Lebanon is a victim of geography. A country that was once the most vibrant in the region has been reduced by civil war and occupation to a shell of its former self. Wedged between two of the mightiest armies in the Middle East, Lebanon has served as the battle ground for clashes between Israel and Syria, usually through their proxies. In the last two weeks, the fighting has escalated as Israel has retaliated for attacks on its troops by Islamic guerrillas. The governments in Tel Aviv and Damascus are playing a dangerous game of chicken, and the Lebanese are the losers.
Israel has maintained forces in a 15-km swath across southern Lebanon since it invaded the country in 1982. The bulk of the troops are supplied by the South Lebanon Army, a predominantly Christian militia force, but Israel also details some of its own troops to the area. Their antagonists are the Hezbollah, Islamic guerrillas supported by Syria and Iran and opposed to the Israeli presence in Lebanon and even Israel itself. It has been a bloody conflict. In the 18 years since Israel invaded Lebanon, nearly 800 soldiers have been killed in combat; the civilian casualties number in the thousands.
Since 1996, the two sides have followed rules of engagement that prohibit attacks from civilian areas and prevent either side from being the first to target civilian areas. Israel claims that Hezbollah violated those rules in a series of attacks that claimed the lives of six Israeli soldiers in the past two weeks. While taking credit for the killings, Hezbollah denies using the villages as shields. Israel launched raids against Lebanese infrastructure, bombing three key power stations and reportedly wounding 15 civilians.
Fortunately, Hezbollah has responded with restraint to Israel’s unilateral rewriting of the rules of engagement. It has not fired any of its Katyusha rockets at civilian targets in Israel; instead, it has retaliated only against military targets. A five-nation monitoring group, which includes the United States, is scheduled to meet this weekend to try and contain the crisis.
As has happened so often in the last three decades, Lebanon suffers for the sins of its neighbors. Hezbollah has gone on the offensive because Israeli citizens, sickened by the casualties and the bloodshed, want out of Lebanon. Prime Minister Ehud Barak was elected on a pledge to unilaterally withdraw his forces from the country by July.
Syria, with 35,000 troops of its own in Lebanon, is believed to control the Islamic fundamentalists. Damascus is thought to have given Hezbollah the green light after the breakdown of peace talks with Israel. The idea is that Syria will control the Islamic groups for a price, namely agreement on a return of the Golan Heights. Thus, in the twisted logic that dominates the Middle East, Israel’s pullout from Lebanon would eliminate Syria’s leverage.
Mr. Barak is under heavy pressure to withdraw his troops. A recent opinion poll showed more than half of Israelis surveyed want the troops home, even without an agreement with Syria. At the same time, the prime minister cannot afford to look weak, nor can he run the risk of exposing his country to attack within its borders. Mr. Barak may be Israel’s most decorated soldier, but he must provide peace and security to his citizens if he is to stay in office.
While every Israeli prime minister operates within those constraints, Mr. Barak has distinct problems of his own. Two domestic political scandals — one involving President Ezer Weizman, a powerful ally in the peace process, and the other concerning fundraising by his party — limit his room for maneuver. The prime minister’s tendency to keep his own counsel and play his cards close to his chest unduly complicates his job. Even if his intentions are good, Mr. Barak’s instincts are those of a soldier; he needs able diplomats to temper them and help him in the tough negotiations that lie ahead.
The difficulties in reaching a deal with Syria are compounded by those dogging the parallel negotiations with the Palestinians. The latter fear that Israel will strike a deal with Syria at their expense. To keep Mr. Barak focused, the Palestinians have frozen talks, even though the two sides are supposed to reach agreement on an outline for a final deal by Feb. 13. A key element of those talks is the right of return of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees living in camps in Lebanon. It is that country’s sad fate to find itself both physically and symbolically at the very heart of the Middle East peace process, buffeted by forces beyond its control.
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