The Lebanese are holding their breath. Will the cease-fire, which started this morning at 8 am, hold ? No one dares imagine what happens if it doesn’t, but an extraordinary phenomenon developed this morning as thousands of southern residents took to the road back to their villages, voting literally with their feet for a return to peace and normalcy. Another encouraging dimension was the announced withdrawal of Israeli troops, signaling that there is no Israeli desire to stay in Lebanon should the cease-fire hold under the terms of UNSCR 1701.

Two heavy clouds remain: one concerns the low threshold of a nervous Israel, which turns any incident into a risk for hell to break loose. Incidents are inevitable on an imbricate terrain where Israeli soldiers and Hezbollah militants form a fuzzy map. One or two Hezbollah militants were killed today, and the repetition of such incidents would quickly undermine the truce. Speaking to the Knesset this afternoon, the Israeli Prime Minister announced Israel’s intention to continue its pursuit of Hezbollah. War would be again inevitable if these threats were carried out against Hezbollah’s leadership.

This cloud is reinforced by the one cast by the ambiguity of Hezbollah, which professes support to the cease-fire, but considers it has the right to shoot at Israeli soldiers so long as they stay on Lebanese soil.

Both clouds should be forcefully dispelled, by lessening the zero-tolerance attitude of Israel and opposing a Hamas-like decapitation policy, and by working on removing Hezbollah’s ambiguity. I do not have the means to help on the first score, although I find the absence of open military preparations for foreign troops to move into the south a grave failure of the international community. The clause in Resolution 1701 requesting Israel to withdraw as early as possible should be taken seriously, and rapid withdrawal is contingent on foreign troops taking over. One does not yet see tangible signs of these troops, except for talk about the readiness of some countries to deploy them eventually. The Security Council had ample time to show such troops to be ready for immediate deployment in South Lebanon. Any delay brooks risk, and the dynamic of peace should be reinforced by far greater dynamism on this score.

On Hezbollah’s ambiguity, I expressed my opinion forcefully on Lebanese and Egyptian national television yesterday. There is no way armed Hezbollah militants can remain between the Litani River and the border. Should attacks be leveled against Israel, as the leadership of Hezbollah is trying to argue on the basis of a revival the so-called 1996 Israel-Lebanon Cease-Fire Understanding, peace will be immediately wrecked. That agreement was reached against a very different set of circumstances, as Israel was refusing to leave South Lebanon, and a stopgap modus vivendi developed to lessen civilian casualties on both sides. Today the peace plan introduced by UNSCR 1701 is based on the premise of a quick Israeli withdrawal and the parallel, exclusive deployment of international and Lebanese troops. There is no room for halfway measures that allow combat to resume in any form.

The ambiguous refusal by Hezbollah to vacate the South militarily already occasioned a serious crisis in the Council of Ministers, which failed to convene yesterday because the two Hezbollah ministers were reluctant to endorse that specific requirement of UNSCR 1701. This is not acceptable. Should Hezbollah boycott the Council of Ministers or refuse to conform to that clause, they should leave the government. Having been a year ago the first person in Lebanon to advocate the participation of Hezbollah ministers in government, against a decade and a half of a tacit understanding between Syria and the United States that they should be kept out, I feel morally compelled to speak out. When I suggested last year that Hezbollah should not be prevented from participating in government, I also insisted on the necessary quid pro quo: they could do not continue to operate as a separate armed force outside the law. Lebanon paid dearly for this weakness.

To protect the cease-fire, accelerate Israeli withdrawal and give a chance to a lasting peace on the border, the choice is clear: either Hezbollah ministers stay in government, and conform to UNSCR 1701, which was formally accepted by Lebanon; or they leave government and stay in opposition. Conforming to UNSCR 1701 means an end to Hezbollah’s military presence south of the Litani River and the recovery of all the land reoccupied by Israel since July 12 by the Lebanese army and an enhanced U.N. contingent. In a second stage, it includes the participation of Hezbollah in Lebanese political life exclusively as a Lebanese political, not a military, movement. As Lebanese, we cannot allow this oddity to remain, and cannot afford another war.

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