MARJAYOUN, Lebanon, (AP) -Six weeks after the end of the Lebanon war, the militant Hezbollah group is facing little on-the-ground pressure to give up its weapons and disarm — despite a U.N. cease-fire resolution demanding just that.
The leaders of a U.N. peacekeeping force in south Lebanon say the job is not theirs. And Lebanon’s ill-equipped army, some of whose soldiers wear tin-pot helmets and carry outdated M-16 rifles, shows no signs of diving into a confrontation with battle-hardened Hezbollah fighters.
For now, all sides say it’s likely full disarmament will happen only in the future as part of a political solution — despite the U.N. resolution that ended the 34-day war on Aug. 14 and required disarmament.
The commanders of the U.N. force say that under the resolution, their job is merely to assist the Lebanese army in regaining control of southern Lebanon and to ensure the area cannot be used for launching rocket attacks into northern Israel.
Meanwhile, Lebanese security officials say the army’s mission in the south is based on what they call an “understanding” with Hezbollah that the army will not search for and seize weapons, but only confiscate those shown in public.
At one Lebanese military checkpoint near the town of Marjayoun, some eight miles from the Israeli border, soldiers recently waved most cars through — although some were stopped so identity papers and registration documents could be checked.
The Lebanese government, which for years allowed Hezbollah to run a “state within a state” in the south, has long argued that disarming the militants could be done only through agreement among the country’s major political groups.
Israel says the resolution makes clear that Hezbollah must be disarmed south of the Litani River. Mark Regev, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, said of the current situation, “It’s a process.”
Israeli soldiers have been instructed to shoot Lebanese stone-throwers along the border if they feel their lives are in danger. The order came after dozens of yellow-clad Hezbollah supporters threw stones at Israeli soldiers Friday.
Regev said Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, at a rally last week, “publicly stated that he is out to flout the will of the international community and to prevent the implementation of what was an unanimous resolution of the Security Council.”
At the rally in the Beirut suburbs Friday, Nasrallah vowed his guerrillas will not surrender their weapons and said: “There is no army in the world capable of making us drop our weapons as long as there will be people who believe in this resistance.”
The current U.N. peacekeeping contingent is far larger and better-armed than a previous 2,000-member force. Some 15,000 troops, more than half from Europe, will eventually be deployed with tanks, artillery cannons and other heavy armor.
But the multinational troops, who now number 5,000, are acutely aware that their presence could become unpopular if they are viewed as supporting Israel’s attempts to eliminate Hezbollah’s arms.
French peacekeepers setting up base near the town of Deir Kifa noted they had encountered a less-than-friendly reception from some residents, who defiantly waved yellow Hezbollah flags.
“We mustn’t be seen as an occupying force — the people can reject us very quickly,” said Col. Jerome Salle.
He said the U.N. troops would mount patrols but would not establish checkpoints on public roads, to avoid inflaming residents.
Gen. Alain Pelligrini, the French officer who commands the U.N. force, said the peacekeepers wouldn’t even act if they saw weapons being carried openly by Hezbollah fighters.
“No, I would ask the Lebanese army to intervene and if the Lebanese army has difficulties in intervening, then we would see what we need to do,” he said last week.
Halim Sarhan, who runs a dental laboratory in the market town of Nabatiyeh, expressed a common sentiment when he said no one should try to disarm Hezbollah by force. “There must be political consensus on the issue first,” he said.
Hezbollah has said it would agree to disarm only if the government is strong enough to defend Lebanon against Israel — a stance that reflects its own ambitions to become the country’s dominant political force.
It has also linked the issue to Israel’s return of the Shebaa farms, a 25-square-mile contested area where Lebanon, Syria and Israel meet.
Some weapons and explosives have been found in a few Hezbollah positions that were either overrun or abandoned during the fighting, said Lebanese security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Hezbollah is thought to have a great deal of experience in concealing its weapons. Many are believed to be in underground tunnels, buried in groves or in remote parts of the mountainous south.
The U.N. forces and the Lebanese army are likely to have more teeth when it comes to preventing new weapons shipments.
A German naval force is to patrol the waters off southern Lebanon and Lebanese authorities are tightening controls at the country’s only international airport in Beirut and on the Syrian border.
But Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose country has long been a route for arms deliveries to Hezbollah believed to come from Iran, said this week that it was “Mission Impossible” to cut off the guerrillas’ supply of weapons altogether.