Israel's presence in south Lebanon is again a hotly debated topic in Jerusalem, after seven IDF soldiers were killed and several others wounded by roadside bombs in a 10-day period in late November. The roadside attacks have proven to be a particularly thorny puzzle for the Israeli army and their South Lebanese allies, as local residents in the security zone are suspected of collaborating with Hizb'Allah in planting explosives. The situation has even forced Israel to severely limit the access of journalists to South Lebanon.
Adding fuel to the fire, within hours Hizb'Allah aired video footage of one explosion on their Beirut TV station, and later showered adoring crowds with sweets in the streets of the capital. In reaction, one suggested option in Israel called for bombing Syrian army bases in the Beka'a Valley.
Labour MK Yossi Beilin voiced scathing criticism of Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai's cautious assessment to a Knesset committee following the spate of IDF casualties. When Mordechai stood firm against a unilateral withdrawal, Beilin stormed out of the meeting and told waiting press that the Defense Minister was "gambling" with Israeli lives (Jerusalem Post, 1/12/98). Political and military figures overwhelmingly concurred with Mordechai's reluctance to hastily abandon the security zone, and Beilin eventually apologised, but the rift in opinion is sure to surface again.
Meanwhile, the attrition of men and morale among the south Lebanese is beginning to show, with some openly questioning SLA commander General Antoine Lahad's decision to evacuate key outposts around the Jezzine enclave and other moves. Scores of members of the South Lebanese Army, who have been tried and convicted in absentia in Beirut, fear lethal reprisals if Israel were to suddenly withdraw. They reason that since the Lebanese Army originally ordered Col Saad Haddad to the region to form the SLA militia years ago, they have simply been loyal soldiers and should be granted amnesty. But for Syrian devices, they might find a more sympathetic audience among their countrymen.
For almost a decade--ever since Syria's forces occupied Beirut in 1990 (under cover of the Kuwaiti crisis)--the process of integrating Lebanon into "Greater Syria" has been unhindered. Syrian troops in Lebanon number about 40,000 (together with thousands of plain-clothed Syrian agents), while estimates of the number of Syrian workers permanently in Lebanon range as high as two million. Many in Lebanon's Christian community have fled. And Hizb'Allah serves as an effective proxy for Syria's President Hafez al-Assad to exact a price for Israel's presence on the Golan.
During most of this decade, Beirut's puppet government was led by President Elias Hrawi and Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The wealthy businessman Hariri was a particularly effective Syrian stooge, as he irreversibly tipped the delicate demographic balance in Lebanon by granting Lebanese citizenship to at least 300,000 Syrian Muslims, along with scores of Palestinians, Kurds and others. But his support within Parliament eroded when it became obvious his redevelopment ventures had lined his own pockets at the expense of the national economy and currency.
Both men have been replaced this year. New President Emile Lahoud is a former Army commander who enjoys the support of the military. And although a Maronite Christian, persistent reports have tagged Lahoud an Assad agent - even while participating in the secret Gemayel-Sharon meetings that forged an Israeli-Lebanese alliance two decades ago. Lahoud has two-fold appeal to Assad. First, he gives the Maronite Christians the false sense that they once again share power with their Muslim counterparts. And secondly, the Lebanese army has assured its preferential status with one of their own in office. As one south Lebanese leader told the Digest: "Assad has imported the Damascus system into Lebanon."
President Lahoud in turn tapped Sunni-Muslim businessman Salim Hoss in early December to take over from the self-dealing Hariri as prime minister. Hoss served in the post on four previous occasions and was a consensus candidate among legislators due to his promised severe austerity measures needed to reassure sagging markets. The noticeable silence of Damascus is an indication that Assad is quite comfortable with both figures, but has kept a low profile to avoid any appearance of Syrian interference. Indeed, this may be one of the clearest sign to date that the transformation of Lebanon into a province of Syria has quietly become a fait accompli.