Report: Hezbollah to drop arms if Israel quits Shebaa
Yahad chair Beilin calls on PM Sharon to withdraw troops, says must 'hold Hezbollah to its word.'
LONDON - Hezbollah would be prepared to discuss conditional disarmament if Israel withdrew from a disputed border area, the Lebanese guerrilla group's deputy leader said in a British newspaper interview on Friday.
Sheikh Naim Kassem told the Financial Times that disarmament, called for by Washington and the United Nations, could pave the way for Hezbollah's fighters to become a kind of reservist army working with Lebanese authorities.
But he said talks could not take place while Israel remained in the Shebaa Farms area, a disputed border enclave between Lebanon, Israel and the Golan Heights, conquered from Syrian during the 1967 Six Day War.
Hezbollah, a Shi'ite Muslim group backed by Syria and Iran, has previously said it will not disarm until Israel withdraws from Shebaa Farms and will keep its arms as long as Israel threatens Lebanon.
Following the report, Yahad chair Yossi Beilin sent a letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon calling on him to withdraw Israel Defense Forces troops from Shebaa Farms.
"We must hold the Hezbollah to its word," Beilin said.
Lebanon says Shebaa Farms is Lebanese land occupied by Israel, while the UN describes it as Israeli-occupied Syrian territory.
"We will discuss [Hezbollah's] arms after Shebaa but on condition that a credible alternative is found to protect Lebanon," Kassem told the Financial Times.
"A reservist army doesn't mean the resistance becomes part of the army but it is a formula of co-ordination with the army. It is resistance by another name," he said.
Hezbollah was the only Lebanese political party openly to keep its arms at the end of the 1975-1990 civil war, and it still controls areas of the south after helping end a 22-year Israeli occupation of south Lebanon in May 2000.
Debate about disarming Hezbollah has resurfaced since Syria began withdrawing its troops from Lebanon in the wake of the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, who fell out with Syria before his death.
But the timing of such a move remains a sensitive issue. Most of Lebanon's anti-Syrian opposition say talks should start after the Shebaa Farms issue has been resolved, but some have called for discussions sooner.
Speaking on Feb. 12, before Hariri's killing, Kassem said disarmament was not up for discussion. "Giving up these weapons is not on the table," he told Reuters in an interview.
The United Nations demanded the disarmament of Hezbollah in Security Council Resolution 1559.
The measure, sponsored by the United States and France, was adopted last September. It calls for the disarming of all militias in Lebanon and the departure of all foreign forces.
Washington labels Hezbollah a "terrorist" group and has led international calls for its fighters to be disarmed.