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Experts: Hezbollah Praised Among Arabs as Israel Cites Battle Successes


Israel has sharply increased its ground campaign against Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon, in an effort to push the militants back from the border before a cease-fire is declared. Israeli military leaders say Hezbollah has been severely weakened by the fighting, but some Middle East analysts say the group's popularity is increasing in the Arab world.

Israeli Army Brigadier General Mike Herzog says the Jewish state has destroyed about 70 percent of Hezbollah's medium and long-range rockets and their launchers, although the guerrilla group is still believed to have thousands of shorter-range Katyusha rockets in its arsenal.

"The picture that I get from everybody in the know I speak with in Israel, until now Israel has seriously degraded Hezbollah's capability, very seriously," he said. "So it may not be the picture that is out there in the media, but they are suffering a very severe blow, which takes them back years."

Three weeks after the war erupted when Hezbollah seized two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, Israel's security cabinet agreed to expand its ground offensive in southern Lebanon.

Israeli officials say the their troops could push as far as 30 kilometers across the border.

Hisham Melhem is the Washington-based correspondent for An-Nahar, one of Lebanon's leading, Arabic-language newspapers.

Melhem says within Lebanon, Hezbollah's popularity has steadily increased as the fighting intensifies.

"Obviously Hezbollah's standing in Lebanon, not withstanding the initial Lebanese anger at Hezbollah, that came from other communities and other leaders, because of Hezbollah's reckless behavior, which led to this onslaught. But definitely today Hezbollah is projecting itself in Lebanon as the protector of the homeland," he noted. "Hezbollah is riding high, not only in Lebanon, but throughout the Arab world."

Martin Indyk was the U.S. ambassador to Israel in 1996 when Lebanese civilians in the village of Qana were gathered in a United Nations compound seeking shelter from fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. An Israeli artillery shell hit the facility, killing more than 100 people.

Last Sunday an Israeli air strike on the same village killed dozens of civilians including many children, sparking international outrage and calls for a swift end to the fighting.

Indyk says the time has come for the international community to back proposals for a quick cease-fire.

"So the lesson from the Qana experience in my view is first of all we have to now go for what is achievable and that means a cease-fire that protects the civilian population and a package that leads to the Lebanese Army deploying to the south, backed by an international force," said Mr. Indyk.

Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. Telhami predicts that countries that support Hezbollah, such as Iran and Syria, will not likely agree to a peace plan that leads to disarming the group.

Telhami says a more comprehensive proposal to solve regional issues in the Middle East is needed to bring a lasting peace.

"I suggest in the end unless we put on the table some kind of a diplomatic initiative that is much more comprehensive, that addresses a process that leads to reopening negotiations between Syria and Israel and reopening the negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel, not now, not before we have a cease-fire, but as soon as we have a cease-fire, I think we are going to be in trouble, because there are linkages and those linkages are strong and cannot be avoided," he said.

President Bush says an immediate cease-fire without conditions will not end the fighting.

Mr. Bush is calling for a solution that includes support for the democratic government in Beirut, deployment of a large, international force to create a buffer zone in southern Lebanon and an end to regional support for terrorism.

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