July/August 2000

There must be no Hizbullahland

(August 10) - Yesterday, 10 weeks after Israel's forces left, the Lebanese government finally deployed its army and police in the south. This is an encouraging development which may lead to Beirut governing, rebuilding, and maintaining order there. Israel has the reasonable expectation that the new situation will bring to an end 30 years of terrorist attacks, rocket firing, and fighting along the border.

But like everything concerning Lebanon, this is a complex matter and hopes may be disappointed. To understand the new stage, it is necessary to review the history of this frontier. When the War of Independence ended with a truce, Lebanon remained in a state of war with Israel. While the border remained quiet for many years, by the early 1970s PLO forces based in southern Lebanon began sometimes bloody assaults on Israeli civilian targets. As a weak country, pressured by other Arab countries and domestically divided, Lebanon was unable to stop this campaign.

Israel tried a variety of methods to bring security to the North, ranging from diplomatic activities to reprisal attacks. Finally, in 1982, Israeli forces entered southern Lebanon. The PLO fled the south and by the following year - ironically thanks to Syria's own anti-PLO offensive - that old threat had ceased.

For the next 18 years, Israel developed a new technique for maintaining quiet along the border. It sponsored a local militia, the South Lebanese Army, and send patrols into the area as well. Hizbullah, a new force inspired by Iran's Islamic revolution and helped by Syria, arose and tried again to assault Israel. While Hizbullah talked of Lebanese patriotism to liberate southern Lebanon, its real motive was spreading Islamic revolution and destroying Israel.

Yet times and conditions changed. Believing that the old method was no longer satisfactory, that Israeli casualties were unnecessary, and that new methods might work better, the IDF was pulled out of southern Lebanon. This decision became a tragedy for Israel's allies in the region but, so far, the new strategy has worked relatively well.

In terms of Lebanon itself, though, Israel's withdrawal raised several paradoxes. Beirut constantly demanded that Israel pull out, yet refused to make peace or even negotiate with Israel to facilitate that departure. Lebanon tried to act the part of the innocent victim, though all the problems stemmed from the use of its soil - with government acquiescence - to carry out aggression against a neighbor. And once Israel did withdraw, the Lebanese government was slow and reluctant to return to the south.

The reason, of course, is a fear of Hizbullah, Iran, and Syria, which have interests against the border being too quiet. Thus, we first had the ludicrous situation of Lebanon trying to deny for several weeks that Israel did withdraw, complaining over every alleged meter that an Israel road or installation may have protruded over the border. Finally, with the UN declaring the withdrawal complete, Lebanon was compelled to recognize that it had happened and to let UNIFIL deploy along the border. Even then, it only acted after getting a green light from its political master, Syria.

Again, though, Lebanon stalled as long as possible before sending its own officials and forces south. And they are still not deploying on the border. Lebanon has allowed Hizbullah to continue running a narrow strip between the Israeli and UNIFIL forces along the border and the Lebanese government forces some distance away.

In short, what had once been Fatahland and then SLAland might now become a Beirut-recognized Hizbullahland. Equally, the Lebanese government is apparently giving license for demonstrators to continue throwing rocks and other things at Israeli forces at the Fatma gate.

There are several reasons to believe, though, that the new situation can remain peaceful. Hizbullah is currently preoccupied with the Lebanese elections and its hopes of becoming a domestic political power. Provoking a war with Israel -especially on behalf of the generally unpopular Palestinians - would not endear it to the Lebanese. The resulting Israeli retaliations, leading to another mass flight from the south and renewed destruction there, would hurt Hizbullah's Shi'ite constituency in the area.

Syria, which in the past used Hizbullah to pressure Israel for concessions on the Golan Heights, is in the midst of a difficult political transition and does not want a confrontation with Israel. Damascus has noted Israel's threat to hit Syrian installations in Lebanon in the event of renewed cross-border attacks and has pressed Iran to reduce its efforts to stir up trouble.

There is a basis, then, for an end to the border conflict. But of course there are no guarantees that this will happen. Hizbullah could decide that another little war would boost its popularity or that it could get away with using radical Palestinian surrogates. Iran could encourage such an offensive and Syria could look the other way. In the end, Israel must depend on its own deterrence and ability to raise the price higher than its adversaries want to pay.

Lebanon is simply being asked is to live up to its own rhetoric and impose the government's sovereignty over its own national territory. Israel, like every other country, is only insisting that a neighbor controls its own territory and not let that land be used for attacks across the border. If the Beirut government fails to do so this time, it will have no one else to blame credibly for the consequences.

© Jerusalem Post 2000

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