Israeli defense officials expressed extreme concern Thursday over Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah's call for a massive protest Friday to bring down the Lebanese government, warning that UNIFIL might be expelled from Lebanon if Prime Minister Fuad Saniora were forced to leave office. Hizbullah and its allies in the parliamentary opposition called for a mass demonstration,which tookkplace on in downtown Beirut on Friday afternoon, with the aim of bringing down Saniora's anti-Syrian coalition. If the shaky government falls, the Israeli defense officials warned, UNIFIL and the Lebanese Army might be forced from southern Lebanon, which, along with the Bekaa Valley, is Hizbullah's home ground.
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While Hizbullah has continued to rebuild its military power since the UN-brokered cease-fire took effect on August 14, its gunmen have refrained from displaying their weapons near the border with Israel.
"UNIFIL is not the best, but it has been effective so far in preventing Hizbullah from returning to the border," a high-ranking defense official told The Jerusalem Post Thursday. "If UNIFIL is kicked out of Lebanon, we could easily find ourselves back in the same situation we were in before the war this past summer, or even back at war."
Saniora said Thursday he would not allow mass demonstrations to oust his government, and warned that Lebanon's democracy was in danger.
In a toughly worded address, he urged Lebanese to rally behind his beleaguered government, saying that only parliament could take away his mandate.
"We will not allow the overthrow of the democratic system, its foundations and its institutions... We are staying in our place," Saniora said in a nationally televised address.
"Lebanon's independence is threatened and its democratic system is in danger," he said, adding: "Do not be afraid and do not despair. We have a just cause. Threats will not deter us. Maneuvers and ultimatums will not terrorize us."
Saniora said that while the protesters had a right to demonstrate, the government would not allow any attacks on public or private property.
Security forces fear Friday's protesters could try to storm government buildings.
The coming days would be "decisive for Lebanon's present and future," Saniora said. He asked opponents to enter into dialogue, stressing that his government could only be brought down through the political process.
"There is no way to topple the government except through parliament, which grants confidence," Saniora said. "Anything else is falsehood, illusion, violation of the constitution and a coup."
Supporters of the beleaguered prime minister vowed they would not cave in to Hizbullah's pressure, calling it "an attempted coup" planned by Syria.
"We've had enough assassinations, death and clashes," Christian Maronite Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir told a gathering of widows and relatives of slain politicians and activists at his mountain seat in Bkirki, northeast of Beirut.
"Strikes and protests do not solve the problems. It will further complicate it," he said, warning that if protesters from the two camps clash, "we don't know where that will lead."
A senior member of the pro-Saniora camp vowed to resist Hizbullah.
"We tell them that the government in Lebanon and in any democracy is not overthrown by demonstrations," said Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh. "We have a majority in the house, a majority in the country, and we are sticking to it. Hizbullah will not be able to overthrow the Lebanese government," he told Associated Press Television.
Lebanon's army chief, Gen. Michel Suleiman, warned of a possible violent showdown and called for restraint from all sides. He ordered his troops to fulfill their role "protecting freedom of expression and preventing riots." He also said troops should "not hesitate to intervene to prevent clashes between the two sides," newspapers reported.
Hizbullah's call for nonviolent street protests came in a joint opposition statement read on Hizbullah's Al Manar television station. The demonstrations are to begin at 3 p.m. Friday in downtown Beirut, where the government has its offices.
"I call upon you all for a popular action to put pressure to achieve this goal," Nasrallah said. He said the demonstrations should be "peaceful and civilized" as their aim would be to "push things in a peaceful, civil and political manner toward this choice." The government, he said, "has proven it is incompetent and has failed to fulfill its promises and achieve anything significant."
Soon after Nasrallah spoke, celebratory gunfire and firecrackers were heard in Hizbullah-controlled areas of Beirut.
Saniora and his cabinet have been bracing for such demonstrations for days. The security forces have stationed troops, barbed wire and armored vehicles outside the main government complex, where the prime minister and some cabinet members have been living in a guest house.
Nasrallah said the government only represented part of the Lebanese people.
"Lebanon with its [sectarian] makeup cannot be administered by one side amid difficult internal conditions," he said, adding that the answer was to form a broader-based cabinet.
"Let us call for a national unity government," Nasrallah said, repeating a phrase that has become identified with his call for Hizbullah and its allies to get a veto-wielding third of the cabinet. "We are not talking about eliminating others," he said, referring to the incumbent ministers.
AP contributed to this report.