Israel’s 48-hour invasion

JOHN BIERMAN May 16 1988

Israel’s 48-hour invasion

JOHN BIERMAN May 16 1988

Israel’s 48-hour invasion


The Israeli army—frustrated by the constraints and adverse publicity of combatting the five-month-old Palestinian uprising—was clearly pleased to switch its focus from policing to soldiering. Infantrymen cheered and waved their rifles jubilantly as they crossed Israel’s northern border at the start of last week’s massive, 48-hour incursion into South Lebanon. And Israeli politicians and the public seemed equally pleased to see the army doing the job for which it was trained: fighting outside enemies who threaten the borders of the state.

Critics who had questioned the strong-arm tactics used against unarmed Palestinian rioters in the West Bank and Gaza expressed approval of the search-and-destroy mission in Lebanon. Eight times in the past four months commando teams of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had penetrated Israel’s border from Lebanon. And when the army struck back last week, former foreign minister Abba Eban seemed to speak for many doves when he commented, “I do not believe that this has the same kind of sentimental or moral impact [abroad] as does the riot suppression in the West Bank and Gaza.”

But despite widespread approval of the raid and its morale boost for the Israeli army and public, some critics at

week’s end questioned what had been achieved by Operation Law and Order, as the army code-named its incursion. After the estimated 2,000 to 2,500 Israeli troops involved had pulled back to northern Israel last Wednesday night, Middle East experts pointed out that no PLO bases had been overrun, no PLO arms caches found and no PLO pris-

oners taken. As well, critics said, the operation had made allies—at least temporarily—of warring Shiite Moslem factions. When Israeli troops attacked a stronghold of the pro-Iranian Hizbollah (Party of God), gunmen of the rival Amal faction rushed to join

their coreligionists in battle against the invaders. Said a Western military observer in Tel Aviv: “The Israelis have accomplished what the Iranians could not — united the Shiites.”

The clash between Israeli troops and Shiite militiamen was the climax of the operation that was launched late last Monday. The battle raged all day Wednesday at the village of Maidoun, 2V2 km beyond the 10-km-deep security zone that the Israelis maintain inside Lebanon with the assistance of the 2,000-strong, mainly Christian South Lebanese Army. The Hizbollah had turned Maidoun into a fortified stronghold after moving out the civilian population. Israeli artillery rained an estimated 1,000 shells onto the village before crack troops, supported by helicopter gunships, moved in at dawn.

They encountered unexpectedly stiff resistance, and, in the ensuing battle, 40 Shiite militiamen—mostly Hizbollah, but some Amal—were killed for the loss of three Israeli dead and 17 wounded. After the trenches, bunkers and fortifications built by the Hizbollah had been cleared, the Israelis blew up all 50 of the village houses and left.

Israeli Defence Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had personally directed the early phase of the operation from a hilltop inside Lebanon, said later that the Hizbollah was the PLO’s principal Lebanese ally and had helped Palestinian gunmen infiltrate Israel. But a Western military expert questioned that. “No way is this a Palestinian infiltration route,” he said. “It’s way off their paths. This [attack] is designed for home consumption.” m In attacking Maidoun, o the Israelis came perily ously close to the front m lines of the 16,000-man Syrian army based in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. In fact, 155-mm Israeli 'howitzer shells landed on the nearby village of Mashghara, where a 50-man Syrian garrison was located. But the Syrians took cover in foxholes and sandbagged emplacements, suffering only one mi-

nor casualty. They did not fire back, attempting to save face with a warning by an unidentified officer that “we shall fight them if they make further advances.” In fact, as Israeli military spokesman Col. Ra’anan Gissing said after the battle, Israel had signalled the Syrians that the operation was not directed against them. Said Gissing: “They got the message.”

Still, there was a warning for Damascus in last week’s events. Israeli authorities clearly believe that the recent stepped-up PLO attempts to infiltrate northern Israel could not have occurred without Syrian complicity. “Most of the groups involved owe allegiance to Syria, and their communiqués were issued in Damascus,” said Yosef Olmert, a Tel Aviv University expert on Syrian and Lebanese affairs.

During the first phase of last week’s operation, before the attack on Maidoun, the Israeli forces concentrated their attention on the western foothills of 9,200-foot-high Mount Hermon. That rugged, bush-covered terrain is believed to be the route taken by the recent infiltration groups. There, the task force met no resistance. Any guerrillas who might have been based in the area fled before the Israelis arrived. And in the foothill villages the invaders distributed leaflets and delivered loudspeaker messages to the predominantly Druze population, warning them not to co-operate with the gunmen if they returned.

While the Israeli thrust into Lebanon was in progress, violence persisted in the West Bank and Gaza, claiming three more Palestinian lives—two men shot dead by Israeli troops and a third dying of tear gas inhalation. Those deaths—and the shooting of an Arab shepherd by Jewish settlers on Friday—brought the toll since the uprising began to at least 177 Palestinians and two Israelis dead. And many observers saw Operation Law and Order as part of a psychological campaign designed to stifle the uprising by reaching out to punish Israel’s enemies wherever they may be.

Recent demonstrations of Israel’s power to do just that have included the sabotage of the PLO’s so-called ship of return in Cyprus in February and the assassination in Tunis last month of the PLO’s chief of military operations, Abu Jihad. Said army spokesman Gissing: “We shall strike at terrorist targets wherever they are.” But independent observers—like many Israelis themselves—doubted that Operation Law and Order had achieved the longterm objectives that its code name implied.