WORLD

A WAR OF WILLS

ISRAEL UNLEASHES A DEVASTATING ATTACK ON SOUTHERN LEBANON

SCOTT STEELE,ERIC SILVER August 9 1993
WORLD

A WAR OF WILLS

ISRAEL UNLEASHES A DEVASTATING ATTACK ON SOUTHERN LEBANON

SCOTT STEELE,ERIC SILVER August 9 1993

A WAR OF WILLS

ISRAEL UNLEASHES A DEVASTATING ATTACK ON SOUTHERN LEBANON

WORLD

Onlookers cautiously removed their hands from their ringing ears. The deafening explosions at one-minute intervals from the Israeli artillery battery across the Lebanese border had finally stopped. “Is that the end of the shelling?” asked a visiting reporter. “No,” replied a young Israeli army conscript. “It’s the end of the village.”

In its most devastating attack against southern Lebanon since its 1982 invasion, Israel last week rained destruction upon dozens of similar villages in a 50-km arc from the Mediterranean coast to the slopes of Mount Hermon. Day after day, big guns, along with attack helicopters, jet fighters and navy warships pounded areas said by the Israelis to house and nurture the fundamentalist Islamic militants of Hizbollah, the Iranian-backed “Army of God,” sworn enemies of both the Jewish state and the sporadic Middle East peace negotiations. And the firepower was certainly awesome, reducing large parts of towns and villages to rubble. But throughout the week, defiant Hizbollah fighters, firmly committed to sabotaging the 21-month-old talks between Israel and its Arab neighbors, hit back, firing surface-to-surface Katyusha rockets into northern Israel and forcing thousands of Israelis to take refuge in bomb shelters.

The immediate provocation for the Israeli assault, code-named Operation Accountability, was an increase in ambushes by Hizbollah militiamen and radical Palestinians against Israeli troops in Israel’s self-proclaimed “security zone” in southern Lebanon. The militants, who oppose the Washington-sponsored peace process, have recently accelerated strikes against Israeli troops in the 15-km-wide zone that Israel retained after its 1985 withdrawal from Lebanon as a strategic buffer against guerrilla incursions from the north. Attacks in early July killed seven Israeli soldiers in the security zone.

In addition to retaliating for those deaths, the Israeli blitz was designed to bring a halt to escalating Hizbollah attacks with Katyusha rockets against Israeli military and civilian targets over the past 18 months. “There had been suicide bombings and other attacks over the years, but Israel did not react like this,” said Maskit Bürgin, a Tel Aviv University terrorism

expert. “The main change was the use of Katyushas. Israel could not tolerate the transfer of the combat on to its own territory.” The government of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin stressed that it wanted to demonstrate to Hizbollah that it could not challenge Israel with impunity—and that it would not be permitted to export its guerrilla campaign, which ultimately seeks the destruction of the Jewish state, across the Lebanese border into northern Israel. “If there is no peace and quiet for our settlements,” Rabin warned the Islamic militants, “there will be no peace and quiet for those who attack them.”

The hostilities, which threatened to derail the already stalled Arab-Israeli peace talks, left a trail of human misery. In northern Israel, where Katyushas killed two people and wounded more than 30 others, thousands of residents rode out the attacks in bomb shelters or sent their children to the safety of summer camps out of rocket range. At one point last week in the Galilee panhandle township of Kiryat

Shmona, barely a mile from the Lebanese border, a rocket scored a direct hit on a shelter. It did not penetrate the concrete roof, but flung the black basalt rocks, which reinforced the bunker, in all directions. By chance, nobody was inside—many weary residents had chosen to return to the comfort of their homes despite the danger. ‘The shelter’s so cramped and smelly that nobody wants to use it,” explained Elad Mor, a 16-year-old boy whose father’s car windshield was shattered by flying shrapnel. Families with small children were having the hardest time. Yael Ephraim, 25, mother of a three-month-old child, ran out of baby formula because the shops were all closed. Her husband turned to the police, who forced a corner grocer to open until his stocks ran out. The couple got the very last of the baby formula.

But the heaviest bombardment came from the Israeli side. After five days of fighting, UN observers said that 22,000 Israeli howitzer shells and 1,000 rockets landed north of the security zone, compared with 275 Katyushas fired at the Israelis. As northern Israelis sat out the attacks in shelters or headed south, more than 300,000 southern Lebanese villagers, out of a total population of 800,000, fled northwards in cars, trucks and buses, jamming the four-lane coastal highway to Beirut. “We are human beings, not animals,” said Ali Brakat, 40, a refugee who stood in the blazing sun near Tyre hoping, along with thousands of others stranded without vehicles, to hitch a ride away from the fighting. “Let them have mercy on us. Let them have mercy on the children.” The Israeli government said that while it regretted the suffering of innocent civilians, it hoped that the massive refugee wave, which overwhelmed emergency shelters in and around Beirut, would pressure the Lebanese government and its Syrian backers to curb guerrilla activity directed at Israel from Lebanese soil. But while the Beirut government pushed for Hizbollah to stop the attacks, officials said that it could not rein in the militants unless Israel retreated completely from southern Lebanon.

Israel’s deliberate attempt to uproot southern Lebanon’s civilian population drew strong worldwide condemnation. UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali denounced the continuing attacks in southern Lebanon despite repeated appeals for restraint. Said the secretary general: “The policy of deliberately forcing people to abandon their homes must be stopped forthwith and those who have been displaced should be enabled to return in peace and safety.”

In Washington, President Bill Clinton, who summoned Secretary of State Warren Christopher home from a tour of Asia to discuss the situation, called on both the Hizbollah guerrillas and the Israeli government to end the fighting. And while he praised Syria, which has 35,000 troops in Lebanon, for “showing restraint” in the crisis, he called on the government of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad to become an “active participant” in securing a ceasefire. Asked if Canada would try to persuade Israel to stop the attacks, Prime Minister Kim Campbell was more cautious. She emphasized Ottawa’s support for U.S. efforts to revive Middle East peace talks, and added: “There’s an ongoing dynamic of violence there and unless we can get some permanent solution, we’re going to continue to have these situations. Canada’s position is that we want to see peace talks reconvened.”

At week’s end, Israeli and guerrilla guns fell silent after Israel ordered its army to halt its seven-day assault. The agreement, worked out with U.S. mediation, said that Hizbollah guerrillas would also stop firing Katyusha rockets at Israel; the Israelis, the statement warned, would respond harshly to any violation of the accord. Refugees, the agreement said, could return to their homes in the south if peace was maintained. But as Christopher attempted to get the Arab-Israeli negotiations back on track, last week’s dramatic battles were a reminder that, in the tense Middle East, guns continue to do a great deal of the talking.

SCOTT STEELE

ERIC SILVER