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Israel's Invasions, 20 Years Apart, Look Eerily Alike

History: Sharon's forces went into Lebanon, as they have into the West Bank, to fight terrorism. The negative results may well be similar.


JERUSALEM — Twenty years ago, Israel set out to rearrange the geopolitical balance in the region by invading Lebanon. The result--for Israel, the Palestinians, the United States and the peace process--was a catastrophe whose lessons should not be forgotten by either the warriors or the peacemakers in the current West Bank conflict.

The circumstances of the two military adventures are eerily similar. So is the cast of characters, as well as the high stakes involved for Washington. Israel's reasons for taking the offensive in Lebanon and the West Bank were the same: to root out terrorism. The world's angry reaction was the same. So much is unchanged that one Israeli newspaper has called the current crisis "Sharon versus Arafat, Round II."

Today, as he was in Lebanon, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is trapped by the forces of Ariel Sharon, now Israel's prime minister. Refugee camps look as though they have been struck by an earthquake. The United States is once again oddly uninfluential with Israel and less than accommodating to Palestinians. As one Israeli columnist put it, rephrasing Marx, people should remember that history occurs twice--first as tragedy, then as super-tragedy.

In April 1982, Arafat was ensconced in his Beirut fiefdom, running a state within a state from which he could attack the Golan and Galilee regions. Sharon, then the defense minister, wanted Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization out of Lebanon and asked U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig for a green light to invade. Haig didn't say yes; more important, he didn't say no.

"This is the 20th century. You can't just invade a country like that," Philip C. Habib, President Reagan's envoy to the region, told Sharon. But Habib, like Anthony C. Zinni, who has a similar role under President Bush, had no luck reining in Sharon.

Two months later, on June 6, Israel rolled across the border in tanks. Sharon's planners had figured that they could clean up Lebanon in a week with no more than 100 casualties. Operation Peace for Galilee was to be limited, creating a 25-mile-deep buffer zone in southern Lebanon and, on Prime Minister Menachem Begin's orders, stopping far short of Beirut. Five weeks later, his top general rode into the Beirut neighborhood of Baabda in an armored personnel carrier, hot on Arafat's trail.

"Sharon lied his way to Beirut," Nicholas A. Veliotes, assistant secretary of State and ambassador to Egypt in the Reagan administration, recalled recently. "His ostensible reason for the invasion approved by the Cabinet was to create a cordon sanitaire in the south; in reality, he had decided to seek to solve the Palestinian problem by military force."

In Lebanon, as in the West Bank today, Israeli forces shredded Palestinian archives, payrolls, even students' academic records. Infrastructure was demolished, computers smashed. Terrorists and innocents alike were killed. Homes were blown up and bulldozed, refugee camps besieged. To critics, it appeared that Sharon was as intent on crippling the Palestinian spirit as he was on eradicating terrorism.

"I don't think the Bush administration really understands who it is dealing with today," said Judith Kipper, a Middle East specialist associated with the Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"Sharon is a tactical tank commander, and he responds as one," Kipper said. "No one would have condemned him for going into the West Bank with commandos to go after individuals and groups responsible for terrorism. But a massive invasion of this nature is, in the long run, going to work against Israel's interests. And those of the United States. The repercussions are likely to be considerable."

In Lebanon, they certainly were. The invasion gave birth to the Hezbollah terrorist organization. It brought Iranians into the Bekaa Valley, which in turn led to the kidnapping of Americans. And it unleashed the phenomenon of suicide bombings, first at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, then at a U.S. Marine barracks, where 241 Americans died.

Israeli officials dismiss parallels between Lebanon and the West Bank, pointing out that today ruthless terrorists are operating inside Israel, not in some other country. Indeed, although many Israelis, including members of the opposition Labor Party, opposed the Lebanon incursion, 75% of Israelis support Sharon's ironfisted actions in the West Bank, according to one poll.

Israel's siege of Beirut lasted 70 days and its occupation of southern Lebanon 18 years. The war claimed thousands of lives--half of them civilian, Lebanon says--and destroyed Israel's image, perhaps forever, as an underdog battling aggressive Arabs. It resulted in the evacuation of Arafat and his guerrillas to scattered Arab nations. It led Arabs to view the U.S. as a co-aggressor, particularly because the operation had largely been completed by the time Reagan called Prime Minister Begin to complain of "needless destruction and bloodshed."

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