A fragile cease-fire went into effect Monday morning, putting a tenuous end to fighting between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas. More than 1,200 people have been killed and thousands more wounded since the conflict began nearly five weeks ago.
The cease-fire was ordered through a U.N. resolution unanimously passed by the U.N. Security Council on Friday. Its aim: to put an end to the war started on July 12, when Hezbollah crossed the border, killing eight Israeli soldiers and kidnapping two others.
Israel responded by bombing Hezbollah strongholds and moving ground troops into the south of Lebanon. Hezbollah then began launching daily rocket attacks into northern Israel.
After a lengthy debate, the Israeli Cabinet approved the resolution 24-0, with one abstention by former Israeli defense minister Shaul Mofaz. The Lebanese government and Hezbollah agreed to the cease-fire on Saturday.
Blaming Iran & Syria
President George W. Bush on Monday blamed much of the conflict on Iran for funding and arming Hezbollah. Bush condemned both Iran and Syria for backing armed groups in both Lebanon and Iraq.
"In both these countries, Iran is backing armed groups in the hope of stopping democracy from taking hold," the president said. "The message of this administration is clear: America will stay on the offensive against al-Qaida. Iran must stop its support for terror, and the leaders of these armed groups must make a choice. If they want to participate in the political life of their countries, they must disarm."
A Gradual Pullout
Under the deal, Israeli troops will gradually pull out from southern Lebanon, as roughly 30,000 Lebanese and international troops deploy.
But Israeli troops and Hezbollah guerrillas remain poised to resume fighting. Israel says its troops will continue to destroy Hezbollah assets until those areas are handed over to the Lebanese army and U.N. troops. The leader of Hezbollah, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, says fighting against Israel will continue as long as Israeli troops are on Lebanese soil.
Captain Jacob Dallal, a military spokesman, told the Associated Press that the Israeli army was warning Lebanese civilians to keep away from the south until Lebanese troops and U.N. peacekeepers moved in to manage the cease-fire. But that did not deter many Lebanese, who loaded belongings into their cars and jammed the roads heading south.
Displaced Lebanese told NPR's Ivan Watson that they were skeptical about how long the cease-fire would hold, but they were determined to find out if their homes were still standing and to dig bodies from the rubble.
In northern Israel, NPR's Eric Westervelt reports that some people are returning to their homes, but in small numbers. The Israeli government has not changed its alert status for the north and has not told people it is safe to return. With the deployment of Lebanese troops and U.N. forces to the border region still days or weeks away, Israeli officials say their troops will not draw down.
No Clear Winner
The deal has both sides claiming victory to some extent. NPR's Ivan Watson, who's in southern Lebanon, reported this morning that within hours of the cease-fire, Hezbollah supporters were handing out leaflets near a bombed out bridge, congratulating the Lebanese people for a victory over Israel.
The leader of Hezbollah, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said his guerrillas had achieved a "strategic, historic victory" against Israel — a victory never achieved by Arab governments.
Aaron David Miller, a Middle East analyst at the Woodrow Wilson Center, told NPR that Hezbollah can't be considered a victor through this deal. But by surviving Israel's attempt to wipe it out, he said Hezbollah has gained a psychological upper hand in the conflict, and bolstered its image in the Middle East as a defender against perceived Israeli aggression.
Israeli Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres said that, while Israel would have to learn lessons from the war, "In my view, we came out of this with the upper hand, both politically and militarily."
Israel's Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni gave a more sober endorsement of the agreement's sticking power.
"I'm not naïve," she said. "I live in the Middle East, and I know that sometimes not every decision is implemented. I'm aware of the difficulties. Yet with this, I say with full confidence that the Security Council decision is good for Israel."
But experts agree that there is no clear winner in this deal. At the outset, Israel said it would continue its military operations until Hezbollah was disarmed, the Lebanese government assumed control of the south, and the kidnapped Israeli soldiers were returned unconditionally.
While top-level U.N. diplomats agree that Hezbollah should be disarmed, there was no specific mention of it in the cease-fire agreement. The truce also did not mention a timeline for the deployment of a U.N. peacekeeping force. And Israel now says it will negotiate for the release of its soldiers, although Israeli officials have dismissed suggestions of a prisoner exchange.
In Israel, Military Plans Second-Guessed
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is trying to diffuse a growing political backlash against him and his handling of a war that many Israelis say went on too long and failed to achieve its objectives.
During a special session of the Israeli parliament, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the U.N. resolution would prevent Hezbollah from acting within the state of Lebanon as part of the "axis of evil." He went on to say that the resolution contains "obligations that should change fundamentally the situation along the northern border."
Olmert admitted shortcomings in the operation and took full responsibility. He made his statement hours after Defense Minister Amir Peretz promised a thorough investigation of Israel's operations in Lebanon.
But Israeli officials don't have faith in the United Nations or its resolutions in the Middle East, NPR's Linda Gradstein reports from Jerusalem. Many officials privately criticize the U.N. force that has been in southern Lebanon since the late 1970s, which they say turned a blind eye while Hezbollah amassed huge stockpiles of rockets that were then used against Israel.
Israeli officials say the U.N.'s credibility in the Middle East has been eroded through a series of resolutions that have never done what they're supposed to do. Chief among them, officials say, is a resolution passed in 2004 that forced Syria out of Lebanon and called for the dissolution of all militias in Lebanon — including Hezbollah — and affirmed the sovereignty of the Lebanese government and its control over the country.
Messy Political Process Ahead
The question now is how quickly and effectively the U.N. resolution can be implemented, and how long the peace can be kept. Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group told NPR that if Hezbollah is to be effectively disarmed, it will happen not through military means, but through a potentially messy political process.
Meanwhile, the threat of sectarian violence in Lebanon looms. Now that the rockets and bombs have been quelled, Lebanon's Christian and Sunni groups may begin to more vocally criticize Nasrallah for dragging them into a war they never wanted. And tough questions are likely to surface about whether Lebanon's army has the capacity, strength and wherewithal to take control of southern Lebanon.
While the international community tries to hold together this tenuous peace, there are much broader geo-political questions to be asked about the role of Iran and Syria in this war, the future of the Shiite majority in Lebanon if and when Hezbollah is disarmed, and how this conflict will affect U.S. foreign policy objectives in the region.
In the meantime, Israeli and Lebanese forces maintain their positions along the border. And civilians on both sides remain skeptical of a long-term peace, but embrace what appears to be a temporary halt to the violence.