Rules of the game start to change for Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon
Monday, December 27 9:13 PM SGT
JERUSALEM, Dec 27 (AFP) -
The start of talks between Israel and Syria appears to have already
provoked a shift in relations between the Jewish state and its sworn enemy in
south Lebanon, the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah.
The change in the rules of the game in Lebanon was marked Sunday by the
release of five Hezbollah members who had been held for years by Israel.
Despite international pressure, the Jewish state had until now refused
to release 21 Lebanese kidnapped for use as bargaining chips in the effort
to secure the return of Ron Arad, an Israeli airman taken prisoner in 1986
by Shiites in Lebanon, or at least obtain information on him.
Public radio, citing Israeli military officials stressed that the releases came
after the restart of talks between Israel and Syria, which has a dominating
influence over Beirut.
After the first round of talks in December, the talks are due to resume
on January 3 in the United States.
"This is definitely progress in relations between Israel and
Hezbollah," the Maariv newspaper quoted a source close to Barak as saying.
It also quoted a senior security official as saying the release of the five
was linked to a temporary ceasefire that enabled Hezbollah to retrieve
the remains of fighters killed in clashes with Israeli forces.
"Together they attest to a new leaf that Israel has turned over in its
contacts with Hezbollah," the official said.
But Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin said Monday that Israel would
refuse to release the two most important detained Lebanese Islamists.
They are Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid, a Hezbollah official kidnapped in July
1989 by Israeli commandos, and Mustafa Dirani, who was snatched in the
same way in 1984.
"The case of these two detainees is different to the 14 other Lebanese,"
Beilin told Israeli radio.
The announcement of a restart of Israel-Lebanon talks, suspended since
1994, is also expected. Preparations for a withdrawal from the "security
zone" of 850 square kilometres (340 square miles) occupied by the Israeli army
in south Lebanon have also accelerated.
In February, the army will start the preliminary phase of its redeployment,
a senior military source said Sunday, according to Israeli press agency
Barak wants to start withdrawing his troops from Lebanon in April, if
peace talks with Syria make progress, the daily Yediot Aharonot said Sunday.
The prime minister approved the army's plan for withdrawal from Lebanon --
called "New Horizons" -- on Friday.
But for the withdrawal to be a success, Israel must be convinced that
Hezbollah will not attack Israeli towns in the Galilee from the evacuated
territory to the north.
Hezbollah on its side has shown in recent days its restraint under Syrian
influence, military officials told the radio.
Public television commentator Ehud Yaari believes that Hezbollah has
started preparing "its metamorphosis, taking account of a possible agreement
between Israel and both Syria and Lebanon, from an armed militia into a
This development in relations between Israel and Hezbollah has already
translated on the ground into a 72-hour ceasefire last week in south
Lebanon to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to gather
the remains of five Hezbollah fighters killed by Israel.
Israel's Deputy Defence Minister Ephraim Sneh later connected the
ceasefire to the relaunch of Israel-Syria talks. "In theory, the two questions
are independent, but in practice there is a relationship between the
ceasefire and the atmosphere of a thaw with Syria," Sneh said.
Before that, Hezbollah refrained from launching reprisal attacks after
20 Lebanese pupils were injured on December 16 by a fragmentation shell
fired by pro-Israeli forces into a village in south Lebanon.