On Lebanon withdrawal anniversary, border still volatile

NEW YORK — Three years ago on May 25, Israel fulfilled a key U.N. resolution by withdrawing its last troops from southern Lebanon, bringing an end to a costly 22-year occupation.

But Security Council Resolution 425 didn't stop there.

It also required the Lebanese government to re-establish its authority in the south, and have its forces take control from Hezbollah, the Syrian- and Iranian-backed militia that made Israel's occupation so costly.

Lebanon has yet to fulfill its end of the bargain: Hezbollah, which has fortified its position with thousands of missiles trained on Israeli cities, continues to strike at Israel's northern border.

Israel says it has recorded 100 "terrorist attacks" by Hezbollah through December 2002 — reportedly killing eight soldiers and five civilians and injuring 50 people — with "dozens of incidents since then," according to Arye Mekel, Israel's deputy permanent representative to the United Nations.

Yet the international community has had little to say about Lebanon's flouting of its obligations.

Mekel says he plans to send a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to mark the three-year anniversary of Israel's withdrawal and complain that the world body must put more pressure on the Lebanese and their political masters in Damascus.

"You know our situation at the U.N. is not always fair and balanced," Mekel said, referring to the large bloc of Arab and Muslim states that often dictates the U.N.'s agenda. "And because so much else is going on in the Middle East, this situation pales by comparison."

Hezbollah and Lebanon may soon be back in the spotlight as the Bush administration refocuses attention on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Washington has warned Syria and Iran to curb support for Hezbollah, which last week was caught sending a boat to the Palestinian territories with weapons and instructions for making suicide bombings more deadly.

The U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 425 days after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which was designed to stop the frequent cross-border terrorist attacks the PLO was carrying out from southern Lebanon.

The Security Council also created a small peacekeeping contingent, the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, to assist Lebanon "in ensuring the return of its effective authority in the area."

The United Nations certified Israel's withdrawal as complete, but declined to recognize the border as permanent, leaving that for a final peace agreement between Israel and its neighbors.

Critics say that decision allowed Hezbollah a small opening.

Hezbollah quickly protested what it said was Israel's ongoing occupation of Shebaa Farms, a 9-square-mile tract of land now located at the confluence of Israel, Lebanon and Syria. Israel seized the land from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War.

The U.N. investigated the claim and rejected it. But Hezbollah insists it won't give up the fight for Shebaa and seven other villages it claims as Lebanese.

"Those who thought that after Israel's withdrawal Hezbollah would simply fold its guerrilla factions misunderstood the nature of Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian sponsorship," says Matthew Levitt, a senior fellow in terrorism studies at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Even if Israel were destroyed, I don't think they would give up their larger jihadist agenda."