Israeli rulers mull over their Lebanon quagmire

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Abul Fadl

Sha'ban 27, 1419 1998-12-16

Occupied Arab World

by Abul Fadl (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 20, Sha'ban, 1419)

To flee or not to flee, that’s the question

A fresh debate on whether Israel should unilaterally extricate itself from its costly occupation of parts of southern Lebanon has bubbled up again in the Zionist State over the past few weeks. The recent policy debate was prompted by mounting public anger over the surge in the death toll suffered by Israel’s occupation troops during a deadly string of daring resistance operations that claimed the lives of seven Israeli soldiers during the second half of November.

The latest fatalities have been especially alarming to Israel’s top brass because they showed that the Islamic Resistance, spearheaded by Hizbullah, is able to penetrate deeply into Israel’s heavily-guarded, 9-mile-wide (15 kilometer), self-declared ‘security zone’. In one operation, which took place November 27 on the outskirts of the village of Markaba, resistance fighters managed to plant and detonate remote-controlled explosive charges within a few hundred meters of both an Israeli army post and the ‘fence’ marking the international border between Lebanon and occupied Palestine.

Military analysts have characterized the recent operations as highly skilled. It is noteworthy that the successful and sophisticated resistance attacks have rendered futile Israel’s recent implementation of a number of precautionary measures designed specifically to minimize casualties - measures that include stepped up air raids on valleys and villages surrounding the ‘security zone’.

The skillful sophistication of the recent operations has been acknowledged by a number of Israeli leaders. ‘We have to examine how they succeeded in penetrating such a . . . distance from an Israeli army outpost to plant a bomb. It is not impossible but it is complicated and demands a high level of training and this is apparently what happened in this instance,’ brigadier-general Erez Guerstein, Israel’s liaison officer in occupied south Lebanon commented on the Markaba operation.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu abruptly cut short a European tour upon receiving news of the death toll. Upon returning to Israel, Netanyahu held emergency consultations with his security cabinet and top advisers about Israel’s next move regarding Lebanon.

Meanwhile, loud demonstrations were held in both Tel Aviv and outside Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem, calling for an immediate withdrawal of troops from Lebanon. The protesters, who included soldiers’ relatives, students and Knesset (parliament) members, carried placards which bore slogans, including ‘1250 dead in Lebanon, enough is enough,’ referring to Israeli losses since the 1982 invasion which exceed the total number of casualties suffered by the Jewish State in all the Israeli-Arab wars except the 1948 war.

An assortment of responses, ranging from a unilateral withdrawal to a campaign of punitive air strikes against roads, bridges, water facilities, and other Lebanese infrastructural installations, were proffered as Israeli politicians mulled over the rising casualties paid as a price for their continued occupation of southern Lebanon. Depressed by the mounting death toll, five Knesset members submitted an urgent motion calling for a withdrawal from Lebanon or for a ‘solution.’ One Labour Knesset member, Yossi Beilin, called on Israeli army officers to summon their courage and ‘come out of the closet’ by making public their backing for a pullout.

Interestingly, the call for a troop withdrawal is not restricted to the opposition, it is politically ecumenical. A few ministers in Netanyahu’s cabinet also voiced their support for a withdrawal. Ariel Sahron, Israel’s foreign minister, called for a staged unilateral withdrawal. In public statements made following the Markaba operation, Sharon, the pugnacious security hawk infamous for spearheading Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, argued that any troop withdrawal would include a clear warning to Lebanon and its Syrian patron that Israel would respond to any post-withdrawal attack with a tough counter-attack against both military and civilian targets.

These calls were denounced by senior army commanders and their political allies. Defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai and the army’s general staff argued that a unilateral withdrawal would leave Israel’s northern border exposed to guerrilla incursions. For his part, a truculent internal security minister, Avigdor Kahalani, threatened to attack the Lebanese capital, Beirut, in retaliation for resistance attacks. ‘They must know that their capital will be deprived of water and electricity each time that one of our soldiers is killed in Lebanon,’ he warned.

However, Israel’s twenty-year experience in southern Lebanon shows that such verbal pyrotechnics boil down to fanciful and overblown threatmongering. Even if carried out, such attacks can only help escalate and expand the scope of the confrontation. In fact, Hizbullah officials were quick to warn that they will not flinch from reprisals against Israeli civilians if Lebanese civilians were hit. Under an internationally monitored understanding which brought an end to Israel’s April 1996 ‘Operation Grapes of Wrath’ against Lebanon, both Israel and Hizbullah pledged not to hit civilian targets.

On the other hand, while affirming his commitment to searching for a way out of Lebanon, Netanyahu rejected the idea of unconditional withdrawal. He set ‘security’ conditions which he asked the Lebanese government to fulfill before authorizing troop withdrawal from the ‘security zone.’ This was a rehash of a proposal, which envisaged a troop withdrawal on the basis of Resolution 425 in exchange for Lebanese government security guarantees against cross-border attacks, that he had made on April 1.

For its part, the Lebanese government reiterated its position that it simply wants an immediate and unconditional Israeli withdrawal as stipulated in UN Security Council Resolution 425. ‘We welcome any Israeli attempt to withdraw from south Lebanon, but we insist that it be unconditional and implemented according to UN Resolution 425,’ asserted Lebanese foreign minister Fares Boueiz.

Israel, which has been occupying parts of south Lebanon for the past 20 years, set up the ‘security zone’ in 1985. The strip is patrolled by Israeli troops and their South Lebanon Army (SLA) collaborating militia, ostensibly to curb guerrilla attacks against northern Israeli towns and settlements. But the Lebanese government and several analysts believe that the ‘ogre’ of anti-Israeli guerrilla attacks is just a smokescreen. They accuse Israel of deliberately prolonging its occupation of south Lebanon to guarantee certain ‘strategic’ interests in Lebanon, including its water-rich south. Evidence made public last month that Israel has been trucking tons of fertile top soil from southern Lebanon to northern Israel can only substantiate apprehensions about Israel’s hidden aspirations in Lebanon.

Israel’s recent internal debate over the wisdom of continuing its military occupation of south Lebanon is significant for a number of reasons. For one thing, it is indicative of a rising disenchantment with the occupation spurred by growing public weariness with the mounting losses. Public opposition to remaining in Lebanon has grown, especially after the ‘Grapes of Wrath’ offensive in which 150, mostly civilian Lebanese were killed. The results of a Gallup poll published in the Israeli Maariv daily (November 28, 1998) show that public support for unilateral withdrawal has nearly doubled from 20 percent in September 1997 to 40 percent in the last week of November.

More ominously, there are signs that the demoralization caused by Israel’s ‘Lebanon syndrome’ has also infected the ranks of its armed forces. An increasing number of soldiers, their families and politicians have been displaying skittishness about troop deployments in the ‘security zone.’ The creeping war-weariness is not just a matter of intellectual curiosity. It poses grave social and political consequences, particularly in the light of the centrality of militarism and expansionism in zionist ideology and preserving the cohesion of Israeli society. With the continued growth in the little spots of successful anti-zionist resistance twinkling across the Middle East, this war-weariness could well turn into the breeding ground for a corrosive mixture of cynicism, defeatism, and apathy.

On the strategic and tactical levels, the recent exploits of the Islamic Resistance are no doubt momentous. That Israel is being forced to re-think its occupation of south Lebanon underlines the fact that the resistance is winning the war. The increasingly effective operational capabilities of the resistance prove once more that it takes a small group of determined fighters armed with light arms and ‘weighty’ faith to expose zionist pretentious claims to invincibility and omnipotence as nothing short of a hollow myth.

Muslimedia: December 16-31, 1998

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