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Opportunity knocks in Lebanon

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NABATIYEH, Lebanon — After the Israeli army withdrew from south Lebanon on May 23, the big question was whether the Shiite guerrillas, who drove the Israelis out, would march on to Jerusalem or would stop at the border, turn inward and focus on their own development.

A tour through the hardscrabble hills of south Lebanon leaves little doubt which way the Shiites are going. The overwhelming mood here is: "The war with Israel is over as far Lebanon is concerned. Palestinians, you're on your own. Write often."

The evidence is everywhere. I started my tour at the Jaber Social Center in Nabatiyeh, the biggest Shiite town in south Lebanon. As soon as the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon was over, the Jaber center itself was occupied — by south Lebanese youth signing up for courses in English and Windows computing. When the Jaber center first started offering the courses, it received 1,500 applicants for 60 places.

"Computers and English — they're the keys to success now," explained Riyad Jaber, who runs the English program. "If you don't know computers and English, that means you're nothing in this world."

I briefly visited Rinya Muruada's Windows course, attended by 30 young Shiite women, all in veils. Nabatiyeh is a long way from Silicon Valley, but these young women have gotten the message. "They don't know anything about computers," explains Murtada, "but they've heard about them, and they want to discover what they're about. We now have a lot of people coming here from the former Israeli occupied zone."

Once these women graduate, they might become customers of Ali Darwish, who owns Boudinet, one of five Internet cafes in Nabatiyeh. While I connected to AML from his shop, Darwish explained, "Before the Israeli withdrawal, most people were keeping their money in the bank . . . Now that the Israelis are gone, the mood is, 'It's our land. That's it. Leave us alone.' Investment is coming back . . . I'm thinking of expanding into selling computers."

What's the message here? The message is that underneath the old, encrusted olive-tree politics of this region is another politics bursting to get out, to get connected and to tie into the world of opportunities. The deep religious and political divide between the south Lebanese and Israelis doesn't go away because people get online. Hezbollah hasn't renounced terrorism against Israel. But the end of the Israeli occupation here has allowed these hatreds to be balanced by other interests and aspirations for growth that are just as real, human and important to people.

If Israelis and Palestinians at Camp David ever agree on stable borders, it will unlock the same energies. Then maybe West Bank Palestinians can be like the Lebanese operators down here, who were offering bus tours of the liberated border area, the Israeli prison at Khiam and Beaufort Castle for $30 — lunch included.

The Hezbollah-logo baseball hat was $5 extra.

New York Times News Service