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Last Updated: Monday, 14 August 2006, 16:07 GMT 17:07 UK
Buoyed Hezbollah plans next move
By Martin Asser
BBC News website

As a member of Lebanon's multi-confessional government, the militant Shia Muslim movement Hezbollah is formally committed to its own removal as a military presence in south Lebanon.

Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah
Hezbollah may demand Israeli concessions before disarming
Successive UN resolutions leave no room for doubt - Hezbollah must give up control of the south, allowing government forces and UN peacekeepers to hold sway at Israel's northern borders.

But what Resolutions 1559, 1655, 1680 and the latest ceasefire text, Resolution 1701, fail to stipulate is just how this is going to happen.

Hezbollah is Lebanon's most significant military power, drawing a considerable part of its support from the Shia Muslim population living in the territory it is being told to vacate.

In 2000, its guerrillas were credited with forcing the Israeli army to end a bloody 18-year occupation of the south.

Once again, in the summer of 2006, they have fought the region's military superpower to a standstill.

'Right to resist'

In the last six years, Hezbollah's magnanimity towards the large Christian population in the south - including many who are seen as collaborators with Israel - has broadened its support, as has this latest round of what many Lebanese regard as armed resistance.

Hezbollah militants talk to a woman in Beirut's Shia Muslim stronghold
Many Lebanese believe Hezbollah scored a victory against Israel

Indeed, in the minds of many supporters, Hezbollah has a natural right to monopolise land it liberated and whose protection it continues to guarantee without assistance.

However, many other Lebanese are angry about the death and destruction brought about by Hezbollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid.

Some Lebanese accuse Hezbollah of plunging the country into an unnecessary crisis by providing Israel with a reason to launch its vast bombing campaign against Lebanon.

The question is, how do Hezbollah and its charismatic leader Hassan Nasrallah want to take things forward now?

On the one hand, they are committed to disarm and leave the border region, but on the other they claim the right to resist Israel's continued presence in the south.

Given Hezbollah's military strength, there will be no disarmament without a political agreement at the national level in Lebanon.

For such a deal, Hezbollah might demand further concessions from Israel, such as prisoner releases and a handover of the Shebaa Farms, an area which Lebanon claims, but which Israel (backed by the UN) says is part of the Golan Heights - captured from Syria in 1967 and annexed by Israel.

And Hezbollah still has as bargaining chips the two Israeli soldiers it captured in a cross-border raid on 12 July - and whose release Israel said its bombardment was meant to secure.

Position of strength

The initial signs in Beirut do not indicate a trouble-free course ahead. Hezbollah's cabinet ministers threatened to boycott a cabinet meeting on Sunday set up to discuss the ceasefire, causing it to be postponed.

They are in a position of strength, because as far as its Islamic Resistance armed wing is concerned, Hezbollah has scored a great victory against the Israeli army.

In their martyrdom-orientated philosophy, victory is the fight itself - victory is emerging from four weeks of battling it out, toe-to-toe, against Israel's vastly superior weaponry.

Meanwhile, Israel - with strong backing from Washington (and somewhat more unusually from London) - is determined not to allow Hezbollah the kind of pre-eminence it has enjoyed in the south in recent years.

For the time being, it says it will keep up the air and sea blockade of Lebanon to prevent supplies to Hezbollah.

All this means there will be plenty of fuel for further conflict, with UN resolutions making little difference.

In the last hours before the ceasefire, Hezbollah militants were still killing Israeli soldiers in their tanks and raining death and destruction down on northern Israel in the form of Katyusha rockets.

It is not clear how much of Hezbollah's guerrilla and missile capability has been affected by Israel's bombing campaign and ground offensive, but it will be the focus of great scrutiny in the coming weeks and months.

Hezbollah fighter with Katyusha rockets in 2001 archive photo The moment when the ceasefire began

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