Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 1992, Page 29, 90

From the Hebrew Press

The Musawi Assassination: A Foretelling of Israel's New Policies in Lebanon

By Dr. Israel Shahak

The Feb. 16 assassination of Sheikh Abbas Musawi, which triggered a cycle of bloody attacks and counterattacks from Lebanon to Argentina, has focused press attention on Israel's current militant policy in Lebanon. According to Uzi Benziman, the chief political correspondent of Ha'aretz, "the decision to eliminate the leader of Hezbollah physically was made several months before he was killed" and awaited only a suitable opportunity to carry it out.

Other Hebrew press commentators concurred, and many supplied additional details of a policy that already has resulted in Israeli deaths in Israel's "security zone" in Lebanon, in the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, and in Israel itself. Avi Benayahu, writing in the Feb. 21 Al Hamishmar, reported that "the decision to hit Musawi was reached by a senior army echelon, faithful to the doctrine of high-frequency strikes at the interests of terrorist organizations, whenever and wherever available intelligence data makes it possible."

Countering Peace Rumors

Ran Edelist, who, although a relative dove, has perhaps the best access of any Israeli reporter to all branches of Israeli intelligence, wrote in the Jan. 17 Yerushalaim that one objective of the new Israeli policy is to offset effects of the Madrid Conference.

One effect was Lebanese euphoria over "a vague hint" by Uri Lubrani, Israel's "coordinator of activities" in Lebanon, "of some sort of withdrawal from Lebanon," Edelist wrote. "Many people in southern Lebanon heard rumors to this effect, and the earth began to quake under the feet of everyone who had collaborated with Israel."

In fact, since last November, the Israeli press has reported massive desertions from the Israeli-controlled South Lebanese Army (SLA), in spite of pay raises offered to stanch the attrition. According to these Israeli media reports, the authorities were not able to replace the deserters, even by applying "the usual Israeli methods." This refers to the practice of ordering extended Lebanese families in the region to deliver a specified number of recruits. Collective punishments are administered to families for non-compliance, and permits to work in Israel are issued as rewards for families that meet their quota.

As these traditional methods faltered, Israeli authorities adopted new and tougher measures to reassure the collaborators, and convince all Lebanese that Israel meant to occupy its "security zone" and maintain control over adjacent areas indefinitely.

Quoting Israeli army sources, Edelist wrote that one instrument of this new policy is "softening of the population." This, he reported, involves measures inside and beyond the "security zone" by Israeli and South Lebanese Army units so ferocious as to be comparable to the massacres of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut in 1982.

Although "softening actions" against the population and the interrogatory torture of prisoners has earned both SLA officers and SLA security personnel the epithet "savage beasts" among Lebanese, Edelist wrote, "in the Israeli army nobody knows or wants to know" about SLA atrocities.

What Edelist seems to be saying between the lines, and according to other information available in the Hebrew press, is that Israeli soldiers are stationed in impressive numbers both in Israel's Lebanese "security zone" and beyond its boundaries. These Israeli forces in Lebanon are of two kinds. Counterinsurgency units patrol on foot and shoot on sight anyone they suspect of being a saboteur. There also are Apacha helicopter units directly attacking specified targets and transporting foot soldiers for raids on distant villages or to erect roadblocks on Lebanese highways in order to search passing cars and seize suspected activists.

Such operations extend well beyond the zone, so that other parts of south Lebanon also find themselves under sporadic Israeli military occupation. For the Israeli army, this mode of domination is more cost-effective than the direct occupation of southern Lebanon, as in 1982 and 1985.

"In the Israeli army nobody knows or wants to know" about SLA atrocities.

Now small but highly mobile Israeli units made up solely of volunteers suffice for the task. This reduces the burden on the Israeli army and Israeli society that resulted from employment of massive units of combat and support troops during the 1982 to 1985 period. Perhaps the only useful lesson which the Israeli army learned from its previous Lebanese experience was the high cost of direct rule.

However, the Israeli army still seems to believe it can occupy large Arab-inhabited areas if it relies on the "correct" occupation methods now being battle-tested in south Lebanon. Assault helicopters, especially the Apaches, perform a crucial role in the terror operations essential to the new occupation tactics.

These tactics also rely on strict compliance by the Lebanese army in the areas sporadically occupied by Israel, and by the Lebanese government in Beirut. Such compliance is achieved by threats, especially since Lebanese appeals for American protection, conveyed either directly or via Syria, have brought no result.

An apparent Israeli reason for promptly admitting responsibility for the murder of Musawi, his wife, his young son and his bodyguards was to demonstrate to the Lebanese how firmly the United States supports everything Israel does in Lebanon.

Hezbollah Opposition

It is this indirect but brutal Israeli occupation, however, which has escalated the hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah. The Hezbollah, in fact, has been the only force in Lebanon effectively opposing Israel's "indirect occupation."

Directly quoting grudging praise from a colonel in charge of Israeli troops in the "security zone," Edelist writes: "Hezbollah men know what they are doing. They have superb military intelligence and are good in planning. They don't knock their heads against the wall. They don't attack right where the Israeli or South Lebanese troops are stationed in force, but study the area and prepare their actions carefully. They operate in cells, they know what field and communications security mean, and their explosive charges are nasty and murderous. Their fighters are local inhabitants. One cannot attack Hezbollah baes, because none exist."

Israeli Security System explanations for the policy change in Lebanon suggest that the same considerations may also be applied to other war theaters. Reserve General Yossi Peled, who headed the Northern Command and was therefore in charge of Lebanese affairs for five years until his retirement in 1991, said in Yediot Ahronot of Feb. 21, "I believe that hitting Musawi was an extraordinary achievement, for which the Israeli army deserves the highest congratulations. It demonstrated extraordinary skills both in the preparation by army intelligence and its execution." Peled added that an operation on such a scale "must have been prepared for many months or even years."

Peled's hyperbole ignores the fact that the operation consisted of an attack by a modern assault helicopter against an ordinary civilian automobile and, according to Hadashot of Feb. 28, Israeli army intelligence learned "from the Beirut papers of Thursday" that Musawi was scheduled to visit the town of Jibshit on Sunday, and timed the assassination accordingly.

"Account Settling"

General Peled further declared that "the war against terror requires account settling, a perfectly legitimate concept referring to the need to exterminate physically those who take decisions resulting in the loss of human life." Noting that by themselves neither "hitting only the heads of terror [organizations]" nor hitting "only the executors of terrorism" will "produce the desired results," Peled advocates "an interlocked method of operation" that does both. He informs his readers that "Arab mentality" is very different from "our mentality." The violent methods he advocates, he declares, are well adapted to "the Arab mentality."

This tenet of a different Arab "mentality" also figures prominently in an article in the Feb. 20 Yediot Ahronot by Benyamin Merhav, revealingly entitled "To beat them or not to beat them." Merhav, once a senior intelligence official responsible for Israel-China connections, had advanced to the post of director-general of the Foreign Ministry when Foreign Minister David Levy recently dismissed him, apparently because his hawkishness was too extreme for Levy's taste.

Merhav lists four factors with which Israel has to contend in Lebanon as Iran, Syria, the Lebanese government and the Shi'i. For the first two factors, he advocates alternating pressure and negotiations until both countries halt "the flow of money and other facilities" to Lebanon. This will have the effect of "speedily strangling the Shi'i."

Officials continue to regard the assassination as an unprecedented success.

In dealing with the second pair of factors, Merhev advocates making it clear to the Lebanese government that unless it follows Israeli dictates, it will lose "the little that remains of its sovereignty" in the south. In regard to the Shi'i, Merhav complacently declares that the Musawi assassination "convinced them that they were left with no choice except to lick their wounds and acquiesce." He continues: "We can assume they have absorbed the message, at least for a time, even though they are still likely to do something here or there. After what we did to them, we can proceed to build up good relations with the Shi'i of south Lebanon, since. . . they now know that they have no other choice if they want to survive and to prosper."

Recent Attacks and Emerging Doubts

For several weeks, a majority of Israeli Jews shared such viewpoints. Doubts emerged only after the effects of the first katyusha rocket attacks on northern Israel from Lebanon since 1982 could no longer be disguised. Even then, criticisms were mixed with adulation of the army.

A good example is an article by Amnon Denker in the Feb. 21 Hadashot in which he points out that "after the killing of one important Arab, the katyusha attacks managed to disrupt life in the north for almost a week." But he does not hide his personal satisfaction over Musawi's fate:

"One does not need to be a bloodthirsty chauvinist to feel mightily pleased by the sight of a Hezbollah leader blasted up into the air and falling down in pieces," he writes. "One can assume that the image of a bearded fellow in a black turban being struck by an Apache helicopter missile must be quite thrilling for the average Israeli, especially for its demonstration of the contrast between their qualities and ours. O army, how gorgeously thou performest!"

However repulsive such public exultation, the self-congratulation in official quarters is worse. Uzi Benziman, a reliable window into the real thinking of the Israeli government, reports in the Feb. 20 Ha'aretz that, although "the atmosphere [in Jerusalem] was traumatic" during the katyusha attacks and the consequent massive deployment of Israeli army forces into Lebanon, after the army withdrawal the mood shifted to relief.

"Right now, both in Jerusalem [the location of the prime minister's office] and in Tel Aviv [the location of the Ministry of Defense], those responsible for the killing of Abbas Musawi and for the army's retaliation to the hail of katyushas perceive the whole affair as the best evidence of Israel's profound political and strategic wisdom," Benziman writes. Another manifestation of this wisdom, he makes clear, is the effect of Israeli "multi-directional strikes" on Syria.

"Those who carried it out are satisfied that the entire sequence of events from the Musawi killing up to the return of the Israeli forces to their bases now will directly influence the negotiations between the Israelis and the Syrians and Lebanese in Washington," Benziman writes. "By this logic, the wheel of violence is presumed to have set the wheels of politics in motion after nothing else had worked. This success, claim the self-satisfied men in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, will from now on propel the progress toward an ultimate stabilization of the entire Mideast."

Only after terror attacks on Israeli diplomats, culminating in the destruction of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, did the Israeli public mood turn more critical. Nahum Barnea wrote in the March 20 Yediot Ahronot that "The attacks in Ankara and Buenos Aires. . . prove that Musawi's life was not worth the price we paid."

But in his report of the same date Benziman says officials continue to regard the assassination as an unprecedented success of the new Israeli policies in Lebanon, justified because "Israel is engaged in long-term struggle against all Arab states and against all Islamic fanatics, all of whom accept murder as a norm of behavior."

Such evaluations in the Hebrew press make it clear that Israeli leaders are likely to try for more such "successes," and on a larger scale. 


Dr. Israel Shahak, a Holocaust survivor and retired professor of chemistry at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is chairman of the Israeli League of Human and Civil Rights. His monthly translations From the Hebrew Press are available to Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, readers for $25 a year.

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