A shaky cease-fire Q & A

As a shaky ceasefire took effect Monday morning, Lebanese and Israeli officials met at the war-ravaged border between their two countries to set in motion a military disengagement and, perhaps, a measure of peace.

But so delicate is the situation, and so uncharted the road ahead, that a true end to more than a month of warfare between Israel’s troops and Hezbollah guerilla fighters remains difficult to discern.

Even President Bush, as he cast the agreement as another step toward democracy in the region, reflected the unease that accompanied the hard-won ceasefire that, at least for now, has ended 34 days of bloody battle.

“We certainly hope the cease-fire holds,” Bush said.

Here’s a first look at what is known — and unknown — about the terms of the truce and its immediate future.

Q. What does the agreement actually say?

A. As such documents always are, the cease-fire pact is vague and provides, at best, a blueprint for its interpretation and enforcement. The devilish details remain to be hammered out by Israeli, Lebanese and United Nations officials.

For instance, Israel is to withdraw its soldiers at the “earliest possible” time, but only once the Lebanese army moves into southern Lebanon to begin carving out an 18-mile deep buffer zone between Israel and Hezbollah strongholds.

But Israel says it will not budge until a 15,000-person U.N. peacekeeping force arrives. The pact also bars only “offensive” actions by Israel _which that country is interpreting as allowing pre-emptive “defensive” air strikes against Hezbollah rocket launchers that appear ready to fire or to stop arms deliveries from Syria.

And Hezbollah, while formally agreeing to the truce, also insists that it retains the right to defend Lebanese soil from Israeli “occupiers” as long as they remain north of the border.

The agreement also requires the guerillas to disarm by surrendering their weapons to the Lebanese army, but does not authorize anyone to make Hezbollah do so. In fact, Lebanon’s U.N. ambassador vowed that his government would not use force against them.

Q. What happens next?

A. All eyes now turn toward the Lebanese army, a rag-tag, undisciplined assemblage that all but certainly includes Hezbollah followers. Lebanese generals said 15,000 soldiers would arrive at the Litani river demarcation point within two or three days.

There they are likely to sit for an undetermined period of time, as a U.N. force is cobbled together and its duties decided. The foreign minister of France _ the country expected to command the 15,000 international peacekeepers _ said Monday that it was far too early to present a timetable for deployment.

For now, not only is it unknown which countries will contribute soldiers to the U.N. force, but also what powers the force will bring.

Though discussions with assorted nations were underway Monday, France still had not yet decided how many of its soldiers to send. Other countries that might sign up _ including China, Ghana, India, Ireland, Italy and Poland _ won’t be asked to participate until France’s commitment is sealed. One certainty: no U.S. forces will be included.

More important than the makeup of the force will be the “rules of engagement” it will follow. The ceasefire deal says the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, can take “all necessary action” to “fulfill its mission.”

How those phrases are interpreted will determine whether the force will intervene to halt cross-border attacks or serve as a more passive watchdog. The latter describes the performance of previous UNIFIL observers first dispatched to southern Lebanon in 1978.

Q. What are the odds the truce will hold?

A. Don’t bet the ranch. Modern Middle Eastern history is replete with ceasefires gone bad, particularly in Israeli-Arab conflicts.

U.N. diplomats say success will depend on the United States pressuring Israel to obey the deal it signed, and on war-weary Lebanese citizens and officials doing the same to Hezbollah.

But Lebanon’s government will likely find Hezbollah, flush with the respect its undermanned force has drawn from the Arab world and beyond for its muscular resistance to Israel’s pounding, little inclined to kowtow to Lebanese officials or anyone else.

And in Israel, anger is building at the failure of Israeli forces to bring Hezbollah to its knees — as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had promised to do. That, too, does not foretell a fertile environment for further concessions or much patience should Hezbollah test the limits of the pact.

In a speech to Israel’s parliament Monday, Olmert insisted that Israel had won recognition from “the entire international community” that “the terror state in Lebanon must be annihilated.”

But opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu said the fighting had ended without the return of kidnapped Israeli soldiers and the permanent disarming of Hezbollah — which Olmert had said was the purpose of the fight.

“Unfortunately, there will be another round (in this war) because the government’s just demands weren’t met,” Netanyahu told the Israeli Knesset Monday. “Right now we are in an interim period between wars.”

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com)