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Israel in Lebanon: stay or go?

The roadside explosion that killed Israeli Brigadier General Erez Gerstein in South Lebanon detonated a renewed debate over unilateral withdrawal from Israel's self-proclaimed "security zone". Simon Trevarthen and Al J Venter report from Jerusalem and Lebanon respectively, as Israeli voters prepare to go to the polls on 17 May.

Forcing the issue to the forefront of the Israeli elections, the death of Erez Gerstein, the highest-ranking Israeli officer to be killed in Lebanon since 1982, has prompted fears of escalation in the border war with Hizbullah guerillas amongst an Israeli public already edgy about the increasingly high level of casualties.

In demonstrations outside the Defence Ministry in Tel Aviv at the end of February protesters chanted, "There's no solution, get out of Lebanon," and opinion polls show a growing support for a unilateral pullout. Fifty per cent of Israelis now say they are ready for a withdrawal from Lebanon compared to only 15 per cent two years ago.

In the aftermath of the ambush, which also killed an Israeli Radio journalist, a radio operator and a South Lebanese Army (SLA) warrant officer, Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon called for a government of "national unity" to deal with the "Lebanon problem", and for a postponement of the 17 May elections.

"A national emergency government, led by Likud and Labor, must be established immediately so it can decide on a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon," Sharon told the media. Prime Minister Netanyahu immediately rejected the idea, fearing that Hizbullah guerillas might shift attacks into northern Israel.

Sharon's support for a unilateral withdrawal comes as a surprise, in light of the fact that as defence minister, in 1982, he was responsible for 'Operation Peace for Galilee' which drew Israel into a full-scale invasion of Lebanon. The last time a government of national unity was formed in Israel was to extricate the country from the Lebanese quagmire of Sharon's creation.

The conflict in Lebanon also ignores traditional political fault lines. Although Sharon is reluctant to abandon the Jewish settlements in the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967, his position on a withdrawal puts him in close proximity to the super-dove Yossi Beilin. Beilin, the Labor Party number two, advocates an immediate pullout from South Lebanon but links withdrawal to a renewed diplomatic offensive with Syria over the return of the Golan Heights in exchange for peace.

Beilin believes that only the return of a Labor government after elections "can liberate Israel from the Lebanon trap and help renew negotiations with Syria".

Officially though, the Labor Party remains more cautious. Careful not to isolate wavering voters uneasy about leaving the northern border exposed to attack, Labor Party leader Ehud Barak has pledged that, if elected, a Labor administration would unilaterally withdraw from South Lebanon by 2001.

In contrast, Netanyahu is anything but dovish. With polls placing the Likud neck and neck with Labor, Netanyahu has everything to gain by playing the role of a hawk. Stating that northern towns in Israel must retain a "buffer zone", he ordered retaliatory air strikes against suspected Hizbullah targets deep in the Beka'a Valley.

"The army will fight the Hizbullah," he said. "It has the capability."

Netanyahu's reaction is far from extreme. One Israeli columnist for the English-language newspaper Jerusalem Post suggested widening the conflict to include Lebanon's "soft economic underbelly". By destroying construction sites in Beirut, he argued, "we can disrupt Lebanon's reconstruction process and pressure Syria."

This opinion is echoed by Uzi Landau, Chairman of the influential Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, who argues that the 40,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon should also be targeted.

"Sending Syrian soldiers back to Damascus in coffins should not be ruled out," he affirmed. "The current policy, the Grapes of Wrath understanding, gives Syria an incentive to engage in terror against Israel via non-Syrian territory."

War with Syria remains an unlikely and unpopular idea, despite Netanyahu's casting of Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad as a puppeteer and Hizbullah as his puppets.

Damascus is also playing it safe, remaining careful that its support for Hizbullah never escalates into confrontation with Israel. Assad's strategy is a limited war designed to slowly break Israel's resolve. By blocking any possibility of a separate peace between Israel and Lebanon, he hopes to pressure Israel into returning the occupied Golan Heights.

Such tough talk is little comfort for families with sons serving in Lebanon. The realities on the ground are that in its 14-year struggle with Hizbullah, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) now faces a foe that is more sophisticated than ever. In this war of attrition, Israel may possess vastly superior firepower and resources, however it lacks Hizbullah's knowledge of the terrain and its willingness to take casualties. Of the 319 soldiers killed since Israel withdrew to its nine-mile (14.5 kilometre) 'security zone' in 1985, 162 have lost their lives during Netanyahu's time in office.

It would seem that for the time being Netanyahu's Lebanon policy has hit a mine. However, the incumbent prime minister has a final ace up his sleeve, namely his promise that if re-elected he will sign a peace treaty with another Arab state by 2000. Test of that belief can only be measured on the 17 May polling day.

ISRAEL'S BORDER WAR SHOWS STEADY ESCALATION

The war is going badly for Israel in South Lebanon. In the first two months of 1999 the IDF lost almost half the number of soldiers it did in all of 1998.

There is a concerted public movement to pull Israeli troops out of the self-proclaimed security zone. One of the organisations propagating this line is headed by the mothers of soldiers who are or have been serving in South Lebanon. Others calling for a pullback include some veterans' organisations, the families of soldiers killed, media pressure groups and members of the Knesset. A year ago troops attached to a crack special forces unit mutinied after being told they were to be deployed across the border.

The situation bears a chilling resemblance to the kind of public apathy that America experienced during the Vietnam war. As the casualties mount, it will undoubtedly get worse. "Israel is war weary," said one commentator.

There are those in Jerusalem who believe that because Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's political ratings are so bad, together with the fact there is an election imminent, he could go ahead with a powerful incursion into South Lebanon in a bid to gain support from hardliners, some of whom have accused him of being soft towards Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The figures tell much of the story: Timur Goksel, spokesman for UNIFIL, the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, told The Middle East from his headquarters in Naqoura that "unofficial" Israeli and guerrilla casualty figures for the year indicate a definite escalation in the war. In the first 10 months of 1998, there had been 1,132 "resistance operations" compared to 855 in 1997 and only 515 in 1996.

Comparable figures for Israel's principle ally in the region, the South Lebanese Army (SLA) also show an upward trend in the number of dead and wounded. In the first 10 months of 1998, the SLA suffered 28 deaths and 45 injuries. In contrast, guerrilla fatalities appear to have declined, although, as Goksel added, the figures can only be estimated since neither Hizbullah nor the Lebanese Armed Forces make such information public, in part to deprive Jerusalem of any sort of psychological edge.

There have been other disturbing developments in the security zone. According to IDF Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz, Israel is looking at ways to reduce the danger to israeli Air Force (IAF) helicopters being shot at by Hizbullah and Amal guerrillas. Such actions - unheard of a year or two ago are now commonplace.

At a meeting with defence correspondents, he disclosed that the IDF "is also studying its deployment in South Lebanon in order to improve the quality of operations and to reduce casualties." He refused to comment on a Hizbullah statement that the 12 naval commandos killed in a raid on a guerrilla outpost on the Lebanese coast more than a year ago were caught in an ambush. He did acknowledge, however, that Hizbullah was making progress, both in the acquisition and in the use of new military equipment. "This is a legitimate and natural course of action for a large guerrilla group," he stated. He also confirmed that Iran was heavily involved in the process.

The IDF is already implementing some new measures. In a bid to minimise casualties, the IAF has stepped up its quota of daily air raids, according to Radio Orient, a regional station. Radio Orient quoted an unnamed "foreign observer in South Lebanon" (someone from the UN serving there whose comments were picked up by the Lebanese news media) as saying that this programme was also being used as an opportunity to train new pilots.

The source added that Israeli soldiers rarely left their posts and were constantly busy adding new fortifications to their lookout posts which, possibly, underscored the success Hizbullah was having with mortars and rockets. Lastly, he added, the IDF had reduced their patrols to a minimum "so that they are not seen too often on public roads except where necessary."

This possibly ties in with a subsequent statement by Major Gen Amos Malcha, director of Aman, (IDF military intelligence) who disclosed that one of the problems faced by the Israeli army across the border was a concerted effort by Hizbullah to capture an IDF soldier to use as a bargaining chip.

Meanwhile, Hizbullah's Secretary-General, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, in an unprecedented call late last year, urged Palestinians in Israel to "rise up and kill Yasser Arafat". He condemned the leader of the Palestinian Authority for signing a "humiliating peace accord with the Zionist state."

Shortly before, Nasrallah told the London Financial Times that he forsaw a time when Hizbullah would play a more "representative" role within the Lebanese government. "A model and an example [for the Arab world] of government is being provided by Iran, which presents an enlightened and tolerant Islam," he said. Significantly, in the final round of voting in eastern region of Lebanon, where Hizbullah has always maintained strong grassroots support, it suffered a heavy defeat in last June's elections. Nasrallah's Party of God won only five of the 21 seats in the first local elections held in the Beka'a in 35 years.

Two other recent events have caused problems for Israel. The first of these, quoted by Beirut's Daily Star last November was a report of groups of Israelis entering South Lebanon and trucking off topsoil for use on Israeli farms across the border. US Ambassador David Satterfield confirmed that Washington had intervened to put an end to the violation.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Farez Boueiz, in an appeal to the UN, said that such actions would be impossible without the collusion of the Israeli military who dominated the region.

More serious is an apparent breakdown in the IDF's relations with the local Druze community in the town of Hasbaya to the north of the Norwegian sector in the security zone. This followed the death of two IDF soldiers in a unprecedented roadside bomb attack in the town itself. For decades Druze combatants have served with distinction in the IDF, some of them achieving high commissioned rank. Nevertheless, although they tried, Israel could not elicit a condemnation from Hasbaya Druze dignitaries, or even "a statement contradicting the voices of approval from some of the town's community."

Threats were made, but to no avail. These were followed by an IDF raid on Qlayaa, adjacent to Marj'Ayoun and always regarded as being at the core of Christian Lebanese support for Israel in the region. It was residents of Qlayaa who first contacted Jerusalem for help in the early 1970s. That action eventually led to the establishment of the SLA under Major Sa'ad Haddad. The recent raid resulted in numerous arrests about which the IDF is saying little.

The new year also brought the disturbing news that Israel has been testing its new secret NT Dandy anti-tank missile in South Lebanon. Missile launching platforms have been built in the security zone at Soueidat in addition to IDF military positions at Taibe, Bir Kallab and Beaufort Castle. Known in Hebrew as the "Long Spike", the paper said, the projectile has a range of about 10 kilometres. It can be ground-fired or launched from gunships.

The Dandy is the largest of three antitank missiles being developed for the IDF by Rafael, in conjunction with the German electronics firm STN Atlas, Diehl and Rheinmetall. The media made an issue of its deployment on Lebanese soil after a missile was fired at three teenage boys hunting near Arab Salim, killing one of them.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:25th Anniversary Issue
Comment:The death of Israeli Brigadier General Erez Gerstein has stoked speculations that Israel's campaign against Hizbollah guerrillas would escalate.
Author:Trevarthen, Simon; Venter, Al J.
Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:May 1, 1999
Words:2124
Previous Article:Breaking the circle of dependence.
Next Article:Sanctions against Libya lifted after eight years.
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