The familiar sounds of war were heard in southern Lebanon this week, but this time the bombs were falling and the artillery was firing for a different reason. Israel was ending its 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon, and as the troops withdrew, they were destroying positions and materiel to ensure that they did not fall into enemy hands. The Israeli withdrawal closes a festering wound, but it poses new challenges for all governments in the region. It is a long-anticipated development, but there is no guarantee that it will bring peace. That requires leadership and statesmanship of a kind that is all too rare.
Israel first crossed into Lebanon in 1978 to halt guerrilla attacks by Palestinians who had retreated to refugee camps after the creation of the Jewish state in 1948. It launched a full-scale invasion in 1982 and pulled back three years later to set up a 1,040 sq.-km, 15-km-wide security zone in southern Lebanon. It also established and armed the 2,500-man South Lebanon Army to defend the buffer area.
The Israeli occupation was an open sore. Nine hundred Israelis lost their lives over 22 years; thousands of Lebanese and Palestinians were killed during the same period. Constant fighting between Israel and the Palestinians undermined the Lebanese government, and the weakness in Beirut gave Syria an opening to extend its influence. The extended Israeli presence presented an easy target for Islamic fundamentalists and militant Palestinians, an inviting opportunity when troublemakers wanted to make a political point.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak promised during last year’s campaign to extract his country’s forces from “the Lebanese mud.” He pledged to withdraw within one year. He has kept that promise, although the retreat itself was an inglorious sight. Withdrawals are never photogenic.
Israeli troops were to pull out gradually and turn their positions over to the SLA. Instead, the Islamic militant group Hezbollah, seeing an opportunity and wanting to make it look as though it was driving the Israelis out, began firing on SLA positions. The army collapsed, and thousands of SLA soldiers and their families fled to Israel or surrendered. The withdrawal, scheduled to take two weeks, was completed in 48 hours. The sounds of war that came from the region were produced by Israeli forces providing cover for the withdrawal or blowing up fortifications and weapons to ensure that they did not fall into Hezbollah’s hands.
The withdrawal changes the political dynamic in the Middle East. Previously, Islamic militants could attack Israel’s surrogates within Lebanon; pulling all Israeli forces back within Israel’s territory makes a critical difference. No longer would it be an attack on an occupying force; rather, it would constitute an attack on a sovereign nation.
Israel has made it clear that it holds Syria responsible for keeping the peace in Lebanon. With over 30,000 troops in Lebanon, Syria is the real power in Beirut. In addition, virtually all the guerrillas’ weapons pass through Syria. That is why the government in Damascus has denounced the Israeli withdrawal. Although Syria has demanded that Israel pull out of Lebanon, actually doing so eliminates the leverage Damascus holds. With Mr. Barak’s declaration that any firing on Israeli territory from Lebanon would be considered “an act of war,” the stakes have been raised higher.
At the same time, the SLA collapse is a blessing. Israel and Lebanon want United Nations forces to move into the security zone to keep the peace. The U.N. had demanded that the SLA disarm first, but Israel was reluctant to force its former allies to give up their weapons. Now the question is moot.
Despite the disturbing imagery and the unease that has been triggered by thoughts of abandoning allies in southern Lebanon, almost all Israelis approve of the pullout. There is already a debate over “who lost Lebanon,” but Mr. Barak is doing the right thing. Now he must turn his attention to the peace talks with the Palestinians, which are at a dangerous point.
The anniversary of the “nakba” — the Arab word for catastrophe that is used to mark the founding of the state of Israel — was especially violent this year. Palestinian frustration over the lack of progress in the peace talks is growing. The May 13 deadline for a rough draft of the peace agreement passed without yielding a document. The unrest that followed prompted Mr. Barak to call his negotiators back from the table, which will only increase the tension. Having extracted his nation from Lebanon, Mr. Barak must now focus on the Palestinian talks to be able to meet the Sept. 13 deadline for a final agreement. It is a daunting assignment, but so was pulling out of the quagmire in Lebanon.
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