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World Perspective | MIDEAST

Four Mothers' Battle to End the Bloodshed

Group formed by parents of Israeli soldiers seeks unconditional withdrawal from Lebanon.

September 05, 1998|REBECCA TROUNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — From the window of the college classroom where she teaches, Rachel Ben-Dor often sees military helicopters ferrying young Israelis off to fight in southern Lebanon.

Each time, she prays that her own son, now 21 and serving in the army, is not among them. But sometimes, she knows, he is.

"We have been fighting in south Lebanon for so many years," said Ben-Dor, 42, a lecturer in Jewish studies at a small college near Israel's northern border. "We need to bring our sons home and solve our problems with the Lebanese--but not by war."

Ben-Dor is not alone in her frustration over Israel's costly occupation of a strip of southern Lebanon and the mounting toll exacted in battles there with Lebanese Shiite guerrillas. Israel invaded Lebanon in 1978 and 1982 to halt cross-border attacks by Palestinian guerrillas. Since 1982, 864 Israeli soldiers have died in Lebanon. Of those, 227, including 11 this year, have been killed since the army withdrew in 1985 to the 9-mile-deep swath that Israel calls its "security zone."

A year and a half ago, Ben-Dor gathered three friends, all mothers of young soldiers serving in Lebanon, at her home in the town of Rosh Pinna. Seventy-three more Israeli soldiers had just been killed in the collision of two helicopters en route to Lebanon, and the women were determined to try to stop the bloodshed.

They launched a movement to demand that Israel pull all troops out of Lebanon--even without a peace agreement with the government in Beirut, or with Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon. They called it Four Mothers, after the biblical matriarchs Rachel, Sarah, Leah and Rebekah.

The group has now grown to several hundred active members, including fathers of soldiers, former soldiers, students and others who have no direct connection to the conflict. It has collected more than 20,000 signatures--including that of the wife of a former commander of Israeli forces in Lebanon--on petitions that call for a unilateral and unconditional withdrawal. And it holds frequent demonstrations near the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv and outside the home of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

For member Lea Horvich, what she views as the futility of Israel's long occupation of southern Lebanon struck home again last week when several towns in northern Israel came under a cross-border rocket barrage by Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas. Nineteen people were hurt in the attack.

"The Israeli soldiers in Lebanon cannot defend the north," said Horvich, a Jerusalem high school teacher whose 22-year-old twins are in the army. "The policy of keeping soldiers there to protect people in the north is not working. We have to leave," she said.

The mothers say that withdrawing troops from Lebanon would remove the Lebanese guerrillas' motivation to attack Israel but still leave the government with the ability to launch a powerful counterstrike to any cross-border violence.

But opponents argue that a unilateral withdrawal would only encourage such attacks. They say the troops must stay until a peace treaty is signed.

"If we pull out, it is unavoidable that areas under Hezbollah or Syrian control would serve as a springboard for attacks on Israel," said Ephraim Sneh, a Labor Party lawmaker and onetime commander of Israeli forces in Lebanon. "We have no choice but to stay."

Public opinion surveys, however, indicate that support is growing for a withdrawal, reflecting a weariness among Israelis over the continuing toll in Lebanon. Most polls show that a majority now supports a pullout.

Amid growing calls for a withdrawal, the Netanyahu government gave conditional approval this spring to a 20-year-old U.N. Security Council resolution calling on Israel to pull out of Lebanon. The Lebanese government quickly rejected the condition, which involved cooperating with Israel in establishing "appropriate security conditions."

But the debate here continues.

Arik Ben-Zvi, 23, joined Four Mothers after completing his army service, some of which was spent in southern Lebanon.

"I lived through Lebanon for almost a year and had friends killed and injured there," said Ben-Zvi, now a student at Tel Aviv University. "I tried to think of it as a mission, to stay alive and take care of the soldiers under my charge. But when I got out, I got frustrated and angry.

"It's a failed policy," he added. "We're in a static position in Lebanon, fighting a guerrilla enemy who knows the terrain better than we do. So one day we kill one of their commanders and we score a point; the next day, they kill a couple of our soldiers and they score a point. But there's no question of progress; there's no way of winning this war."

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