Hezbollah refused to disarm and withdraw its fighters from the battle-scarred hills along the border with Israel on Tuesday, threatening to delay deployment of the Lebanese army and endangering a fragile cease-fire.
The makings of a compromise emerged from all-day meetings in Beirut, according to senior officials involved in the negotiations, and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora scheduled a cabinet session Wednesday for what he hoped would be formal approval of the deal. Hezbollah indicated it would be willing to pull back its fighters and weapons in exchange for a promise from the army not to probe too carefully for underground bunkers and weapons caches, the officials said.
Hasan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, had insisted that any disarmament of his militia -- even in the border area -- should be handled in longer-term discussions within the Lebanese government, according to government ministers. But the Lebanese army, backed by key political leaders, refused to send troops into the just-becalmed battle zone until Hezbollah's missiles, rockets and other weapons were taken north of the Litani River, the ministers said.
At stake in the standoff was implementation of a crucial provision of the U.N. Security Council cease-fire that went into effect Monday. The accord called for quick deployment of 15,000 Lebanese army troops south of the Litani River along the border with Israel. They were to take up positions under the aegis of a reinforced contingent of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, to form a peacekeeping corps with a total strength of about 30,000.
Hezbollah's reluctance to get its men and arms out of the border zone reflected nervousness over the continuing presence of Israeli soldiers on Lebanese soil. But it also demonstrated the militant Shiite Muslim movement's increased assertiveness here after a war of more than a month during which it stood off the Israeli army while Lebanon's national army stood aside.
‘Insensitivity and immorality’
In a televised speech Monday evening, Nasrallah accused those who are pushing Hezbollah for immediate disarmament of "insensitivity and immorality." He recalled that Lebanon's Shiite-inhabited areas took the worst battering and suffered the highest number of casualties during 33 days of warfare in which about 800 Lebanese civilians were killed and 750,000 were driven from their homes.
"Those people have performed veritable miracles," he said, referring to the Shiite Muslims who are the largest sect among Lebanon's 4 million inhabitants.
"And at this emotionally difficult and fateful time, some individuals speaking with wooden tongues sit behind desks in their air-conditioned offices and talk about these issues," he added. "This is inappropriate and wrong. I advise that no one exert pressure, bearing in mind that the most ferocious battle in the history of Lebanon has just been waged south of the river."
The Israeli military said it would begin handing over its positions in Lebanon to UNIFIL officers before the end of the week. A UNIFIL spokesman, Milos Strugar, said U.N. observers reported no significant Israeli withdrawals along the border on the second day of the cease-fire.
Israel television, however, showed troops walking and riding military vehicles back into Israel and dozens of tanks taking up positions on the Israeli side of the border.
"We are hoping the last IDF soldiers will cross the border in a matter of days," Maj. Jonathan Davis of the Israel Defense Forces said in an interview near the border. "We want to do it as quickly and swiftly as possible. As soon as UNIFIL and the Lebanese army are ready to assume responsibility in the area, which we hope is as soon as possible, we will leave."
Israeli officials have declined to say how many of their soldiers are inside Lebanon. Strugar said that whatever the number, their withdrawal has to be coordinated with UNIFIL and Lebanese army officers in the coming days. "This is a complicated issue," he said.
Israeli soldiers killed three armed men who approached their positions in southern Lebanon, the military announced. But there were no reports of rockets being fired or sustained clashes, despite the existence of Hezbollah and Israeli positions at relatively close distances.
[The army said early Wednesday that Israeli forces killed the head of Hezbollah's special forces, identified as Sajed Dawayer, just before the U.N. cease-fire took effect, but a Hezbollah official dismissed the announcement as "baseless," the Associated Press reported from Jerusalem.]
The political repercussions of Israel's performance in the war increased with a revelation by Maariv newspaper that the Israeli military's chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, sold his stock portfolio, worth about $27,600, just hours after learning that two Israeli soldiers were seized July 12. The newspaper reported that he phoned his stockbroker as the Israeli cabinet was meeting to decide to go to war.
The number of Hezbollah fighters in the border zone also was unclear, largely because the movement keeps its presence secret and many militia members are local residents who take up arms only when called on by their leaders. Their departure has not been envisaged, Lebanese officials said, and only the militia's officers and their weapons must be pulled back north of the Litani as part of the U.N. cease-fire.
Thousands of Lebanese families again filled the roads leading south, heeding a call from Hezbollah that they return immediately to their often-shattered villages. Leaflets dropped by Israeli aircraft warned them to stay away, but cars loaded with children and household belongings streamed down the coastal road.
Aid for rebuilding
Hezbollah activists provided money for the trip to many refugees leaving centers around the country. In his televised talk, Nasrallah promised they also would receive money on the spot to help them rebuild their homes, starting an immediate aid program for displaced people while the government was still holding meetings and appealing for funds.
The Lebanese army would like UNIFIL troops to deploy first in southern Lebanon and for the Israelis to pull out, which would then remove Hezbollah's reason for remaining there under arms, according to a government minister who spoke on condition that he not be named. Once Hezbollah's militia pulls back from the border zone, he suggested, the question of its full disarmament or incorporation into the army can be debated.
"As the defense minister said, where there are Lebanese army troops, there can be no other armed presence," he added. "The position of Hezbollah, at best, is ambiguous. They seem to have a fundamental problem with surrendering their arms and moving out of the south. That is very disappointing. The best spin you can put on it is that Nasrallah wants it sorted out in private."
Nasrallah, in his television address, suggested that for the time being the Hezbollah militia in southern Lebanon is the only way to defend Lebanon's sovereignty against Israel. Although the long-term solution is state authority over the entire territory, he said, that has to be worked out carefully and cannot happen overnight given the war that has just been fought.
On the ground, Hezbollah's militia and social welfare infrastructure were the only things still functioning in dozens of devastated villages across the border zone. Army troops in the village of Srifa, for example, were seen working under the orders of Hezbollah militia officers during a search for bodies buried under the rubble of buildings destroyed by Israeli bombing.
"What are the alternatives you have come up with?" Nasrallah asked. "Can the Lebanese army and the United Nations troops step up to the plate to defend the nation? Haste and simplification are out of the question. We were ready and will always be ready for dialogue to extend the authority of the state. We are part of the government and a basic part of it."
Struck reported from Jerusalem. Correspondent Nora Boustany in Beirut and special correspondent Tal Zipper in Kiryat Shemona contributed to this report.