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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 July 2006, 22:45 GMT 23:45 UK
Piling the pressure on Beirut
By Jim Muir
BBC News, Beirut

Lebanese fleeing their homes
The crisis threatens to destabilise the country

Israel's open-ended onslaught on Lebanon has thrown the fragile Beirut government into disarray, highlighting the stark contradictions at its heart.

Ironically, Israel is punishing and pressuring a largely anti-Syrian government for an action which it blames partly on Syria and Iran, the sponsors and supporters of Hezbollah.

President George W Bush and other American leaders have also held Syria, in particular, responsible for the Hezbollah raid which ended in the death of eight Israeli soldiers, the wounding of two others, and the capture of two more.

In the past, Israel had negotiated the release of Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners it held, in exchange for Israelis captured by Hezbollah.

But this time, as one Israeli minister put it, "the rules have changed".

Economic fallout

Far from seeking negotiation, Israel has made it clear it intends to continue venting its wrath on Lebanon with the goal of eliminating Hezbollah from the border zone and obliging the Lebanese government to curb the powerful Islamic militia.

It would take three months of peace to win back the contract I just lost today
Beirut businessman

As well as hitting Hezbollah directly - in so far as it can identify valid targets - the Israeli campaign is also clearly aimed at exerting maximum pressure on the Beirut government, by disrupting normal life in almost all parts of the country and inflicting massive economic damage.

By hitting the country's only international airport on Beirut's southern outskirts, imposing a naval blockade and threatening road links out of the country, Israel has dealt a massive blow to Lebanon's post-war reconstruction effort and its attempts to build on stability and confidence.

"It would take three months of peace to win back the contract I just lost today," said one woebegone Beirut businessman.

With thousands of outside visitors and tourists fleeing the country in droves, the prospect of a profitable summer has gone down the drain.

In recent years, the Lebanese economy has become heavily geared to the annual influx of rich Arabs from the Gulf seeking to escape the searing heat and relax in Lebanon's more temperate meteorological and moral climate.

Stranded travellers at Rafik Hariri Airport in Beirut
An on-going crisis could set back Lebanon's economic growth

It may be years before they venture back.

Hard-core Hezbollah supporters in the Shia community where it is rooted may applaud the action which triggered the massive Israeli response.

But many other Lebanese are aghast at the prospect of open-ended hostility, destruction and impoverishment that now looms.

"Hezbollah was all very well when the Israelis were occupying South Lebanon and had to be driven out," said one Shia from Baalbek in the eastern Bekaa Valley.

"But they left in 2000. So why give them the pretext to come back and destroy everything and ruin our lives again?"

All this adds up to huge pressure on the Beirut government.

But apart from trying to persuade Hezbollah to give up the two Israeli prisoners, it may be powerless to halt the violence.

Uneasy partnership

Because of Israel's presence in the country, Hezbollah was the only militia allowed to retain its arms following the general disarmament of non-government forces in the early 1990s.

It built up a powerful, cohesive and disciplined force which won the respect of Lebanese across the board for its sacrifice and courage in carrying out operations which eventually led the Israelis to conduct a chaotic overnight withdrawal from the south in 2000.

It also teamed up with the other major Shia political faction, Amal, to contest the parliamentary elections last year, winning enough seats to make it a significant formal political force and give it seats in the government as well as in parliament.

A Hezbollah member on the streets of Beirut
Hezbollah's influence reaches far and wide politically and militarily

It has been an uneasy partnership.

Hezbollah retains strong ties with Syria as well as with its Iranian sponsors, putting it largely at odds with the overwhelmingly and virulently anti-Syrian majority in the broad-based government.

Repeated efforts by some of the government factions to raise the issue of Hezbollah disarmament - as demanded by UN Security Council Resolution 1559 - have got nowhere.

Confronting Hezbollah is not really an option for the anti-Syrian majority in the cabinet.

The Lebanese Army, largely reconstructed under Syrian patronage in the 1990s, has a heavy preponderance of Hezbollah's fellow Shias.

If the government sent it in to battle against Hezbollah, there is a strong chance that it would fragment, as happened in the 1970s.

That would also raise the spectre of another civil war, this time with Shias pitted against Druze, Christians and Sunni Muslims.

War on terror

Hezbollah itself may or may not be responsive to pressures from its own Shia constituency, where many are dismayed by the prospect of further upheavals.

But it is clearly susceptible to influence from both Syria and Iran.

Israel has hinted that direct action may be taken against the Syrians if it does not get the hint.

In the past, eruptions of violence centred on southern Lebanon have been curtailed, in part, by discreet American restraints on Israel.

But given the political proximity of the current Israeli and US administrations, their common animosity towards Syria and Iran, and the blurring of issues under the broad slogan of the shared "war against terror", Israel appears to have more leeway this time around - hence, perhaps, the declaration that "the rules have changed".

With broad regional strategic factors deeply embedded in the crisis, and with Israel clearly pursuing wide-ranging political goals, the question is whether the campaign would be halted even if Hezbollah backed down and handed back the two captured Israelis.

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