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Wednesday, 11 October, 2000, 15:02 GMT 16:02 UK
Lebanon's uneasy peace
Hezbollah supporters jeer at Israeli soldiers
There has been an uneasy peace on the border since May
By BBC News Online's Kathryn Westcott

The intense diplomatic activity to bring calm to the Middle East is now reaching Lebanon, where the focus is on negotiations over the fate of three Israeli soldiers captured by the Islamic militant group Hezbollah.

The UN Secretary General Kofi Annan is visiting Beirut in an attempt to defuse the risk of Israeli reprisal attacks.

Hezbollah's Sheikh Nasrallah
Hezbollah's Sheikh Nasrallah: The group has said for weeks it wanted Israeli hostages
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has long made it clear that any attacks across the border would be met with a swift and powerful response against Beirut and Syrian targets inside Lebanon.

And Saturday's kidnapping sparked fears that the area could again spiral out of control.

Lebanese began to watch nervously for military action from Israel, although not from Hezbollah, which commentators say appeared to have got what it wanted.

The group is demanding the return of all Lebanese prisoners from Israeli jails, arguing that the country would not be completely liberated without their return.

According to local commentators, Hezbollah has been saying for weeks that it wanted to take Israeli soldiers as hostages to put pressure on Israel to agree to its demands.


Everybody let their guard down because of the smooth routine on the border. The Israelis discovered that it wasn't so quiet after all

The UN's Timor Goksel
It is also demanding from Israel the return of a small area of land in the foothills of the Golan Heights known as the Shebaa Farms. The UN, however, disputes this land belongs to Lebanon.

But since Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, the group has not had a reason to act against Israel - that is until Israeli soldiers gave it an excuse, commentators say.

This came when the Israeli army shot dead two Palestinians and wounded 17 others as they tried to climb a fence at the border, a week after Palestinians took to the streets in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Stepping up security

Military experts say Hezbollah had been planning the operation for weeks.

"Everybody let their guard down because of the smooth routine on the border. The Israelis discovered that it wasn't so quiet after all," the security advisor to the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, Timor Goksel, said.

Mr Annan is expected to ask Beirut to increase its security presence near the border, where there has been an uneasy peace since May.

Israel has increased its military activity on the border
Israel has increased its military activity on the border
Lebanese and Palestinians regularly visit the frontier gate either to throw stones or gaze into the land they still call Palestine.

But the Lebanese Government has made it clear that it is reluctant to play a stronger role in the area, drawing criticism from Israel and some parts of the international community for its stand.

'Rhetoric'

Ahead of Mr Annan's visit, Beirut said it would not police the border "to reassure Israel".

Beirut's position is that while Israel is illegally occupying Lebanese land, Hezbollah is justified in continuing its campaign.

But, despite tension on the border, a number of commentators say it is unlikely to escalate to a war between Israel and Lebanon.

A UN envoy in Lebanon has said he is optimistic a prisoner swap can be arranged and Hezbollah itself has said it has would accept the mediation of Mr Annan if he brought specific offers from Israel.

Emphasis on mediation

Ahman Asfahani, a journalist with the influential Arab newspaper Al-Hayat said the only thing standing in the way of a peace settlement with Lebanon is the prisoner situation.

"No one really wants a war," he told BBC News Online. "What we have been seeing is rhetoric from Israel and Hezbollah. The emphasis is on mediation."

He added that Israel may have used fighting talk against Syria in an attempt to bring it back to the negotiating table.

Hezbollah has little to gain by instigating military activity that would provoke a harsh reaction from Israel and has little to justify its guerrilla operations to the international community.

It has also gained a political constituency, which would not welcome any Israeli reprisals.

And Israel, Mr Asfahani added, is too preoccupied about the crisis in its own back yard to go to war with Lebanon.

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