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International News

Lebanon 'security zone' snares Israel

By Eyewitness David Hirst, Guardian Weekly, 03/16/1997

ISRAELI columnists call it "Israel's Vietnam", "that cursed place", that "Moloch" devouring its young manhood. They are referring, to South Lebanon, the last violent frontier of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Last month's helicopter collision took their anguish to new heights. It was an accident, but an all but inevitable one.

"There is no means, no patent," wrote one, "that the Israeli army has not tried to reduce casualties in this war -- but the war wins." Impossible to reach from Israel, and difficult to get to from Beirut, Israel's South Lebanese "security zone" is a strange place. When gunfire is not disturbing its bucolic calm, it seems about as improbable a starting point for another Arab-Israeli war as one could imagine. Yet such it could become, as Israeli-Syrian relations worsen. But perhaps the strangest thing about the zone is that you rarely clap eyes on this "enemy" -- strange, that is, until you grasp that its very invisibility is a measure of the "Islamic resistance's" effectiveness. For Israeli soldiers now do all they can to reduce their exposure -- by such means as helicopters -- when move they must.

The few Israelis I saw in a two-day visit were visible only because of Hizbullah's latest operation. They were in convoy to the key outpost of Dabshe. Hizbullah had just launched another dawn raid on this treeless height above the market town of Nabatiyah. The Israelis admitted that a sergeant had died. It was a small-scale clash, but the stuff of which, repeated a thousandfold, Vietnams are made.

In the ensuing Israeli bombardment, the people of Nabatiyah took to their basements while inhabitants of the zone went about their business as if they belonged to one world and the bedlam of outgoing fire to quite another.

Israeli protection did not account for their sense of security; it was their knowledge that they need not fear Hizbullah. Under the US-brokered "rules" of this conflict, neither side is allowed to attack civilians. Hizbullah shows far more respect for them than the Israelis. "You hear of dozens of civilian casualties over there, but there are hardly any here," said a Christian resident.

The winning of hearts and minds is a key aspect of a Hizbullah strategy, which is succeeding in threatening the rationale of the zone itself. The 2,500-man South Lebanese Army (SLA) serves as a sandbag between Hizbullah and northern Israel. It is made up of Lebanese fighters but backed by Israel, and morale is low. So is its manpower.

Fifteen-year-olds, with identity cards falsifying their age, and grandfathers man the roadblocks.Casualties in the SLA have fallen as Israeli ones have risen. Antoine Lahd, the dapper general who deserted the Lebanese army to serve Israel, said this was because "my men know the terrain better". But the real reason is that the Israelis now do what their proteges cannot do for them.According to the United Nations, the Israelis have recently doubled their strength in the zone to 2,000 men, taking over some SLA positions. They have spent $10 million improving these -- yet still they cannot staunch the fatal drain of young men.Young is the word. It is a curious but revealing fact that Hizbullah fighters, numbering a mere 400 or so, are old by comparison -- anything up to 35, usually married!, often university students or professional men.

"A regular army can fight with raw recruits," said an officer of the UN force in Lebanon, Unifil, "if it has good commanders, but these guys are their own commanders -- and they are really good."

It shows in the casualty figures. In the past, against Palestinians, the Israelis got used to inflicting disproportionate losses. But Hizbullah has narrowed the gap to one Israeli killed for as few as 2.7 of their own. That is a good ratio for any attacking force and it is being achieved by fearlessness, planning and patience.Hizbullah steadily updates its arsenal. In December Israel withdrew its US-built M60 tanks from the zone,replacing them with its own Merkava-3's. Three soldiers had just died inM60s when they came under fire from Hizbullah's newly acquired Heatarmour-piercing missiles.One "weapon" Hizbullah usually takes into battleis a video camera. In boosting its supporters' morale and lowering theenemy's, it is possibly the most effective weapon of all. To General Lahd,films of Israeli solders being blown apart by mines or the Hizbullah flagbeing planted atop the Dabshe outpost are cheap showmanship. But not sofor Hizbullah.Its motivations, religious and patriotic, and the vitality of its fighting machine, are reason enough why it will not go away, and why the Israelis are deluding themselves if they think it will.

The head of the Palestinian legislative council called on Monday for the suspension of all talks with Israel in protest at a decision by the government of Binyamin Netanyahu to hand over 9 per cent of the West Bank instead of the 30 per cent that Palestinians expected as the next phase of Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory.

© The Guardian Weekly Volume 156 Issue 11 for week ending March 16, 1997, Page 3


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