an armed force in south Lebanon. The other is to keep having a significant role in regional affairs. Ranstorp says:

"The problem Hizbollah is facing is how are we going to retain the armed elements apart from the social and political activities that we are engaged in? And it is going to try to resist efforts by the Lebanese army -- by outside pressures -- to disarm. Rather, it is going to continue to be a defensive militia force that has succeeded in driving out the Israelis and is going to defend south Lebanon against any future Israeli military aggression."

Since the Israeli troop withdrawal, both Hizbollah and its allied militias have secured military control of south Lebanon without interference from Lebanese government forces. And so far that appears to suit Hizbollah's two powerful sponsors, beginning with Tehran.

The militia was founded following Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and was originally trained and financed by Iran. And Iran restated its backing for Hizbollah when Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi flew into Lebanon the day after Israel completed its troop withdrawal last week. He told a Hizbollah rally in south Lebanon that Iran hopes to witness, in his words, the liberation of the remaining territories occupied by Israel, a state whose existence Iran does not recognize.

But analysts say Iran is not only interested in seeing more defeats for Israel. It also hopes Hizbollah can capitalize on the popularity it has already gained in harrying Israeli forces from Lebanon and become the sole political representative for Lebanon's Shiite community. Ranstorp:

"One of the things that the Iranians want and the Hizbollah want is that they want Hizbollah to become -- because of its popularity, because of its lead role in leading the victory against Israel -- they want Hizbollah to become the sole representative of the Shiite community at the expense of the rival Shiite militia Amal."

Hizbollah's military prowess against Israel has overshadowed that of Amal, but the rival militia still enjoys greater political clout in Lebanon's domestic affairs. Amal's leader, Lebanese speaker of parliament Nabih Berri, heads a bloc of 22 seats compared with about nine seats controlled by Hizbollah. But Hizbollah and Iran hope that Hizbollah's battlefield successes will now boost its chances in upcoming parliamentary elections, expected around August.

Syria, too, is served by Hizbollah maintaining its arms. The main powerbroker in Lebanon, Syria has long backed the militia as a way to press Israel to make a regional peace accord which returns Syria its lost Golan Heights. Those hopes have dimmed with Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon and the breakdown of Israeli-Syrian peace talks. Yet Syria still regards the Hizbollah as a useful card. Ranstorp:

"Hizbollah wants to take the lead role in leading on the resistance in the south in terms of safeguarding against any Israeli aggression, while at the same time serving Syrian political interests over the Golan -- it is really the only card Syria has. And therefore Hizbollah are insisting that Hizbollah and the resistance in the south should not be disarmed for at least five years."

But Ranstorp says cooperation between Syria and the Hizbollah can be difficult at times. One reason is that Hizbollah fears Syria may one day agree with Israel to disarm the militia in a regional peace deal. But he says that, thanks to Iran's intercessions, such tensions are usually smoothed over:

"There is some tension in that relationship, but for the most part it is governed by the fact that Iran is one of Hizbollah's sponsors and Iran and Syria have a good relationship. I don't think there are going to be any major confrontations. I think there could be a major confrontation should the Syrians decide that perhaps, as one of the mechanisms to kickstart the Syrian-Israeli negotiations, they should disarm the Hizbollah."

As Hizbollah seeks to remain a key card in regional affairs, there are signs it is developing new capacities for battling Israel in the future. Over the years it has developed close ties with Palestinian groups which oppose the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. That raises prospects that Hizbollah may one day switch from battling Israeli troops in south Lebanon to attacking inside Israel itself. Ranstorp again:

"The fighting in the south, Hizbollah's victory, is only one phase of trying to advance its political agenda. I think that Hizbollah now, with its stature having been raised not only in Lebanon but in the region, is going to forge closer alliances with those groups working toward trying to destroy Israel."

Underlying such alliances is the vision, which Hizbollah and the militant Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad share, of one day creating Islamic states in the region. And while Hizbollah is willing to work politically toward that end in Lebanon, the two Palestinian groups see a violent defeat of Israel as the only way to do so among the Palestinians.

So far, there is no indication that any of these groups have put a time limit on achieving their goals. All see their struggle with Israel in terms of decades. That means the Hizbollah has ample motivation to remain an armed force for the foreseeable future.