Backgrounder:

AN INSIDER'S GUIDE TO SOUTH LEBANON

In early February, when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak poured over a list of possible targets in Lebanon to strike in retaliation for mounting Hizb'Allah attacks, it was not the first time he had been through this prickly exercise. Barak has a long personal connection with the drawn-out conflict in south Lebanon. Openly struggling with the recent escalation in fighting there, Barak claimed this month that Israel should have pulled out years ago, but "we haven't had the strength since then to end this tragedy." Completing his bleak prognosis, he noted a unilateral pullback now could mean the Lebanese conflict could last "five or 10 years." Following is a brief review of Israel's - and Barak's - involvement in the "Lebanese swamp."

The conflict along the Israeli-Lebanese border heated up in the early 1970's when PLO forces were uprooted from Jordan in the "Black September" revolt and found a new home among Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut and southern Lebanon. After years of PLO infiltrations, Israel undertook the "Litani Operation" in 1978, sending ground forces to drive Palestinian terrorists north of the Litani river in Lebanon. The UN Security Council passed resolution 425 demanding an IDF withdrawal. Israel made a partial exit, but created a modest "security zone" just north of the border - in alliance with the fledgling SLA - to keep northern Israeli communities out of PLO rocket range. UNIFIL peacekeepers were sent on a loosely-defined, temporary mission to fill the vaccum left between the Litani and Israel's buffer zone.

When the PLO's cross-border attacks continued and intensified, the Begin government ordered "Operation Peace For Galilee" in 1982 to again drive the PLO Army from "Fatahland" - the state-within-a-state it had carved out in southern Lebanon. Ground forces advanced up to Beirut, and besieged PLO strongholds until PLO leader Yasser Arafat agreed to leave the city. Barak commanded the Lebanon Valley forces during "Peace for Galilee, and headed the IDF Planning branch. The IDF then withdrew to the Awali river and - under domestic and international pressure - redeployed in 1985 to the current 10-15 mile wide security zone due to the threats posed by a new nemisis - the radical Islamic militias Amal and Hizb'Allah. As head of Aman (IDF intelligence) at the time, Barak has been credited as the main strategist behind the IDF's repositioning in the south Lebanon buffer zone, again wanting to keep the upper Galilee out of Katyusha rocket range.

The Ta'if accords in 1989 ended the 15-year-old Lebanese civil war and endorsed Syria's occupation of a major portion of the country. In 1991, the Lebanese government ordered the disarming of all armed groups except Hizb'Allah, which was allowed to continue its "resistance" in the south. The same year, Syria used the cover of the Gulf War to extend its domination over Beirut and 90% of Lebanon, and has since used the Iranian-backed Hizb'Allah as a proxy army to achieve its objectives vis-a-vis Israel.

In July 1993, after Hizb'Allah killed 7 IDF soldiers in the security zone and fired rockets into Israel, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin approved "Operation Accountability," a short but intense bombardment of Lebanese areas north of the zone. The aim was to pressure Lebanon and Syria to rein in Hizb'Allah and prevent it from targeting Israeli communities. Rabin met strong opposition in his Cabinet to the military exercise, but reportedly was "pushed into" the plan by Barak, then IDF chief-of-staff. The fighting subsided when the US brokered a set of unwritten "understandings" that basically provided Hizb'Allah would not fire rockets at northern Israel and the IDF and SLA would not fire at civilian targets in Lebanon.

The 1993 understandings did not put an end to the fighting, as Syria vetoed Lebanon's commitment to deploy army units in the south to restore order. Hizb'Allah continued to inflict casualties in the security zone and launch rockets into the Galilee. Its success and survival largely was due to conducting operations from within populated villages north of the zone, using local Lebanese residents as "human shields." In April 1996, Hizb'Allah again escalated hostilies, killing 7 IDF soldiers and firing 30 Katyushas into Kiryat Shmona. Acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres - campaigning to retain his office outright and anxious to push the peace process forward with Syria and the Palestinians - nonetheless ordered "Operation Grapes of Wrath," another military bid to force Damascus to curb Hizb'Allah activities. After 17 days of heavy bombardment in southern Lebanon, the US mediated a truce which essentially put into writing the "understandings" from 3 years prior. Barak served as foreign minister in the Peres government at the time, and was involved in the US-led diplomatic efforts that produced the written rules of engagement - known as the "Grapes of Wrath understandings" - which included the express provision that "civilian populated areas... will not be used as launching grounds for attacks." Barak also spearheaded Israel's charge to counter UN condemnation after the Kfar Kana disaster - where 91 Lebanese civilians were accidentally killed by IDF return fire at Hizb'Allah forces operating near a UN shelter. Finally, Barak drew broad criticism at home as the 1996 elections approached by claiming, "the reason Hizb'Allah fired Katyushas at the Galilee was to topple the Labor government."

The April 1996 understandings have done little to mitigate the conflict in south Lebanon; perhaps its only achievement was to clearly expose Syria's role as the key to controlling Hizb'Allah. And despite the Labor party's boast in 1985 that "we got Israel out of Lebanon," Barak still finds himself at the center of his nation's struggle to end its costly entanglement there.


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