By 8 a.m. May 26, 2000, the day after the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon was completed, there were already some spectators at Fatima's Gate, a former checkpoint between Israel and Lebanon, and the new Lebanese frontline with Israel.
Some were armed Hizbullah men with yellow flags, others curious citizens who came to observe the Israeli soldiers patrol the border just a few meters away.
Here you could buy some refreshments with which you could more fully enjoy your time at the border, or perhaps some Hizbullah memorabilia such as yellow T-shirts with the organization's emblem or pins of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.
Operating with their usual efficiency, Hizbullah activists quickly turned the spot into a theme-park, offering free guided tours of the area and information about the Israeli withdrawal and the historic victory of God's party. Stoning Israeli soldiers who came close to the fence was an added bonus for those who waited long enough.
After the first Lebanon War, one of those who came to stone "the Zionists," proudly posing for the camera, was renowned Palestinian historian Edward Said. Back in 2000, Said remarked: "The liberation [of south Lebanon] is a great achievement, nothing of this magnitude has happened in my lifetime... For the first time, an Arab group liberates land from Israeli forces not in the moral or... symbolic sense, but in the real and practical one. (Lebanese As-Safir newspaper, July 2000. Translation courtesy of MEMRI.)
Obviously, there were those who made sure that Said's words would be carried out - in Lebanon and beyond.
Preparing for the final battle
Hizbullah's presence in southern Lebanon was never a secret; the party's flags and posters of Nasrallah were seen from Israeli territory by the naked eye. Hizbullah men often paraded along the new border holding arms. The party's annual military parade was held in both Nabatiya and Bint Jbeil where some of the toughest battles happened this summer.
During these parades large quantities of arms, among them Katyushas, were displayed for all to see. And as Chekhov's rule states, if you introduce a gun in the first act, it must go off by the last.
Hizbullah activists, dressed in military uniforms and holding their yellow flags, didn't come out of thin air. Many were - and still are - residents of south Lebanese cities and villages, or had relatives there. They were many, they were armed, and they had cash; lots of it.
During the past six years, the South had experienced a remarkable recovery that was sponsored mainly by Hizbullah. The organization's construction company built community centers, hospitals and schools that were needed in the area. Their hospitals were better and cheaper than the government's, their schools offered free education and free meals for kids from needy families. Their construction company also lent materials for those who wanted to build their own houses to replace their old huts.
As it turned out, not only posh villas with red roofs were erected in Bint Jbeil and Ayta ash-Shaab, but also weapons warehouses, bunkers and military bases.
Not only money, but also weapons were pouring into the South, turning it into a Hizbullah bastion. Providing a wide social network for the population and fighting for the rights of local citizens - already sympathetic to the causes of God's party - Hizbullah activists gained overwhelming support and 100 percent freedom of movement and action in the area.
Moreover, in 2001, Hizbullah, whose funding came in part from the large hashish fields in the South, openly confronted the central government that insisted on eradicating these crops in the Beqaa valley. Hizbullah's MPs used the press to attack the government and the decision to eradicate the hashish fields in Beqaa was never fully implemented. This was just one more sign of the organization's rising strength - and the Lebanese government's growing weakness.
DRIVING TO the South from Beirut just a few days prior to the breakout of hostilities in the region, it struck me that I hadn't seen even one Lebanese army post or members of the Lebanese police force since I left the outskirts of Beirut. Not even traffic police appeared. (It turns out that there are moments when you actually do want to see traffic police.)
Since Israel pulled out of the South, neither the Lebanese nor the Syrian army had filled in the gap. Here, and in the southern suburbs of Beirut, there was little sympathy for the central government dominated by Christian Marronites and Sunni Muslims who seemed insensitive to the needs of the population in the South.
Even on the day of murdered prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri's funeral, the only regions that seemed unaffected by grief and sorrow were Harat al-Hreik in the southern suburb of Beirut, and Nabatiya - the capital of the South. In the vacuum created by the IDF's 2000 withdrawal, Nabatiya has also arguably become the capital of Hizbullahland.
Why didn't the Lebanese army deploy in the South right after Israel's withdrawal in 2000? I put the question to a colleague, a Lebanese journalist who covered south Lebanon affairs at the time.
"It was never a real option," he said. "Hizbullah was always a dominating force in this region, and the Lebanese army was indeed too weak to dictate its power. Some people in the government realized what a grave mistake it was making, but were not able to make a move. You also have to remember that at the time, Syria still held Lebanon firmly in its jaws."
Although the Syrian army was never deployed in the South (it had units in Beirut, Metn, Bekaa Valley, Tripoli, Batrum and Kafr Kalous), many arms deliveries that came through the Syrian-Lebanese border were conveyed or brought with the help of the Syrian army, which felt quite at home in Lebanon.
As for public opinion in the South, many Lebanese, not only among the Hizbullah supporters, always felt threatened by Israel and believed that in the case of attack or aggression, they could only seek the protection of "the resistance." Both in Lebanese cities and in Palestinian refugee camps I heard people saying, "They [Israel] will never leave Lebanon alone." Just a few months ago, when things were still quiet at the border with Israel, a man in the Ein-Hilwe Palestinian Refugee Camp, near the Lebanese town of Saida, showed me the machine-gun on the roof of his house and explained that it was meant for the Jews, when "they come."
As for the residents of south Lebanon, who have witnessed many Israeli incursions, they always trusted the armed resistance movements where their own sons had fought. They did not trust the impotent Lebanese army.
The trouble spot
There were some Lebanese who didn't wish to see the South turning into the Hizbullahland that it eventually became. A few courageous politicians and journalists constantly warned about the phenomena that threatened both Lebanese sovereignty and stability.
Among those who incessantly spoke and wrote about this menace was An-Nahar newspaper editor, Jibran Tweini. "We want to know, honestly, who supports the exclusive right of Hizbullah to conduct operations from Lebanese territory, according to its will and the will of its regional partners. We want to hear a clear position and not 'diplomatic' declarations supporting the problem but not clarifying if they actually support the operation, the decision-making [that led to it] and its implementation - unless the ghost of fear - of whom? - has taken control of those responsible and put a dampener on them and their independent decision-making," Tweini wrote in 2003.
Another famous Lebanese journalist, Khairallah Khairallah, warned that if measures weren't taken soon, every Lebanese would pay a high price for the impossible situation in the South.
"What is distressing, in light of all this, is that Hizbullah will not be the only loser in Lebanon if it continues to cling to its current position, [i.e.] refusing to move on to political activity following disarmament. The loser will be Lebanon - the country with no majority, merely groups of minorities that either win together or lose together," Khairallah wrote in the London Arabic paper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat in April 2005.
There were also some ministers and MPs who felt that Lebanon was in fact sitting on a barrel of explosives. But not the pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud, who often said publicly that the disintegration of the South from the country was a somewhat alarming development and the speaker of the parliament, ex-leader of the Shiite Amal organization, Nabieh Berry. According to them, Hizbullah was not a militia, but a legitimate resistance organization which was fully entitled to exist. "If the resistance had not existed, Lebanon should have created it," said Berry, publicly speaking in May 2005 in Nabatiya (translation courtesy of MEMRI).
And so, despite criticism from certain circles, UN Resolution 1559 and a 17-month-old national dialogue aimed at disarming Hizbullah, the arms race in the South, Beqaa Valley and the southern suburbs of Beirut went on.
Back to the future
As we speak, the Lebanese army units are deploying in south Lebanon for the first time in 40 years. Just like Hizbullah combatants in May 2000, soldiers are being greeted by locals with flowers, rice and sweets, but also with Hizbullah banners on their houses.
The soldiers, many of whom are Shiites, entered the cities only to find themselves warmly embraced by a thick ring of locals, jollied at the view of "al-watan" (or "nationals," the nickname for the Lebanese army soldiers).
Will they and can they fulfill the difficult task of both guarding the area, preventing violations of the cease-fire and, at a later point, disarming Hizbullah and its ally Palestinian organizations in the area? The omens are not good.
It seems that the current Lebanese government is determined to preserve the cease-fire at any cost, publicly threatening anybody who puts it at risk.
At a press conference in Beirut held on July 20, Lebanese defense minister, Elias al-Murr, said that "anyone who will dare fire a rocket from the South will be dealt with as a traitor and subjected to military court."
But it seems as if keeping the cease-fire, at least for the moment, is also in Hizbullah's interests, since the organization needs some time to recuperate, reorganize and deal with the economic hardship of the local population. The burning question today is will and can the Lebanese army, with the help of neo-UNIFIL, stop the flow of weapons to the South, given that the Syrian-Lebanese border still remains the major port for such deliveries from both Syria and Iran.
Further, one of Hizbullah's websites has recently published an internal Lebanese army statement, circulated among forces in the past week, which calls for troops to "stand alongside your resistance and your people who astonished the world with its steadfastness and destroyed the prestige of the so-called invincible army after it was defeated."
The issue has also been discussed widely in the studio of Hizbullah's TV channel, Al-Manar. Its journalists repeatedly say that there is an understanding between the "resistance fighters" and the army over searching houses and fields for arms and confiscating them.
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