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Middle East Bringing Home the Troops

8 minute read
George Russell

“The time has come. We can preserve our security and bring our boys home.” So said Prime Minister Shimon Peres last week as he prepared for a test of strength within Israel’s national unity government. Hours later Peres was triumphant, and Israel was embarked on a dramatic change of military course. By a 16-to-6 count, the Cabinet voted in favor of a unilateral, step-by-step withdrawal of an estimated 22,000 Israeli troops from southern Lebanon, with the first phase to get under way within five weeks. Other stages in the planned three-phase pullback will occur at Cabinet discretion, but the decision left little doubt of the ultimate intent. Said a senior official: “Israel will be out of Lebanon in nine months.”

The decision was a victory for Peres, who has long been critical of the frustrating and costly occupation of Lebanese territory that began with Israel’s invasion of its neighbor on June 6, 1982. No longer will Israel be, as he put it, “the policeman of Lebanon,” a role that has led to 610 Israeli deaths in the past 31 months and cost the economically strapped government / about $600,000 a day. The move was a popular one: in some recent polls, nine out of ten Israelis have favored a withdrawal. Said Abba Eban, chairman of the Knesset’s defense and foreign affairs committee: “Everyone wants out.”

Not quite. The withdrawal scheme was opposed by hard-line Likud members of the unity government, led by Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, thus putting a heavy strain on the coalition. Moreover, the decision to leave Lebanon is fraught with uncertainties and hazards. It marked a victory of sorts for Syrian President Hafez Assad, who has opposed a negotiated pullback agreement between Israel and Lebanon. But, above all, Jerusalem’s move shifted a new and perhaps unbearable burden onto the frail government of Lebanese President Amin Gemayel: the maintenance of peace and order in southern Lebanon after the Israeli departure. If the weak Lebanese Army, which has been unable to guarantee security anywhere in the country, cannot fill the vacuum, Lebanon faces the possibility of factional bloodshed on an expanded scale. Said an Israeli army officer: “Soon will be the moment of truth for Lebanon.”

The complexities of the situation were quickly recognized in Washington. Officially, the State Department declared that “we have consistently supported efforts to bring about the total withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon, and we encourage the parties to continue their efforts to bring about a negotiated withdrawal.” Privately, an Administration official remarked that “we understand (Israel’s) impatience, but we don’t think this is the way to go about it.” The Reagan Administration would prefer to see Israel quickly negotiate a satisfactory diplomatic solution that would pose fewer risks for the Gemayel government.

Washington’s best hope was that Israel’s decision would breathe life into the stalemated negotiations between Israel and Lebanon being held in the Lebanese town of Naqoura. The talks have faltered over Lebanon’s rejection, as an infringement on its sovereignty, of two Israeli proposals. One is to expand the role of the 5,252-man United Nations peace-keeping force stationed in southern Lebanon in the wake of an Israeli withdrawal, the other to allot some security duties to an Israeli-backed Lebanese militia in the immediate border region. As U.N. Under Secretary-General Brian Urquhart tried last week to get the negotiations back on track, a scheduled meeting at Naqoura was postponed briefly “for technical reasons.”

Israel promised that “efforts to reach diplomatic agreements will continue,” even as the Peres government laid out the broad thrust of the withdrawal scheme. The first installment of the pullout calls for the Israelis to leave the northwestern sector of occupied territory, around the city of Sidon and along the Awali River, within five weeks. The troops will redeploy from their current lines about 25 miles inside Lebanon to a point between the Zahrani and Litani rivers, anywhere from seven to 20 miles to the south. An exact timetable will be submitted in advance to the Gemayel government and to the U.N. “in order to permit them to organize and deploy forces in the area.”

The second phase affects the eastern sector that includes part of the Bekaa Valley, where Israeli soldiers now are dug in opposite an estimated 40,000 Syrian troops who occupy their own slice of Lebanon. The withdrawal in that region is intended to create a demilitarized zone between the two forces, pending a final stage when Israeli troops leave Lebanese soil altogether. As part of the third phase, the Israelis plan to create a zone six to twelve miles deep on the Lebanese side of the frontier under the control of the 2,150-man Israeli-trained and -financed South Lebanon Army, a predominantly Christian militia.

Throughout the redeployment, Jerusalem emphasized, the government will do “everything required” to guarantee security in Galilee, Israel’s northernmost region. That reference harks back to the attacks in the area by forces of the Palestine Liberation Organization that were cited as Israel’s justification for the invasion of 1982, code-named Operation Peace for Galilee. Government officials also explained that the withdrawal might free Israeli forces for more effective action in the border region. Declared Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin: “No terror organization will be able to establish itself as the P.L.O. did in the south of Lebanon. We will not allow such a thing, even if it means bombing from the air or entering Lebanon for limited military operations.”

It was the terrorism issue that caused the Cabinet split over withdrawal. Shamir and other Likud members argue that the possibility of P.L.O. attacks should remain a paramount concern in Jerusalem: a pullback without firm security guarantees from the Gemayel government will simply allow P.L.O. guerrillas to filter back into southern Lebanon. That, in Shamir’s words, would amount to “abandoning the Galilee.”

& The opposing, and dominant, view is that the continued presence in Lebanon of Israeli troops, bogged down with occupation duties and mired in static defense, is helping to inspire another, perhaps more serious, threat. That is the one posed by the Shi’ite Muslims in the south, who constitute at least 60% of the 1 million people in the occupied territory. Many of the Shi’ites originally welcomed the Israelis as their liberators from the P.L.O., which had created a state-within-a-state in the region. Since then, however, a minority of Shi’ite fundamentalists, followers of Iran’s Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini, have launched their own attacks against the Israeli army, with the support of Syria. Israeli officers point out that nearly 50% of Israel’s fatal casualties have occurred since the expulsion of the P.L.O. from its Lebanese strongholds.

As the Israeli occupation has worn on, the extremists have gained increasing sympathy from residents of the region. Even so, the officers believe that the Shi’ite majority are largely passive in their attitudes toward Israel, and will not be a threat after withdrawal. Said Army Chief of Staff Lieut. General Moshe Levy last week: “Most of the Shi’ite community, except for its extremist circles, has no reason to regard Israel as a target.”

Whether or not that is so, the Shi’ite attitude toward their fellow Lebanese has hardened. One of the dangers of the Israeli withdrawal is that it could lead to a bitter struggle between the Shi’ite majority and the Sunni Muslim and Christian minorities, not to mention the remaining Palestinian civilian population. In recent weeks, Shi’ite radicals have killed more than a dozen southern Lebanese as alleged collaborators with the Israelis. The Israeli pullback could spark a bloodier and more widespread settling of Lebanese scores. Precisely such an explosion took place between Lebanon’s Christian and Druze militias following Israel’s September 1983 withdrawal from the Chouf Mountains southeast of Beirut. Hundreds of Lebanese were killed and more than 100,000 were left homeless.

An early test of southern Lebanon’s stability could come in the city of Sidon (pop. 200,000), one of the first sites to be abandoned by the Israelis in the withdrawal. Sidon’s population is preponderantly Sunni Muslim. To the north, the city is flanked by Christian hillside communities, to the south by Shi’ites. Almost in the center of Sidon lies the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein el Helweh, with 40,000 inhabitants.

& If major clashes between factions do erupt in Lebanon, the Israeli Cabinet, rather than local commanders, will decide what action, if any, Israeli forces should take in response. But Jerusalem would rather leave any such matter to the Lebanese. Said Major General Ori Orr, head of Israel’s Northern Command: “I prefer to leave that problem to Amin Gemayel.” The chances that the Lebanese Army could step in successfully under such chaotic circumstances are thought to be negligible. Partisan militiamen, for example, control the heights overlooking the road between Sidon and Beirut, and that link could be easily cut in the event of an upheaval. Said a Western diplomat in Beirut: “The Israeli withdrawal could throw the whole of Lebanon into chaos. It only needs a serious clash in this city or major problems in the south to set the whole country ablaze.”

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