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Israelis Across Border Not Targets, Hezbollah Says

Mideast: Rebel group also vows not to seek control over security, military matters in south. Its leader insists pullout is not complete until Lebanon regains key parcel.


BEIRUT — One day after his fighters spread throughout southern Lebanon, filling a void left by retreating Israeli troops, the leader of Hezbollah said Thursday that his guerrilla movement does not intend to harm Israeli civilians living in communities just across the border.

Sheik Hassan Nasrallah also voiced satisfaction that feared reprisals against Lebanese who worked with Israel during its 22-year occupation have not taken place. And he promised that his organization will not seek to substitute for Lebanon's government by assuming responsibility for security or military matters in the south.

As for the windfall of tanks, other weapons and munitions that fell into Hezbollah's hands after the Israelis' pullout and the collapse of their allied militia, the South Lebanon Army, or SLA, Nasrallah said his fighters will turn them over to the Lebanese government.

He suggested that the armaments be used for a national museum "as an expression of Lebanon's victory and Israel's defeat."

Hezbollah, or Party of God, launched a guerrilla campaign targeting the Israeli presence in Lebanon in 1982. Over the years, the Syrian- and Iranian-backed group has waged an increasingly effective war of attrition. It now has about 2,000 fighters.

Israel finally pulled out Wednesday. Savoring the achievement, Nasrallah spoke to foreign reporters about the new situation in which his group finds itself. Reporters were not allowed to see the guerrilla leader until all their accouterments, including ballpoint pens and eyeglasses, were inspected by guards.

So far, Nasrallah said, Hezbollah does not consider the Israeli pullback to be complete. He cited a small patch of Israeli-occupied agricultural land called Shabaa Farms that Lebanon recently claimed. Israel says the land is part of the Golan Heights seized from Syria in 1967.

"What has happened [the pullback] is very important," said Nasrallah, speaking in a Hezbollah building in the southern suburbs of Beirut, the capital. "However, as long as there is Lebanese land under occupation, and we do consider Shabaa Farms to be Lebanese, and as long as there are Lebanese prisoners in Israeli prisons, then we don't consider that U.N. Resolution 425 [which called for Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon] has been implemented. And therefore, the reasons behind the resistance still exist."

Although Nasrallah did not declare peace with Israel, the tone of the interview suggested that, for now, Hezbollah is more interested in consolidating its gains inside Lebanon than in opening new battlegrounds. "Without fighting," he said, "there are still many things we can do for our country."

Since Israel announced its plans to pull out of Lebanon by July 7, a prime question for analysts had been whether Hezbollah would pursue war with the Jewish state anyway. Hezbollah has not said much on the topic, insisting that Israel should be kept in the dark about the group's intentions.

But Nasrallah's responses Thursday, together with Hezbollah's restrained behavior this week, would seem to indicate that the movement foresees only limited conflict with Israel--and even that fighting might end if the question of the Shabaa Farms is resolved and Israel frees its remaining Lebanese prisoners.

At the border fence separating the Lebanese town of Kfar Kila and the Israeli community of Metulla, for instance, armed Lebanese guerrillas and Israeli soldiers who a few days earlier were lethal enemies are only a few dozen yards apart and have not fought--except for the occasional shout.

Asked whether Hezbollah will stick to the ground rules that prevailed before the withdrawal--that Hezbollah would not attack Israeli civilians except in reprisal for Israeli attacks on Lebanese civilians and that Hezbollah would engage the Israeli military only on Lebanese soil--Nasrallah replied, "Yes, this is true."

"We have no intention of attacking civilians, but Israel is not only made up of civilians," he said.

"To be able to say whether it is going to be stable or not, anything is possible in the future," he added. "But when it comes to [not attacking] civilians, we are very committed."

But he said he could not promise that other groups, such as fighters from among the more than 350,000 Palestinian refugees still in Lebanon, would not mount attacks against Israel from Lebanese soil.

After Israel pulled out and the proxy SLA militia collapsed, gun-brandishing, flag-waving supporters of Hezbollah became the most obvious power in the formerly occupied zone--especially since Lebanon has made a point of not sending its army into the area so as not to be seen as guaranteeing the security of Israel's border.

But Nasrallah said the appearances were wrong and that, in fact, Hezbollah forces "do not exercise any control" in the border strip. He said that Hezbollah is "neither the Lebanese judiciary, not the army, and we are not responsible for any internal security."

Asked about reports that some southern Lebanese households, especially those including Christians, were being robbed by Hezbollah guerrillas, Nasrallah said that the news had been exaggerated and that the most important point was the absence of any serious violence so far between his guerrillas and groups seen as having supported the Israeli occupation.

"Everybody was afraid of massacres, that there would be bloodshed," he said. "But nothing has happened--not one person was killed, not a drop of blood was spilled, not one person was slapped."

To some extent, the Muslim cleric said, Hezbollah has not prepared itself for the new realities in southern Lebanon because it was not expecting the Israelis and their allies to be gone so soon.

"Even we were surprised," he said.

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