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Israelis Worry Army's Fighting Spirit Is Broken

November 03, 1994|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Is Israel's progress toward making peace with neighboring Arab states undermining its army's fighting spirit?

That question is being fiercely debated this week in the nation's newspapers, on its airwaves and in the halls of Parliament, after a unit of soldiers from the Givati infantry brigade failed to defend their south Lebanon outpost aggressively against an attack by Lebanese guerrillas.

"The disgrace" is what Israeli newspapers are terming the incident, which occurred Saturday morning in Israel's self-proclaimed security zone in south Lebanon.

"The fact that . . . soldiers avoided risking their lives will be explained by local failure and by objective difficulties," wrote commentator Yaron London in the mass-circulation newspaper Yediot Aharonot. "Perhaps this is so, but it is also possible that the fighting spirit has been broken. The fighting spirit has been broken because nobody wants to be the last war victim, and many feel that the war of one hundred years is about to end."

To an outsider, Israelis may seem to be making much of a relatively small incident involving only a handful of soldiers. Only five soldiers and two officers have been charged with improper conduct. The Hezbollah guerrillas did not overrun the position and inflicted only three casualties.

But the anxiety infusing the public discussion here says much about the nation's collective fears as it moves into the unknown realm of peacemaking. Labor Party leaders may rejoice at what they say is the ending of the Arab siege, but many Israelis are frightened by the changing contours of a conflict that has defined the nation since its birth.

"Everything is changing and changing very rapidly, and people don't know what it means," said Avishai Margalit, a professor of philosophy at Hebrew University. "People are told that the change is for the better, but from time to time there are setbacks, and people don't know how to react."

The Israeli reaction to the south Lebanon incident, Margalit said, "contains a rational element and a hysterical element. The rational element is that we are in an in-between period--we are signing peace agreements, and yet there are still active conflicts. People fear that soldiers may feel that there is no longer a need for sacrifice, bravery, courage."

The hysterical element, Margalit said, is generalizing from one isolated incident "to the performance of the entire army. The army is not falling apart."

"We mustn't close our eyes and deny what happened," said Gen. Yoram Yair, head of the army personnel branch, "but we absolutely must not lose proportion, because the results (of this incident) will be reversed. We want to make it singularly clear that this is not behavior characteristic of IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) soldiers."

The incident's impact was magnified by the fact that Hezbollah videotaped its assault on the unit. A hand-held camera captured a Hezbollah guerrilla planting the organization's flag triumphantly on the perimeter of the army position, in the eastern sector of the security zone. As the incident mushroomed into a scandal this week, Israel Television repeatedly showed the tape.

On Monday, senior army officers and politicians gave an accounting of the incident before committees of the Knesset, Israel's Parliament.

Chief of the General Staff Ehud Barak told army radio that "this was an important achievement for Hezbollah, and something that shouldn't have happened."

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said any clash that fails to inflict heavy losses on the enemy is "a failure, to put it mildly." But Rabin said the incident had to be seen in the context of a recent upsurge of attacks by Hezbollah on army units in the security zone. Israeli officials said privately this week that they believe Hezbollah is acting on instructions from Syria, stepping up attacks in the zone to drive home the point to Israel that Syria must not be left out of the peace process.

By Wednesday, two soldiers involved in the incident had been court-martialed and sentenced to monthlong military jail terms. Five more soldiers, including two officers, also will stand trial before military courts.

Military investigators said guerrillas from Hezbollah, a militant Lebanese Islamic organization, first shelled and then tried to storm the army outpost. Three soldiers on the perimeter abandoned their posts, falling back to join their comrades. That allowed the guerrillas to get close enough to plant their flag, wound two soldiers and kill another. The post then fought off the attackers, but it failed to pursue them or inflict any casualties.

On Wednesday, the army's northern command transferred all the soldiers from the post to other positions, but it left the post in the hands of Givati--which has about 1,200 soldiers serving in the security zone.

Fernand Klein, mother of Almog Klein, the army sergeant killed in the attack, has spoken out in defense of the soldiers at the post.

"These soldiers loved each other so much that no one could believe that someone would leave them to be killed," Klein told reporters Tuesday. She insisted that the soldiers were abandoned by other army units that could have come to their aid and that they were suffering from fatigue after serving three months in south Lebanon.

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