Northern Israeli Towns Could be Attacked.
By Meredith Buel (VOA-Jerusalem)
Israeli defense officials are warning that the government's plans to withdraw Israeli troops from southern Lebanon could lead to attacks on Israeli towns that border Lebanon.
Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh says in an interview with Israeli radio that fighting along the Lebanese border is inevitable unless a peace agreement is signed with Syria or a United Nations peacekeeping force protects the border.
Sneh says "there are two possibilities -- either a deal or fighting." In the absence of a peace deal with Syria, Sneh says Israel is trying to rally support for the United Nations to - as he puts it - "fill the vacuum" created by the departing soldiers. When asked if the situation could deteriorate into war, the deputy defense minister said "a confrontation is possible - definitely."
Israel set up a nine-mile-wide buffer zone in south Lebanon in 1985 to protect northern communities from cross border attacks. Since then Iranian-backed Hizbullah terrorists have fought a war of attrition against Israeli soldiers and the South Lebanon Army - a militia financed and trained by Israel.
Sneh's remarks come on the same day an Israeli newspaper (Ma'ariv) reported that most of the army's military commanders are opposed to a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon. The report says many senior army officers are severely criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's plan to pull Israeli soldiers out of south Lebanon by July of this year, with or without a peace agreement with Syria. The newspaper says the officers are concerned Barak is leading the army and the country into a trap.
Syria has 35,000 soldiers in Lebanon and is considered the major power broker in the country. Peace talks between Israel and Syria are currently stalled and both sides have been pessimistic about the chances for a peace agreement before the July deadline. Damascus is demanding that Israel withdraw from the Golan Heights, captured from Syria during the 1967 Middle East war. Barak has reportedly offered to pull out of the Golan but wants to keep the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee under Israeli sovereignty - an offer rejected by Syria.
Earlier this week, Barak played down prospects for cross-border violence and said he sees no need for a large multinational buffer force in south Lebanon.