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Last Updated: Friday, 16 May, 2003, 21:04 GMT 22:04 UK
Hezbollah under pressure
The BBC's Kim Ghattas
By Kim Ghattas
BBC correspondent in Beirut

Chanting "Death to Israel" and holding their fists in the air, 50,000 people gathered in the sports stadium in the southern suburbs of Beirut this week.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami speaks during a mass rally in Beirut, Lebanon, 13 2003
Mr Khatami does not want to create instability in the region

It was a rousing welcome for Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, who was in Lebanon as part of a tour of Arab countries.

But it was also a great show of support for Hezbollah, the Lebanese party and guerrilla movement which fought Israel in south Lebanon until Israel's withdrawal from the region in May 2000.

But Mr Khatami had words of caution for his Lebanese audience.

He said Israel should not be given a pretext for an escalation.

What most people in Beirut understood from his words is that if Lebanon, Syria or Hezbollah want a confrontation they are in it alone.

It's obviously not a good idea to upset the Americans
Mahmoud Safa
Grocer, Beirut

And this is what most Lebanese were hoping to hear coming from Iran, Hezbollah's main supporter.

Mahmoud Safa, a grocer, said he was a great fan of Hezbollah, but he also hoped Mr Khatami would make it clear to Hezbollah and Syria that now was not the time for military action in south Lebanon.

"We saw what happened in Iraq," said Mr Safa. "It's obviously not a good idea to upset the Americans."

New reality

Hezbollah was often used as a card by Syria to put pressure on Israel. Syria hopes it will one day regain the Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied since 1967.

But there is a new reality in the Middle East. Syria is under intense US scrutiny and it can no longer wage this proxy war.

Hezbollah doesn't want to be a source of tension in the region
Abdallah Qassir
Hezbollah parliamentarian

"Syria stopped using Hezbollah as a card in its political game with Israel or with the United States," said Sateh Noureddine, the managing editor of the as-Safir newspaper.

"Syria maybe feels that Hezbollah some day will be part of the negotiation with Israel, part of a political game with Israel, not a military game with Israel."

Hezbollah officials have often said that politics are not taken into consideration by the group's guerrilla fighters.

Whenever the fighters see an opportunity to strike the enemy, Israel, they do, but the last military operation from south Lebanon against Israeli troops in a disputed piece of land on the border between Israel, Lebanon and Syria dates back to January.

'Not just guerrillas'

Obviously the party understands the new rules of the game.

Abdallah Qassir, one of the party's nine representatives in the Lebanese parliament, said Hezbollah would try to avoid a confrontation with the US.

"Hezbollah doesn't want to be a source of tension in the region and we watch with concern the US threats against Lebanon," he said. "Hezbollah will not do anything in south Lebanon that does not have the support of all the Lebanese.

"After all we are not just a guerrilla movement, we are a political party with members in parliament and we work on issues from women's role in society to the environment."

At the rally in Beirut earlier this week, thousands of people chanted their support for Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah. Hezbollah flags were everywhere.

The group's popularity was perhaps at its peak when Israel withdrew from south Lebanon.

But three years on, thanks to its political stands and its social services, from hospitals to schools and women's associations, Hezbollah is still a party to be reckoned with.

And it is this popular support that Hezbollah is now counting on to make sure it survives the US pressures.




SEE ALSO:
Iran warns US against 'new crises'
13 May 03  |  Middle East
Hezbollah clashes with Israeli troops
22 Jan 03  |  Middle East
Iran urges Lebanon border restraint
12 Apr 02  |  Middle East
Who are Hezbollah?
04 Apr 02  |  Middle East



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