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Using the Withdrawal From Lebanon as a Guide for Gaza

Lessons learned from the pullout of 2000 are seen from vastly different perspectives as Israel considers leaving the coastal strip.

March 28, 2004|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Above the violent drama in the Gaza Strip hovers the ghost of Lebanon.

Everyone these days seems to be looking back at Israel's messy pullout from southern Lebanon four years ago and applying its lessons to the proposed withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. But as the Israelis and Palestinians trade military blows in the Gaza Strip with growing ferocity -- capped by Israel's assassination last week of Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin -- those lessons are very much in the eye of the beholder.

Palestinian militants, inspired by what they paint as an armed victory over the Israeli occupiers in Lebanon, are eager to make any withdrawal from the Gaza Strip appear a fresh military triumph.

"The Lebanon example is exactly true," said Mahmoud Zahar, a senior leader of Hamas, which rejects the Israeli state. "To sacrifice is a high price. Freedom is coming, not from the negotiating table, but from guns."

For their part, Israeli army planners, haunted by images of the chaotic pullout in May 2000 and suggestions that it fueled Palestinian militancy close to home, are determined to leave no such impression again, analysts say. This time they hope to inflict such punishment that fighters will be unable to claim victory or carry out attacks on Israel once it has withdrawn most or all of the 7,500 Jewish settlers, and the soldiers who protect them, experts say.

"It's something that is very much in the forefront," said Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist who directs the conflict-management program at Bar-Ilan University. " 'Let's not make the mistakes of Lebanon' -- you hear that over and over."

As a sign of its stepped-up offensive, Israel has renewed its policy of "targeted killings" of militant leaders. Yassin was the most prominent to be struck so far, and Israeli officials have said they will go after the rest of the militant group's leadership.

In addition, the army has carried out a series of raids against militant strongholds in Gaza refugee camps, often meeting fierce gunfire from Palestinian fighters.

Militants have staged attacks at the Erez crossing between the Gaza Strip and Israel, in one case attempting an elaborate ambush that included vehicles that had been painted to look like Israeli military jeeps. On March 14, a pair of suicide bombers made their way to the Israeli seaport of Ashdod and blew themselves up, killing 10 Israeli workers.

Although comparisons are imperfect, analysts say the Lebanon experience is telling.

Most Israelis favored ending Israel's 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon -- just as most Israelis approve of pulling Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip. Ehud Barak won election as prime minister in 1999 after pledging to get out of Lebanon within a year.

But after months of clashes between Israel and Hezbollah fighters, Barak decided to move weeks early, abruptly yanking Israel's army and the allied South Lebanon Army without notice on May 24, 2000.

Jubilant Hezbollah guerrillas waved flags as they rode into the newly vacated border swath, declaring their resistance campaign successful. Claims of victory rang out elsewhere around the Arab world. In Gaza City, Yassin was among the Palestinians who cheered, calling the withdrawal "the introduction to the victory of the resistance in occupied Palestine."

In Israel, news images of the helter-skelter withdrawal -- carried out so suddenly that soldiers left vehicles behind -- were embarrassing for Israel's formidable military, which looked uncharacteristically hapless.

"With Gaza, the effort is to correct that image," Steinberg said.

Many Israeli officials believe Hezbollah's declarations of victory fed a new Palestinian militancy that contributed to the failure of peace talks at Camp David that summer and stoked the uprising that broke out that September.

Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, the army's chief of staff, is reported to have expressed worry that a Gaza pullout could provide militants with "a tailwind."

"For [military officials], it no longer needs any further proof that it was the Palestinian misreading of our withdrawal from Lebanon which drew them over the threshold into a clash with Israel," said Eran Lerman, a former ranking Israeli intelligence official. "It's definitely a driving force in the way Yaalon and others are looking at the situation: How do you control the spin?"

But there is more than public-relations considerations at work in the heightened offensive against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. Analysts say a heavy use of force now could weaken Hamas politically and deter future attacks launched from the Gaza Strip against Israeli cities.

Some who praise the Lebanon withdrawal point out that the border zone has remained comparatively quiet since then, in part because of the threat of Israeli airstrikes. Although Hezbollah fighters occasionally launch rockets across the border into Israel, casualties have dropped dramatically to almost none from the 20 to 25 soldiers killed yearly during the occupation of south Lebanon.

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