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  Hezbollah Defines Its Political Role

By Zeina Karam
Associated Press Writer
Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2000; 3:02 p.m. EDT

BEIRUT, Lebanon –– After years of battling Israeli troops in south Lebanon, the Hezbollah guerrilla movement now looks set to play an significant role in Lebanese politics after voters rewarded the "party of God" with gains in parliament elections this week.

Hezbollah, treated as heroes by many Lebanese after Israel's May 24 withdrawal from the south after two decades of occupation, has said little since about its political agenda, but is talking about focusing on the social services they're already providing to their Shiite Muslim constituency.

In voting Sunday in south Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley and Beirut, Hezbollah increased its delegates in the 128-member legislature from seven to nine – with three Hezbollah-backed candidates also winning seats.

"They (Hezbollah) are hardworking. They gave us their blood. The least we could do is reward them for their heroic efforts," said Hassan Abu Abbas, 32, a Shiite butcher from Khiam village who voted Sunday.

Hezbollah's deputy secretary-general Naim Kassem insisted Tuesday that with its political gains the party was not forsaking its role as "protector" of Lebanon's sovereignty.

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said the movement would unleash rockets on northern Israeli towns if Israel tried to move back across the border.

Kassem told reporters Tuesday the election victory was "an added responsibility." Hezbollah will now strive "toward developing the deprived liberated areas ... and achieving social equality in all regions" of Lebanon, he said.

Since the Israeli withdrawal, Hezbollah has provided services, such as water and health care, that the Lebanese government was slow to supply in the former occupied enclave.

Ibrahim al-Amin, an analyst with the daily As-Safir, said Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, was still a regional player.

"If a serious and effective Palestinian resistance (to Israel) is launched inside the Palestinian areas and the Palestinians enlist Hezbollah's help, I don't think they would balk," he said.

Amin noted that Hezbollah's support at the polls came even though the guerrilla movement has said little about their political goals.

"Hezbollah is probably the only group to draw up a political program after elections, not before," said . He noted, however, that Hezbollah had little time for platform writing between the Israeli pullout and parliamentary elections, which were held in two stages on Aug. 27 and Sept. 3.

Amid said Hezbollah's increasing popularity could give it a seat in the next Cabinet for the first time. "It is possible," he said, "unless the new government intends to put peace with Israel on its agenda for the coming stage."

Kassem said Hezbollah would consider an offer of a Cabinet post, if it were made, but would not necessarily accept it. The group apparently has already learned not to reveal too much in the game of politics.

While enthusiastic Shiite guerrilla supporters streamed to the polls, the atmosphere among Christians in the former Israeli-occupied zone in the south, where they are a minority, was more subdued. Most chose to stay away from the voting.

"I haven't seen anything, good or bad, from anyone," said Malek, a 40-year-old Christian school teacher in Marjayoun who gave only his first name. "We've been cut off, forgotten for so long. Why should I vote for anyone specific?"

Hezbollah showed political savvy in the elections, teaming up with its traditional rival, the Amal guerrilla group, to forge an election coalition headed by Amal chief Nabih Berri. The ticket swept all 23 parliamentary seats allotted for south Lebanon.

The alliance ensured that neither group would emerge as dominant among Lebanon's 1.2 million Shiite Muslims but also meant that Hezbollah and Amal voters did not cancel out each others' ballots, which would have benefitted other parties.

The last time that residents of the former Israeli-occupied zone voted was in the 1972 parliamentary elections. There were no elections in Lebanon during the country's 1975-90 civil war and parliamentary polls in 1992 and 1996 did not include the border areas because of the Israeli occupation.

© Copyright 2000 The Associated Press

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