Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 December 1999
Issue No. 461
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Lebanon jumps on the process wagon

By Ranwa Yehia

During a visit to Lebanon last Monday to brief Lebanese officials on progress in Syrian-Israeli negotiations in Washington, Syrian For-ign Minister Farouk Al-Sharaa announced that Syria would not be negotiating with Israel on Lebanon's behalf, opening the way for Lebanese preparations for peace talks following the Syrian-Israeli second round to take place from 3 January.

After a meeting with Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, Prime Minister Salim Al-Hoss and Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Michel Murr, Al-Sharaa added that Syria and Lebanon would however, only sign joint peace treaties with Israel, but that Lebanon was "an independent country with sovereignty, and it will have its own negotiating team".

Syria was eager to see Lebanon's negotiations with Israel move simultaneously with its own, he added, saying that Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad had written to US President Bill Clinton to inform him that "Syria and Lebanon had an undertaking that neither country would sign a peace agreement with Israel without the other".

"I found Prime Minister [Ehud] Barak to be serious in the peace talks," Al-Sharaa said. "The mood was productive and businesslike, but when we talk about optimism and pessimism, it is still too early to say until we test the water in the next session, which will start on 3 January."

He refused to respond directly to questions on whether Syria had pressured the militant group Hizbullah to halt or to tone down its attacks on the Israeli occupation forces in south Lebanon, saying only that the issue was strictly a matter for the Lebanese government.

For his part, Lebanese Prime Minister Al-Hoss said on Sunday that Lebanon would go for nothing less in the peace negotiations than what was stipulated by UN Security Council Resolution 425, which calls for Israel's unconditional withdrawal from occupied Lebanese territories up to internationally recognised borders.

Lebanon's demands, Hoss said, would focus on the immediate release of all Lebanese detainees from Israeli prisons, financial compensation for war damage and the right of return of Palestinian refugees.

Meanwhile, Lebanese Interior Minister Michel Murr, who has been the object of controversy following his announcement that he will spearhead the peace talks with Israel, said on Sunday that members of the Lebanese negotiating team would be finalised once the composition of the Israeli team was known. It is believed that Murr will head the Lebanese delegation only if the Israeli team too is at ministerial level.

During his remarks to reporters, Al-Sharaa also commented on the Israeli shelling of a school in the southern Lebanese village of Arab Salim last week, saying that he had informed officials in Washington about Syria's "extreme annoyance" at the attack.

All but two of the 18 children wounded by three Israeli mortar rounds were discharged from hospital last week, with most students, including 11-year-old Hanan Musa, who was wounded in the right eye, being back in their classroom on Monday.

The mortar rounds had been fired from a position manned by the South Lebanon Army (SLA) one kilometre away from the school above Nabatieh. They exploded in the air just above the first-floor classroom where students were taking a French lesson, shrapnel tearing into the class of 22 students, injuring 18 of them.

Hussein Harb, 10, one of two pupils seriously wounded during the attack, suffered from shrapnel wounds to his shoulder, which dislocated his shoulder and punctured his lung.

 

Zahi Hawass

Lebanese student, Mohamed Nader, does his homework at the local hospital on Friday, a day after being wounded by an Israeli shell
(photo: AP)


However, the atmosphere of calm that reigned in south Lebanon on the day following the shelling, and Israel's unusually prompt apology for the mortar attack, have been enough for all parties concerned to maintain restraint before the peace negotiations start again in January.

Observers nevertheless believe that Hizbullah will continue its operations against Israeli and SLA positions in Israel's self-declared security zone in south Lebanon.

In a statement reiterating Hizbullah's position, the party's deputy secretary-general, Sheikh Naim Qassem, said that resistance fighters would continue their attacks on Israeli occupation forces despite the resumption of talks on the Syrian-Israeli track. Qassem said that he did not expect any request from Damascus to halt attacks.

Despite the fact that 18 children were wounded, Hizbullah did not retaliate on Friday -- the group having in the past swiftly retaliated for less serious attacks on civilians by launching Katyusha rockets over the border into Israel.

However, Hizbullah Secretary-General Sayed Hassan Nasrallah warned that the group might "run out of patience" and retaliate for future civilian casualties.

"The shelling of the Arab Salim village school deserved retaliatory strikes on the settlements in northern Palestine, but today we will make do with issuing a clear, stern warning to the enemy that the resistance will not tolerate this Zionist challenge," Nasrallah said after an iftar meal last Thursday.

In the days following the shelling and with the continuation of resistance operations against Israeli and SLA posts in south Lebanon, it was clear, however, that Hizbullah has no intention of dismantling its resistance until the Israelis have withdrawn.

On Saturday, Nasrallah said that Lebanon's real interest lay in continued fighting, vowing that the resistance would "carry on fighting and executing operations and inflicting the enemy with the maximum casualties until the last Israeli soldier leaves."

For his part, Sheikh Qassem on Sunday listed three key components to the party's position for the duration of the peace negotiations -- the first being the continued struggle against Israeli forces in south Lebanon "regardless of the progress or stalling of negotiations, and regardless of whether Israel and America scream or not".

The second, he said, was to confirm Hizbullah's traditional silence on its post-peace intentions, commenting that, "We shall retain this stand until a suitable moment because it brings power to the resistance."

Regarding the third component, this, Qassem said, was a belief that "the current settlement is imposed by arms and intimidation and is not a true peace".

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