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Israel Facing Obstacles in Withdrawal From Lebanon

Middle East: Pullout likely will lead to more bloodshed in short term. Diplomatic and military problems loom.

May 20, 2000|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Piece by piece, Israel is ending its 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon.

Three army outposts--among the hardest to defend--have been evacuated. Two others have been torn down and rebuilt just inside Israel. The Jewish state's flag has been lowered at one site, heavy machinery moved south and soldiers redeployed. And Hezbollah, the Islamic guerrilla force fighting to oust Israeli troops, is attacking as they go.

It is the scenario that Israeli officials had expected and are seeing: a withdrawal under fire. Eleven people were injured in the previous 48 hours of Hezbollah shelling and Israeli retaliation, security officials on both sides of the border said Friday.

This is only the initial phase of a withdrawal that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made the cornerstone of his election campaign a year ago. Despite increased fighting and pressure from his military to speed up the operation, Barak reiterated Friday that he will stick to his self-imposed deadline.

"We are determined to pull out from Lebanon [by] July this year--in, let's say, seven or eight weeks--and we will do it," Barak said as he toured an army base in the West Bank.

The pullout will finally disentangle Israel from a military adventure many call its Vietnam: a deadly, unpopular war of attrition that it cannot win. Israelis are increasingly unwilling to tolerate the casualties.

But the withdrawal will be complicated and likely will lead to more bloodshed, at least in the short term. Each step of the $250-million operation, which is governed by an explicit--but scant--three-point U.N. resolution adopted in 1978, is fraught with political, diplomatic and military obstacles.

* The politics: Each side remains suspicious of the other's intentions. Lebanon and its political master, Syria, suspect that Israel will find a way to retain some hold on areas of southern Lebanon.

The two Arab nations want the occupation ended as part of a wider deal that includes the return to Syria of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Consequently, Israel suspects that its neighbors will throw up last-minute hurdles to spoil the withdrawal. More important, Israel believes that Syria is encouraging Hezbollah to step up attacks.

* The maps: Israel has said it will move its forces to below a 1923 border drawn by the British and French, then rulers of the region. But there is fundamental disagreement over sections of that border. The United Nations is drawing new maps, but Lebanon might not accept them.

For example, Beirut raised a last-minute demand for return of real estate known as the Shabaa Farms, near Mt. Hermon in the Golan Heights. Syria, which would logically have a legitimate claim to the land, has backed Lebanon.

Israeli officials say the Lebanese are grasping at straws to complicate the withdrawal and the U.N. will find that maps made before 1967, the year Israel captured the Golan Heights, show the Shabaa Farms as part of Syria.

* The proxies: Israel is resisting demands from the U.N. that it disarm and disband its proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army, unless security guarantees--including an amnesty--are provided for the estimated 2,500 fighters and their families.

Israel argues that if the SLA must cease to exist as a military force, so should Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran. If Israel does not disband its proxy, however, the U.N. has indicated that the withdrawal will be judged incomplete.

"We will not forgive ourselves if, after we withdraw from south Lebanon, the citizens will remain without a capability to defend their lives," a senior Israeli government official said this week. "How can we leave [while] assuming the next step is that Hezbollah will slaughter them?"

* The vacuum: Israel, Lebanon and Syria are looking to U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon to fill the security vacuum that will be created by the withdrawal. But the U.N., which says the force needs to grow from its current size of 4,500 soldiers to 7,000, is being asked to fulfill a daunting range of tasks, from verifying the integrity of borders and the removal of troops to protecting civilians. The world body's track record for peacekeeping in volatile regions does not inspire great confidence.

Israel, meanwhile, is worried about its northern communities and calling on Lebanon to stop Hezbollah attacks, which Beirut has shown no willingness to do.

Israel's incursion into Lebanon began in 1978 as a mission to root out Palestinian guerrillas, then escalated into a full-scale invasion and war in 1982. By 1985, the operation had settled into the occupation of a 9-mile-deep buffer zone along the border.

About 900 Israeli soldiers have been killed since 1978, along with more than 1,000 civilians on both sides, though most were Lebanese or Palestinian.

About 1,000 Israelis and 2,000 SLA militiamen patrol the buffer zone.

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