May 11, 2000
Out of the Killing Fields
Recent Hezbollah attacks point to withdrawal from increased volatility around the July 7 Lebanon.
This Tuesday, one day before Israel celebrated its 52nd Independence Day, it solemnly and collectively honored the 19,109 soldiers, sailors and airmen who have died in defense of the reborn state since the United Nations voted to partition British Palestine on November 29, 1947.
At the same time, Israel's political and military leaders reaffirmed their determination to pull out of Southern Lebanon by July 7 - a bold decision designed to stem the procession to the nation's 42 military cemeteries. The deputy chief of staff, Major-General Uzi Dayan, whose father Zorik, Moshe Dayan's brother, fell in the 1948 War of Independence, has ordered the army to be ready to leave even earlier than Prime Minister Ehud Barak's July deadline.
The soldiers - and their anxious families - can't wait to get out of the Lebanese killing fields. But last weekend's eruption of violence across the troubled border taught a sober lesson. There are no easy answers; more blood may still be shed. Barak is gambling. And, unusually for him, he is inventing his strategy as he goes along.
Israel retaliated for a barrage of katyusha rockets fired on Kiryat Shmona by Hezbollah with air strikes that put out the lights in the Lebanese capital, cratered the Beirut-Damascus highway and destroyed the Shiite militia's main ammunition depot under Syrian protection in the Bekaa Valley.
Lebanon paid a heavy price, but Hezbollah still had the last word with another salvo of katyushas on Galilee communities. Political wisdom dictated that Israel refrain from a second counterattack. Barak's priority remained to bring the boys home in good order, if possible under a United Nations umbrella and with the tacit cooperation of the Lebanese government. The alternative would be a humiliating retreat under fire - and a license for Hezbollah to hit Kiryat Shemona from closer range.
The logic was compelling. If Israel wanted the UN to expand the 4,500-strong force it has stationed in Southern Lebanon since 1978 into a credible buffer and monitoring unit, the escalation had to stop. Yet the weekend's exchanges left the commanders of the Middle East's most powerful army fuming with frustration.
The military commentators reflected their despair. "Hezbollah is the one dictating the rules of the game," Yoav Limor protested in Ma'ariv. "Whenever they like, they launch katyushas. Whenever they like, they keep the region quiet. Israel merely reacts, and even then keeps a low profile."
Alex Fishman turned the knife in Yediot Aharonot: "Hezbollah is bent on continued escalation. Israel's airstrike sent Hezbollah a single message: You can carry on, and with even greater intensity. The government of Israel wants quiet and is not willing to take risks. And Hezbollah, as we know, will not have to try too hard to find an excuse to fire the next katyushas."
Others called for Israel to hit back not just at Lebanon, but at Syria's 30,000-strong garrison in the Bekaa. President Hafez al-Assad has far greater leverage over Hezbollah than his Beirut puppet regime has. The Islamic militia receives its Iranian arms, ammunition and instructors via Damascus airport. It needs to keep the supply lines open. Assad may not be able to control the fanatics, but he can influence them."The only way to maintain effective strategic deterrence," Ron Ben-Ishai argued in Yediot Aharonot, "is to threaten Syrian interests in Lebanon. And, if need be, to make good on that threat. Instead of plunging hundreds of thousands of Lebanese civilians into the dark, Israel should strike directly at Syrian military camps inside Lebanon and at economic projects that provide income for Syrian generals and workers." Despite American urgings to leave the Syrians alone, Barak seems to be edging toward confrontation. "The minute the withdrawal from Lebanon is completed," he told Israel Radio, "Israel will know how to identify anyone behind activity against the state. Nobody will escape a harsh response, including Syria."
For all this saber rattling, Barak prefers the diplomatic track. Through Secretary-General Kofi Annan's Middle East troubleshooter, Terje Larsen, he is negotiating quietly with the UN and with the Lebanese and Syrian governments. In return for an enhanced international role in Southern Lebanon, Israel is preparing to pull back from the last inch of Lebanese soil, even if that puts Galilee kindergartens back on the front line.The UN, however, will expand its peacekeeping operation only if the Lebanese (and behind them the Syrians) agree. Israel also needs Beirut's cooperation if it is to solve the dilemma of what to do about the South Lebanese Army, whose 2,000 men have fought alongside their Israeli patron for two decades - and paid an even heavier price in blood.
Israel insists that it will not abandon them or their families. But it is already hinting that it will bow to a UN ultimatum and remove the SLA's heavy arms.