BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – Lebanon marked the sixth anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon on Thursday, amid deep divisions among its rival leaders over the fate of Hezbollah’s weapons.
“The country is in a state of dangerous split. The resistance (Hezbollah) has become a divisive issue. There is no unanimity or even semi-unanimity over it,” wrote Faisal Salman, managing editor of the daily As-Safir, in his column Thursday.
Hezbollah led a guerrilla war against Israel’s 18-year occupation of a border zone in southern Lebanon, which ended on May 24, 2000. It once enjoyed widespread support in Lebanon for its military campaign against the Jewish state, but that support has faded since Israel’s pullout, relegated to mainly Shiite areas in the south, the Bekaa Valley in the east and in Beirut’s southern suburbs.
After Israel’s withdrawal, the government declared May 25 a national holiday. But this year, the government, dominated by anti-Syrian politicians, decided to cancel the holiday as part of what it described as a policy to cut down on official holidays.
Schools were closed in southern Lebanon, but schools and government offices remained open in Beirut and other cities.
Hezbollah planned to mark the occasion with festivities Thursday in formerly occupied villages, including a mass rally in the port city of Tyre where Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah would deliver a speech.
The Lebanese government considers Hezbollah, labeled a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel, a legitimate resistance movement fighting Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory. But the government has come under U.S. and U.N. pressure to disarm Hezbollah in accordance with a 2004 U.N. Security Council resolution that calls on Lebanese and Palestinian factions to lay down their weapons. Some anti-Syrian leaders have accused the militant group of using its arsenal to serve Syrian and Iranian interests, a charge Hezbollah denies, though it receives support from both countries.
Hezbollah, which holds 11 seats in parliament and has two members in the Cabinet, has refused to give up its weapons. Nasrallah has vowed to fight anyone who tries to disarm his group, saying its weapons, which include more than 12,000 rockets capable of hitting northern Israel, are needed to defend against a possible attack by the Jewish state.
“What deters the (Israeli) enemy from launching an aggression is the resistance’s continuous readiness to respond,” Nasrallah said at a Beirut rally Tuesday.
Lebanese politicians, Muslim and Christian, pro- and anti-Syria, planned to revisit the issue of Hezbollah’s weapons when they resume a national conference on June 8.
But they previously failed to agree on the issue and on removing pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, and analysts do not expect a breakthrough this time.
Lahoud has defended Hezbollah’s military role, saying the militant group should keep its weapons until the Arab-Israeli conflict ends. “The resistance should stay until a just and comprehensive peace is achieved in the region,” he said during a visit to southern Lebanon Wednesday.
Lebanon’s official news agency reported Thursday that the Israeli army went on full alert along the border with Lebanon, especially near the disputed Chebaa Farms area. Israeli troops patrolled the border area and reinforced their positions with armored vehicles, including Merkava tanks and armored personnel carriers, the agency said. The Israeli military refused to comment on the report.
Hezbollah guerrillas occasionally attack Israeli troops in Chebaa Farms, a parcel of land where the borders of Lebanon, Syria and Israel meet. Lebanon claims the territory as its own, which Israel captured when its forces seized Syria’s Golan Heights in the 1967 Middle East war.
The United Nations says Chebaa is Syrian, and that Syria and Israel should negotiate its fate.