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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 5, 1984, Page 3


Israel and South Lebanon

In the political chaos that is Lebanon, one of the few things that is clearly emerging is the prospect of the permanent occupation by Israel of the south of the country.

Although in the view of many longtime observers this outcome has always been likely, some recent events have combined to make it appear more and more inevitable.

The key development is the expected abrogation by Lebanon of the May 17 Israel-Lebanon withdrawal agreement, which now has become virtually certain.

Implementation of the agreement was objected to strongly by Syria and Lebanese opposition forces on the grounds that it would reward Israel for its 1982 invasion and provide it with a permanent military toehold in the south. Its abrogation, however, is making Israel dig in its heels.

When reports first surfaced in mid-February that Lebanon's President Amin Gemayel had decided that abrogation would be necessary if he was to remain in office, Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir served notice that the Lebanese would in effect be "conceding their independence," and that Israel would "ensure the security of the north of Israel with or without the agreement."

The statement amounted to a warning that the Israeli army might remain in a large swath of the Lebanese south indefinitely, whether or not this would lead to a de facto partition of Lebanon.

Mr. Shamir's statement was followed up by warnings from Defense Minister Moshe Arens, who said that without a withdrawal agreement Israel would feel free to stay in Lebanon "as long as necessary" to protect Israel's security. This might have to be forever.

Some observers do not take such warnings seriously, since there is known to be intense political opposition within Israel to the idea of remaining in the Lebanese quagmire, where nearly 600 Israeli soldiers have died since their invasion. But this view does not take into account that for Israel's leaders, the alternative to staying in the quagmire looks even worse. The primary purpose of the invasion had been to make it impossible, once and for all, for Palestinians or anyone else to use south Lebanon as a platform for rocket attacks or guerrilla raids against Israel. If the Israeli soldiers leave, and the attacks resume, the entire operation against Lebanon would have been for nothing.

What is causing Israel to dig in—despite the opposition on the domestic front—is the growing conviction that a resumption of attacks is just what will happen if its soldiers leave. Israel has had little success in building up a force of local militia that could do the job for it. The present government of Lebanon is weak and cannot provide a force of its own for the south. With a new Lebanese government emerging that is perceived by Israel to be under strong Syrian influence, there is no way that it will trust it to handle border security on its own.

The dilemma for the Israelis will remain acute as long as the current price for staying in Lebanon is so high. On the average, one Israeli soldier is being killed or wounded every day. For this reason, the Israelis plan at some point to withdraw their troops south from the Awali River into new positions along either the Zahrani River or the Litani, 16 miles north of the border. Having a smaller buffer, they hope, could give them the best of both worlds an opportunity to have more effective control, while reducing the number of casualties.

New Enemies

Even in the smaller territory the job may not be as easy as they hope it to be, however. Since their arrival in south Lebanon the Israelis have managed to make a new set of enemies which they didn't have before the invasion, when their concern was mainly with the Palestinians. Now, most of their troubles come from the Lebanese Shiites, who are actively resisting occupation. Israeli troops have managed to make it easier for the Shiites to hate their occupiers, by lashing back in ways that punish the innocent as well as the guilty (using collective punishment) and that offend Shiite sensibilities (sending military search parties into mosques and arresting religious leaders).

Although the growing anger of the Shiites makes Israel's job harder, it also is making it more determined to keep a military presence on the ground until a buffer zone, however large it may turn out to be, is brought under control and casualties brought down to a politically "acceptable" level—rather than withdraw under pressure and leave the zone wide open.

Should the Israelis succeed in pacifying the zone, they would then regard it as imperative, as many observers see it, to stay there rather than turn it over to the control of either a pro-Syrian Lebanese regime or a local Shiite authority. This is because the Shiites are so stirred up that it is no longer out of the question that at least some of them would cooperate with the Palestinians—whom they have fought against in the past—in trying to make life more difficult for Israel across the border.

The record on the West Bank shows that there has never been a great deal of opposition by any bloc of parties to holding on to parts of the territory for “security reasons." There is therefore a good chance that if Israel can keep its casualties in south Lebanon reasonably low, the public will accept the idea of keeping part of south Lebanon, too, for this purpose. Their acceptance will grow easier as the years go by and they gradually get used to it.

Not to be forgotten is the fact that there is no shortage of people in Israel who believe that south Lebanon, at least up to the Litani River, is part of Greater Israel, and should be absorbed. The early Zionists always included this part of Lebanon on their maps as part of the Zionist state, and others believe possession of the waters of the Litani is essential to Israel for life-and-death economic reasons. One Israeli cabinet minister, Yuval Ne'eman, has even gone on record with his belief that south Lebanon is "geographically and historically an integral part of Israel."