Israel’s perilous withdrawal

Ross Laver February 25 1985

Israel’s perilous withdrawal

Ross Laver February 25 1985

Israel’s perilous withdrawal


Ross Laver

From a hilltop overlooking the port city of Sidon last week, Israeli Defence Minister Yitzhak Rabin surveyed the preparations for the first phase of the Israeli army’s withdrawal from war-ravaged south Lebanon. Said Ra-

bin: “We are interested that the area will remain quiet, and that there will be no disorder, riots and bloodshed.” It was a statement that seemed to be based more on hope than on realism. The fear and suspicion gripping Sidon suggested that once the Israelis complete their pullout, southern Lebanon will erupt —as rival Christian, Druze and Shi’ite Moslem militias vie for supremacy. Declared a nervous relief worker: “There is going to be a power vacuum and somebody is going to fill it. When you have a vacuum, all kinds of slime come out.” Indeed, even before the Israeli soldiers began dismantling their frontline checkpoints along the Awali River last week, the bloodletting had begun. Security sources reported that at least 30 Lebanese and Palestinians acting as

agents or informers for Israel in south Lebanon had been assassinated by unidentified gunmen in the past seven weeks. Attacks on Israeli troops in occupied territory have also increased dramatically, with four soldiers killed and at least two dozen injured so far this month. In Sidon nightly shootouts forced many residents to huddle in-

doors. “This wild firing scares me,” said one Christian woman brandishing the key to her apartment block’s underground air-raid shelter. “Any of us could be killed by an unlucky bullet.”

From Israel’s standpoint, the heightened danger of guerrilla attacks made the withdrawal all the more urgent. In the first stage of the pullout, completed at week’s end, convoys of Israeli army trucks moved equipment from the northern front to a new line between the Zahrani and Litani rivers, about 15 km north of the Israeli-Lebanese border. Then, by April 30, Israeli troops are expected to retreat from the Beka’a Valley in eastern Lebanon, where they now face an estimated 30,000 Syrian troops. In the third and final phase—due to be completed by September—all Israeli

units will be pulled safely back across the international border, although Jerusalem still plans to create a buffer zone 10 to 20 km deep on the Lebanese side under the control of its local militia, the South Lebanon Army (SLA).

But the withdrawal is an extremely tense operation. Lebanese officials claimed last week that about 1,300 SLA

members, nearly half the total force, had deserted or been captured recently—a charge that Jerusalem denied. And since the Israeli cabinet decided last month to end its costly occupation of Lebanon, Shi’ite Moslem guerrillas have stepped up attacks, bringing to 616 the Israeli death toll since the invasion on June 6, 1982. In one clash last week, army reservists Yehuda Tuval, 40, and Yitzhak Bareli, 27, died when Lebanese guerrillas assaulted their position guarding the approaches to Israel’s northernmost settlement, Metulla. Two days later guerrillas opened fire with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms at an army post east of Nabatiyeh in south Lebanon, wounding six Israelis. In response, Israeli soldiers staged frequent search-and-arrest operations,

and at one point they killed 11 guerrillas and captured nine who were trying to cross the Awali.

The new Israeli line, running diagonally instead of east-west along the Awali River, is about twice as long as the old one and, because of the exposed terrain, it is much harder to defend. Said Mohammed Ghaddar, a Shi’ite leader in Sidon: “The [Lebanese] resistance will have more freedom to move and more men to fight with.” Hoping to minimize casualties, Israeli leaders kept the exact hour of their departure from Sidon a closely guarded secret. Admitted Rabin: “I know that every move will exact a painful price and I am not trying to obscure this.”

Until the last moment, Israeli forces remained concentrated in a few key positions near Sidon, tensely awaiting the final evacuation order. Israeli soldiers at the Awali bridge checkpoint opened fire on Lebanese civilians trying to cross the bridge and harassed Western correspondents waiting to chronicle the retreat. A short distance north, hundreds of Lebanese Army troops stood at alert, waiting to move in when the Israelis departed. At one point, the Lebanese tried to take control of another bridge already abandoned by Israel’s SLA allies and civilians rushed to cross from each direction. But the Israelis promptly confronted the Lebanese troops, forcing them to withdraw.

As the deadline for the pullout neared, the hostility aroused among lo-

cal villagers by the Israeli actions was clear. Originally, many Shi’ites greeted the Israelis as liberators, freeing south Lebanon from the yoke of Palestinian terrorism. But since then anti-Israeli extremists have gradually gained support, and many Shi’ites contend that the invaders have overstayed their welcome. Said Hajj Bouhaidar, 60, a father of 13 whose house was bulldozed during an Israeli raid on the Shi’ite village of Toura last week: “The Israelis have no brains. They do not seem to realize that they are turning the people against them.”

Nor were the Israelis making friends among troops of the United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon (UNIFIL),

whose role is to help keep the peace. When eight French UNIFIL soldiers last week tried to stop the Israeli raid on Bourj Rahhal, a Shi’ite village near Tyre, a fistfight ensued. Said UNIFIL spokesman Timor Goskel: “We are in an area with a hysterical population and a hysterical occupying army. We are caught in the middle.”

At the same time, there were fears that the Israeli withdrawal could spark a struggle in nearby Palestinian camps between Syrian-backed groups and supporters of Yasser Arafat, embattled leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Some observers believe that the Syrians, now the dominant outside power in Lebanon, may flood the area with their armed Palestinian supporters in an effort to forestall a political

comeback by Arafat, their hated adversary. “We are confident that we can avoid trouble if we are left alone,” declared a Palestinian social worker at the Ain Al-Hilwe camp near Sidon. “But we are afraid of people coming from outside, trying to stir up trouble.”

In Israel there was relief that an end to the 32-month occupation was now clearly in sight. Still, hard-line Likud members of the coalition government —including Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir—continued to oppose the decision, arguing that without firm security guarantees from the Lebanese government PLO guerrillas would be free to move back to within firing range of Israeli settlements in northern Galilee. “I pray that people will not move out in droves if the rocket attacks resume,” said Yoel Avraham, deputy mayor of Kiryat Shmona, a town of 17,000 which until 1982 was the target of frequent cross-border attacks.

In Washington, Secretary of State George Shultz expressed the hope that the Israeli pullout would improve whatever chances exist for a peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute. Indeed, there was a flurry of diplomatic activity last week, including a White House visit by Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd, who urged the Reagan administration to take a more active role in the search for Middle East peace. His visit coincided with an announcement from Jordan that King Hussein and Arafat had agreed on a framework for a joint bid to achieve a “just and peaceful settlement” of the Palestinian issue. Sources said the agreement amounted to a pledge by Arafat to drop his demand to send an independent PLO team to any future peace talks. Instead, the PLO and Jordan would send a joint delegation.

Still, Israeli officials played down the significance of the accord. Rabin, for one, maintained that there had been no substantial change in the Arab position —specifically, Arafat’s refusal to recognize Israeli sovereignty in exchange for lands seized by Israel in the 1967 war. Four Damascus-based Palestinian guerrilla groups also denounced the accord.

As for the Israelis themselves, they seemed too preoccupied with the delicate task of withdrawing from Lebanon to devote much attention to the ambiguous peace plan. Some high-ranking Israelis even appeared to welcome the prospect of an emerging power struggle among rival sectarian groups. Said an aide to Prime Minister Shimon Peres last week: “The expectation is that they will be too busy fighting each other to spend much time attacking us.” It seemed as much a hope as a prediction.

Jim Muir

David Bernstein

Marci McDonald