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Israel opts for a bloody retreat

The only way to leave Lebanon peacefully is to give back the Golan to Syria, says Robert Fisk

The Independent, 13 February 2000

From Tibnin, with its crumbling Crusader keep and its tobacco fields, it's easy to see Kiryat Shmona. With the naked eye, you can make out across a gentle valley the ploughed strip which the Israelis maintain along their frontier, the dark foliage of a miniature forest and then the bright red roofs of what is a European village, one of Israel's most bombed settlements in Galilee.

The Border. How powerful it sounds, how sacred. One rocket across that 1948 ceasefire line and "the soil of Lebanon will burn", Israel's foreign minister, David Levy, said last week. But didn't Israel invade Lebanon in 1978 to save Galilee from shellfire at a cost of almost 2,000 Lebanese dead? Didn't Israel invade Lebanon in 1982 to save Galilee from attack at a cost of almost 17,000 civilian dead? Didn't Israel launch "Operation Grapes of Wrath" in 1996 - at a cost of almost 200 Lebanese civilian dead - to protect Galilee? And in the process, did not the Hizbollah fire, in just three weeks, more rockets across the border than guerrillas fired in the entire preceding 48 years?

And you'd think, listening to Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State, this past week, that the old Katyushas - some of them manufactured as long ago as 1944 - were raining down on Galilee yet again. She wanted "international monitors" along the border to prevent the Hizbollah guerrillas - "the enemies of peace", as she called them - killing more Israelis. Israel's northern border must be sacrosanct.

But the odd thing is that for the past three weeks it has been just that. The Israelis of Kiryat Shmona left their red-roofed villas for their bunkers just before Israel bombed three Lebanese power stations last week - but only on the orders of their own army. Not a single missile was fired into Israel by the "enemies of peace".

The Hizbollah obeyed the rules of the 1996 ceasefire agreement. The Israelis did not.

No, the real issue in southern Lebanon during this latest conflict is not about the border. It is about occupation. Which is why Mrs Albright's ramblings about monitors on the border are totally irrelevant. Israel's soldiers - seven of them dead these past 16 days - are being killed not in Israel but in Lebanon. They are being cut down by Hizbollah rocket and mortar fire not because they are Israelis, but because they are Israelis inside someone else's country. If they had obeyed UN Security Council Resolution 425, declared more than 22 years ago, those seven Israeli soldiers would still be alive. Resolution 425 called for the "immediate and unconditional" withdrawal of the Israeli troops who invaded Lebanon in 1978. The Israelis stayed, and they are still paying the price.

That, in essence, is what this latest Lebanese war is about. Not the defence of Israel or its border or its nation-state. Nor about Israel's ability to stand up to "terrorism", that all-embracing, pejorative, potentially racist word applied to anyone who militarily opposes Israeli occupation. It is about occupation itself. And about Israel's defeat in southern Lebanon.

Ever since he was elected Prime Minister last year, Ehud Barak has announced that he wants his "boys" out of Lebanon by July. Preferably, he would like to retreat in good order, a ceasefire in place, the Hizbollah guerrillas disarmed - or on good behaviour - while the Israeli occupation troops retreat to the international frontier. But to do that, he will need to hand back the equally occupied Golan Heights to Syria - whose encouragement and assistance to the Hizbollah is one of the principal equations in Lebanon. Give back the Golan, Syria is saying, and Israel can leave Lebanon too. Refuse to hand back all of Golan and Israel will bleed in Lebanon. And it is bleeding.

It's an odd, ferocious formula. Israel has always believed that the Arabs understand force, the "iron fist" initiated by the late Nobel Peace Prize-winner Yitzhak Rabin. But Syria believes that the Israelis only understand force - hence Mr Barak's desire to leave Lebanon. Why, the Syrians ask themselves, is Israel so reluctant to hand back all of Golan, where its soldiers remain unscathed, but so keen to hand back Lebanon, where its soldiers are being killed?

The Syrians, who have watched the betrayal of repeated withdrawal commitments to the Palestinians, are in no mood to accept an Israeli promise to leave Lebanon. They want Golan back. And they want it back before a full peace commitment from Israel. Without it, the war in southern Lebanon will go on. And yes, of course, Syria can"restrain" the Hizbollah.

Almost forgotten now - because the victims were Lebanese children, not Israeli children - is an incident late last year when an Israeli shell hit a school in a south Lebanese village. At least 18 pupils, most of them young girls, were wounded. But the Hizbollah did not respond. There were no revenge attacks, no retaliatory rockets over the border. For in the United States, the Syrian Foreign Minister, Farouk al-Sharaa, had just started negotiations over Golan with Mr Barak. The school shelling was, the Israelis said, a mistake. And not a shot was fired. The Syrians didn't want a war.

So Syria has the power to stanch Israel's wounds in Lebanon. The Israelis in their concrete bunkers - more intricate in design and deeper than the basement of any Crusader castle - could be spared if Israel agreed to withdraw, totally, from both Golan and Lebanon. But Israel will not do that. To get out of Lebanon without ceding Golan, Mr Barak's army will have to make a bloody, fighting retreat. That is what this latest war is all about.

Will Mr Barak do a deal with President Assad of Syria? Or will we watch the shells landing in Tibnin and the rockets exploding - across that soft, early summer valley, on Kiryat Shmona? All in all, then, a dangerous year ahead.


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