Israel and Lebanon
The chaotic events of the past few days in south Lebanon
certainly warrant a comment or two. Israeli Prime Minister
Barak was elected last year on a platform of peace. One of his
campaign pledges was to bring the Israeli troops stationed in the
buffer or security zone home. That pledge has now been met,
but not in the manner anyone foresaw.
The history of Lebanon is a troubled one. The country gained its
independence in 1945 and during the 1950s the Lebanese
economy grew rapidly as it pursued a pro-Western foreign
policy. This upset the Arab population, both in Lebanon and
elsewhere in the Middle East.
In 1975 a civil war erupted between Maronite, Sunni, Shiite, and
Druse militias costing 50,000 lives and devastating the economy.
In 1976 Syrian troops imposed a fragile cease-fire. Then in 1978
Israel invaded south Lebanon in order to destroy Palestinian
Increasingly, Israel''s northern border towns had come under
attack from the Palestinian rebels. Israel''s invasion in ''78 led to
the establishment of the security zone, a strip of 9 to 12 miles in
width and about 750 square miles (or 10% of all of Lebanon) in
total. The purpose was to prevent the launching of rockets into
Israel''s action was condemned by the international community
and the U.N. passed resolution 425 calling for the immediate
Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territory.
By 1982, Hezbollah, or the "Party of God," emerged. Hezbollah
received its backing from Iranian extremists and the organization
was suspected of having ties to Islamic Jihad, the terrorist group.
It was the beginning of an almost two decade period where
Hezbollah tried everything in an attempt to drive out Israel.
Suicide bombers and roadside bombs became a way of life.
In June 1982 Israel launched a full-scale invasion of all of
Lebanon in an effort to rid them of the Palestinian guerrilla threat
once and for all. The U.S. supported Israel but also worked to
permit PLO forces to leave Lebanon peacefully. An American
peacekeeping force entered Beirut to supervise the evacuation.
After accomplishing this task, American forces stayed too long
and in 1983 U.S. Marines became the target of a terrorist bomb
that killed 241 of them as they slept in their barracks. The U.S.
then withdrew from the country.
By 1985, Israel pulled its forces back to the southern territory
it had controlled since 1978 and the occupation of this region
was formalized. But they would become stuck in what Barak
has called the "Lebanese mud" - relentlessly set upon by
In 1985, as part of its now formal occupation, Israel created the
South Lebanon Army (SLA), a force of about 2,500 comprised
of Christian, Shiite, and Druse militiamen, who were trained
and paid for by Israel to act as the Israeli Army''s partner in the
security zone. Israel maintained a force of about 1,000 in the
A familiar cycle then took hold. Israel and their allies, or
Hezbollah, would be the first to kill civilians in Lebanon or
northern Israel. Then the other side would retaliate. Israel would
bomb power stations and roads in Lebanese cities; Hezbollah
fired more rockets into Israel.
In northern Israel, the populations of whole towns would
disappear into shelters within minutes of sirens signifying the
risk of Hezbollah firing a volley of Russian-made Katyusha rockets,
the most terrifying of weapons because they were the least accurate
of the weapons in the guerrilla''s armory. In Lebanon, where
shelters were rare, they hunkered down behind stone walls along
the roads, or hastened into basements when Israeli forces opened
up with artillery or launched F-16 fighter jets.
Since 1978 about 950 Israeli soldiers had died defending the
occupation zone. An unknown number of Lebanese (generally
Palestinians) were killed. Hezbollah''s 500-man guerrilla force
proved to be a match for Israel''s might.
Meanwhile, the other two players, the U.N. and Syria, largely sat
back and observed the action. The U.N. built up its
peacekeeping force (established in 1982) to about 4,500,
patrolling north of the occupied zone. Syria controlled
Lebanon''s elections and, with 30,000 of its own troops in and
around Beirut plus countless intelligence agents, Syrian
influence was everywhere.
Of course, while Hezbollah received most of its aid from Iran,
Syria didn''t stand in the way of their guerrilla warfare. And
Syria was looking for ways to press Israel for return of the
strategic Golan Heights, taken from them by Israel during the
So, since Prime Minister''s Barak election of a year ago (one in
which the U.S. administration had too great a role from a conflict
of interest standpoint), he has sought not just to complete a
comprehensive peace plan between Israel and the PLO over the
occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, but also a
withdrawal from southern Lebanon.
In a crushing blow to Israel, on January 30 of this year, the SLA
field commander, Col. Akl Hashem, was assassinated by
Hezbollah with a roadside bomb as he walked his dog outside his
compound. The attack was videotaped by Hezbollah for
showing on its Beirut-based television channel, complete with a
blinding flash and mushroom cloud. Hashem was a tremendous
friend of Israel''s and his death touched off an intensified round
of fighting which led to the deaths of 7 Israeli soldiers and Israeli
raids on Lebanese power plants. Barak began to look at stepping
up his July 7 withdrawal timetable.
A few weeks ago, Israel began to withdraw some of its outlying
guard posts in the occupied zone. It seemed like an orderly
maneuver but then all hell broke loose when Shiite members of
the SLA began to defect to Hezbollah this past weekend.
Fearing a total collapse, and wanting to avoid further casualties,
Barak ordered a complete withdrawal of all Israeli forces, a
mission accomplished in about 36 hours.
In the meantime, the SLA disintegrated with its members either
giving themselves up to Hezbollah (where they face trial and
possible death sentences) or fled to Israel, seeking asylum. As of
this writing, after an initial round of fighting (which killed 6
civilians) between Israeli / SLA forces and Hezbollah, the
withdrawal has been without bloodshed. [Understand this can
change in an instant.] The Hezbollah forces integrated themselves
into the civilian population as Lebanese returned to the very
villages that Israel and the SLA had occupied for the better part
of 22 years.
The scene in southern Lebanon is one of jubilation. In most
cases, Hezbollah is being viewed as a savior. The Hezbollah
chief, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, told the Lebanese Christians that
have thus far opted to stay, "You are our sons, our hearts and our
eyes. We will be your parents and your protectors." Of course
just ten days ago Nasrallah vowed to wreak bloody vengeance
against the very same people. One thing is for sure, Nasrallah
will now continue to press Israel to release members imprisoned
The chaotic withdrawal has ignited a firestorm within Israel
itself. After being protected, somewhat, by the buffer zone for
22 years, 150,000 Israelis in the northern villages are now within
shouting distance of forces who have always been bent on
destroying them. Barak has assured his people that he would
retaliate harshly for any attacks on its citizens and has hinted that
he would go right back into southern Lebanon if necessary.
On the other side of the political aisle are forces like Ariel
Sharon, the leader of the right-wing opposition Likud party and
the driving force behind Israel''s full-scale invasion of Lebanon
back in 1982. For leaders like Sharon, the issues are who "lost"
Lebanon, who "betrayed" Israel''s Lebanese allies, and who
"humiliated" Israel''s vaunted army.
"Israel didn''t give (the SLA) protection. This is a terrible
tragedy; it''s a shameful thing. They said, ''Israel betrayed us.''
Believe me, I could not look in their eyes."
A left-leaning lawmaker said, "This is above politics. The
Jewish people who have suffered so many difficult experiences,
cannot watch while people are being hurt."
Deputy Defense Minister Sneh proclaimed, "If Hezbollah is
allowed to enter villages close to the border we will return to the
reality of the ''70s."
Meanwhile, the U.N., which has long insisted in the past that the
SLA be disbanded completely before it will certify the pullout,
now has its wish. Israel wants them to immediately move in
along the Israeli - Lebanese border to fill the void. But Secretary
General Kofi Annan doesn''t want a beefed up security force to
become a "punching bag with everybody taking potshots at us."
And everyone blaming the U.N. for any further turmoil.
As for Syria, Barak says, "I don''t recommend to anyone,
including Syria, to try Israel''s patience...Syria would be satisfied
with an escalation but we are determined to bring an end to this
tragedy." And it''s always possible that Lebanon''s Syrian-
controlled government may cede its own territory to the militias.
Tensions are sky high. The whole Middle East peace process
seems once again on the brink of total collapse.
The New York Times Thomas Friedman wrote this week of one
of the other issues, the territory that is to be ceded to Palestinians
as part of a comprehensive agreement between Israel and the
PLO. Final details are being worked out in Stockholm (though
talks were suspended because of the Lebanese fiasco). Rumors
are that Israel may give up 90 to 92 percent of the West Bank,
not the 60 or 75 that had been the working assumption all these
years. In turn, Jerusalem will remain the unified capital of Israel.
Regardless, it will be impossible to please all parties.
As Friedman writes, "This whole thing reminds me of a couple
who for years have suffered through a bad marriage. They are
now meeting secretly and the only question is: when do we tell
the kids?" But the kids already know what has happened in
southern Lebanon. Most are not happy. But for others, like
some Israeli parents whose sons and daughters are coming home,
the nightmare is over.
Sources: Laurie Copans and Zeina Karan / AP
Lee Hockstader / Washington Post
Susan Sachs, John Burns and Thomas Friedman / New