Tenuous Peace Holds in Lebanon

A United Nations-backed ceasefire aimed at ending a five-week conflict between Israel and Hezbollah militants in Lebanon went into effect today at 8 a.m. local time. Host Madeleine Brand speaks with The Christian Science Monitor's Scott Peterson, who is reporting from Beirut.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up on the program, President Bush flies back from Texas to Washington for meetings there about Lebanon and Iraq.

BRAND: First, we begin the program by going to the Middle East.

A U.N. cease-fire in Lebanon is still holding, although there has been some scattered fighting between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.

A U.N. peacekeeping force is expected to move into southern Lebanon in the next few days.

Joining us now from Beirut is Scott Peterson. He covers the Middle East for the Christian Science Monitor.

And welcome back to the program, Scott.

Mr. SCOTT PETERSON (Christian Science Monitor): Thank you.

BRAND: Now, Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said today the cease-fire has eliminated Hezbollah's state within a state in southern Lebanon. Well, has it?

Mr. PETERSON: Well, it hasn't, actually, if you speak to Hezbollah supporters here. I mean, they have been very, very active on the ground here. They certainly have maintained and kept their military capability. I mean, we saw this on Sunday when they launched 250 more rockets into northern Israel, taking the toll up to more than 4,000. So the military degradation, which the Israelis have said has occurred, doesn't seem to have actually manifested itself on the battlefield, at least in terms of their ability to fire rockets.

Now, I think, however, where the Israeli prime minister is coming closer to the issue, is what is going to be the status of Hezbollah after this cease-fire agreement? And this is still a point of debate in the Lebanese government itself because the question is, does Hezbollah disarm?

And the other question is, is it enough if Hezbollah pulls back to the Litani river and allows the Lebanese army to move south? Is that enough to basically prevent Hezbollah from launching any attacks into Israel if it felt that it needed to, as it says, defend itself against any further Israeli attack?

BRAND: Well, who would make Hezbollah disarm? The U.N.?

Mr. PETERSON: Well, nobody can actually make Hezbollah disarm, and this point has been made clear by every analyst who I've spoken to over the last few weeks, who recognize - I mean this is a force that by force is not going to be disarmed.

I mean the Israeli military, which is certainly the strongest in this region, has proven itself incapable of doing so. The Lebanese army is far, far weaker. So what analysts tell me is that ultimately unless Hezbollah accepts to be disarmed, it will not be disarmed.

BRAND: Well, the next step is moving this peacekeeping force into southern Lebanon. Again, that's going to take a few days, so meanwhile, we know that Hezbollah has not been disarmed and Israel has not withdrawn from the region. So this peace is still very fragile, isn't it?

Mr. PETERSON: Well, it certainly is. And of course that is really the tinder box dynamic. I mean you've got both sides in there. They've been engaged in mortal combat now for one month. The Israelis have insisted that they're not pulling out until there's another force, a credible force, at least a Lebanese army force and combined with U.N. troops that are there to take over. But that's going to take several days.

And likewise, you've got Hezbollah, which of course is not going to pull its own forces back until it's certain that the Israelis are going to leave.

BRAND: Let's talk about the U.S. role in this. It has seemingly raised the stakes by declaring this Israeli-Hezbollah conflict as part of a larger war on terrorism.

What's been the impact of that?

Mr. PETERSON: Well, the impact is quite a disturbing one, I would imagine, for policy makers in Washington, in the sense that because the stakes were raised so high, first by, in fact, American politicians and then later countered by Iranian politicians and Iranian leaders, both sides have kind of made this very, very explicitly a proxy war.

I mean, you've got - you know, in the sense that Israel's primary patron is the United States and Hezbollah and Iran, too, has always felt that if you're able to attack Israel, that is a blow to the United States, likewise the calculation in Israel and the United States has been very explicitly that if you hit Hezbollah hard, then you are also delivering a blow to Iran.

So if both sides look at this, then it means that the stakes are much, much higher.

BRAND: Scott Peterson covers the Middle East for the Christian Science Monitor. He's in Beirut.

Thank you, Scott.

Mr. PETERSON: Thank you.

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