Under pressure from its Syrian taskmasters, Lebanon ratcheted up old
threats and raised new obstacles on Wednesday to block Israel's momentum
for an orderly IDF withdrawal from south Lebanon under United Nations
supervision. Setting some rather novel and stringent preconditions for its
cooperation, Lebanon wants the UN to first disarm Palestinians living in
refugee camps and guarantee Israel will respect Lebanon's territorial
sovereignty - including its airspace.
On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak received a face-saving
commitment from Secretary General Kofi Annan that the UN would use its
"mandate" under Security Council resolution 425 to coordinate plans with
Israel for ending its costly and unpopular presence in south Lebanon by
July. Meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy in Geneva, Annan
voiced a preference for the option of a beefed-up UNIFIL to fill the
"vacuum" created in the wake of Israel's pullout, so that no side would
have a pretext to bring about "any deterioration of the situation."
The official Lebanese reaction on Wednesday came in the form of a letter to
Annan from Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, which made it clear that Beirut
would not coordinate with the UN over a withdrawal before certain concerns
are addressed. Although Lebanon has consistently badgered Israel for years
to immediately and unconditionally evacuate its 10-mile wide security zone
in the south pursuant to resolution 425, it now is obstructing a clean IDF
get-away under UN cover.
The Lahoud letter warned that continual Palestinian attacks are a real
possibility if Israel withdraws from Lebanon without a wider peace
agreement, and posed a series of questions about UN policy regarding
UNIFIL. "If Palestinian groups tried to launch cross-border attacks in the
framework of their right to return home, do you think that the
international forces will be able to prevent daily little wars on the
borders?" the letter asked. "Does the United Nations accept a Lebanese
condition to disarm Palestinians or participate in disarming them before
deploying international troops on its borders?"
Lahoud also asked whether UNIFIL would prevent Israel from violating
Lebanese sovereign airspace and its territorial waters, a move meant to
deprive Israel of IAF air strikes - its most effective deterrence against
cross-border attacks. In addition, he queried Annan on Lebanon's demand for
full compensation for damage it has sustained since resolution 425 was
passed in 1978.
Lahoud presented his letter listing eight such questions to special UN
Mideast envoy Terje Roed Larsen (a key Norwegian player in the PLO's
breakthrough at Oslo), and added he needed answers before discussing any
further issues. Lahoud also also indicated Lebanon would not move quickly
to deploy its own forces near the border and take responsibility for
As part of the terms ending the 15-year Lebanese civil war, Beirut
supposedly disarmed all the various militias operating in the country -
except the Islamic groups Hizb'Allah, which was allowed to continue its
"armed resistance to Israeli occupation" in the south. While some radical
Palestinian factions may still have small arms, the real threat comes from
pro-Syrian Palestinian elements which Damascus would now mobilize as yet
another proxy against Israel.
Annan spoke by phone with Lahoud on Thursday and was said to be studying
the Lebanese president's requests. But a UN source acknowledged Lahoud's
letter as a ruse, saying Israel was in the middle of "a campaign to sell
Resolution 425, and the Syrians will do everything to prevent this." The
source said the Lebanese were imposing "impossible conditions."
Syria indeed echoed the Lebanese stance, saying Israel will still be
regarded as an occupying force because of incursions into Lebanese
territorial waters and air space. Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara
told the LONDON TIMES that Israel's planned unilateral pull-out from
Lebanon would not bring stability unless it also made peace with Damascus.
To reinforce its threats, top Syrian officials met with radical Palestinian
terrorist chief George Habash on Wednesday and renewed support for the
Palestinian struggle. In a similar move, a pro-Syrian PLO commander in a
large refugee camp in southern Lebanon said yesterday that Israel would not
enjoy peaceful borders if it withdrew. "There will be no peace, no security
and no stability to the occupier... No army in the world will guarantee the
security of this occupier, even the Blue Berets," he asserted.
In turn, PLO leader Yasser Arafat today again strongly rebuked Syria's
attempts to hijack the refugee issue and stir up trouble in the camps in
Lebanon, where some 370,000 Palestinians live.
Israel's deputy Defense Minister, Ephraim Sneh, led the Israeli reaction to
the latest Lebanese blocking maneuver, charging Syria was trying to
sabotage Israel's exit strategy. On Thursday, Sneh rejected the new
conditions set by Lebanon and warned Syria that cross-border fighting could
intensify if it tries to torpedo attempts to negotiate the terms of an
Although Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has tried to downplay the
potential for a major escalation along the border, the Hebrew-daily MA'ARIV
published a prominent article on Thursday revealing that a majority of the
IDF General Staff now opposes the government decision to redeploy by July
without a peace deal. The paper quoted unidentified senior officers as
saying Barak is leading the IDF and the country into a trap in "an
unprecedented gamble with the lives of civilians." They argue that Iran
would order Hizb'Allah to attack Israeli border towns after the withdrawal.
Scores of residents near the border seemed to agree, as they staged a large
protest against the lack of security preparations for the IDF redeployment,
blocking the main northern border road for an hour.
Meanwhile, AN-NAHAR stepped up its editorial campaign yesterday against the
reluctance of the Beirut government to take responsibility for the south
after the IDF leaves, which would create a "security vacuum [that] could be
exploited by those harmed by the withdrawal and seeking to commit acts of
sabotage that could sow ethnic strife."
The editorial said: "We say with all sincerity that the matter of [South
Lebanese Army commander Antoine] Lahad's forces should be dealt with by the
state, far from a media or political circus and far from the extremists.
The victory in south Lebanon is - and should be - a victory of all Lebanese
over Israel, and not one Lebanese side over another."