BEIRUT — U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice has come and gone, but the conflict in Lebanon continues. Most Lebanese believe she had little to say for them through her talks with leaders of the region.
Rice held an unannounced meeting in Beirut Monday with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, with the stated goal of ending the ongoing conflict between Hezbollah and Israel.
Rice is reported to have told Siniora that there could be no ceasefire until Hezbollah released two Israeli soldiers captured during an attack, and until Hezbollah withdraws from the Israeli border.
Rice was also quoted as saying that the captured soldiers must be released unconditionally, and Hezbollah forces moved at least 20km back from the border.
Hezbollah has dismissed both demands, and continues to demand release of thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons.
Siniora has repeatedly called for ceasefire since the fighting began two weeks ago. He has said that a prisoner swap and an end to Israeli occupation of the Shebaa Farms in southern Lebanon would be a better political solution. Shebaa Farms is a 30 sq km agricultural area of mostly abandoned farms on the slopes of Mount Hermon at the junction of Syria, Lebanon and Israel.
Following Rice’s visit to Beirut, the United States announced a 30 million dollar aid package for Lebanon. Many here see this as crumbs of aid, and no compensation for the position the United States is taking in support of Israel.
Tuesday afternoon and night, Israeli jets continued to pound both southern Lebanon and the Dahaya district of southern Beirut. Hezbollah continues to launch rockets into northern Israel, killing and wounding civilians.
Fierce fighting continues in the south between Israeli soldiers and Hezbollah fighters, as the conflict enters its third week. There appears to be no end in sight to the ongoing violence.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told reporters after meeting Rice that Israel is determined to continue its military operations in Lebanon. He said “severe measures” would be taken against Hezbollah. “Israel is determined to continue on in the fight against Hezbollah.”
Rice appeared to support this policy when she said that while a ceasefire was needed, it could not come at any price. “It is time for a new Middle East,” she told reporters.
Rice said that the terms of UN resolution 1559 and the Taif Agreement, which ended the Lebanese civil war in 1990, must be met. Both documents state that the Lebanese government should exercise full control over its territory, and disarm militias, including Hezbollah.
Hezbollah refuses to disarm, and refuses to withdraw from the southern border to make way for an international peacekeeping force. Several European Union countries have offered to assist in a UN peacekeeping force on the border.
Near the end of her short visit to Beirut, Rice told Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih Berri that “the situation on the border cannot return to what it was before Jul. 12.”
Berri, a Shia Muslim who has worked with both Siniora and Hezbollah since the fighting erupted, dismissed her proposals, and insisted that a ceasefire must precede any talks regarding Hezbollah’s presence in southern Lebanon.
The sticking point seems to be what should come first. Most leaders in the Lebanese government want a ceasefire first, and then exchanges of prisoners, to be followed by discussions on other issues. On the other hand, Israel wants Hezbollah — which the Lebanese government has little if any control over — to leave the border area immediately and free the captured soldiers without conditions.
Rice was not able to shake either position through her visit. And on the streets of Beirut, people had their own views about her and her efforts.
“The Prime Minister should never have received her,” said Samer Razzouk, a 23-year-old information technology instructor. “Rice is only another face of Israeli policy, and she has no interest in a peaceful settlement.”
Several sizable demonstrations against her visit were held around Beirut Monday.
But she did have her supporters. “We think that although it is a difficult solution she proposes, it is the best and final solution for the Lebanon problem,” said 50-year-old Nassan Hanin who owns a stationery store in Beirut. “Hezbollah must return the soldiers, and this will solve the problem.”