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Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine, Washington DC
Information Brief Number 8, 29 September 1999

Israeli Occupation of South Lebanon

By Nicholas Blanford

Historical Background: For three decades, south Lebanon has been the site of armed conflict of varying intensity. Initially, the war involved assaults against northern Israel initiated by the various Palestinian guerrilla organizations operating from south Lebanon and retaliatory raids by the Israel Defense Force (IDF). Israel invaded south Lebanon in March 1978, prompting UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 425 calling for Israel´s complete unconditional withdrawal. The IDF pulled out six months later, leaving a number of cantons under the control of the Army of Free Lebanon, later known as the South Lebanon Army (SLA). Israel invaded Lebanon again in 1982, driving as far north as Beirut, in a bid to push the Palestinians and the Syrians out of the country altogether and to install a client government that would sign a peace treaty with Israel. The plan backfired. While the PLO was defeated and departed Beirut, the Syrians remained, and the invasion led to the founding of Hezbollah, which has proven to be a far more formidable foe than the Palestinians. In 1985, the IDF redeployed to the present occupation zone perimeters, a strip of 1,000 square kilometers along the Lebanese-Israeli border varying between three and 20 kilometers in width.

The South Lebanon Army: The SLA is a mercenary militia commanded by General Antoine Lahd, a Lebanese national. Financed, equipped, and controlled by Israel, the SLA serves as a proxy force for Israel. Originally largely Christian, the SLA today is comprised of some 1,500 fighters, most of whom are Druze and Shia Muslims either press-ganged into joining or recruited as mercenaries. In coordination with Israeli agents, the SLA mans checkpoints, conducts house-to-house searches, and runs the detention center at Khiam. As indicated by the increasing number of SLA troops surrendering to Lebanese authorities, the SLA´s morale has deteriorated as casualties have mounted and as withdrawal by the estimated 1,200 IDF troops seems more likely.

Hezbollah (Party of God): Founded in 1982, Hezbollah-aided by Iran and Syria-spearheads the Lebanese resistance to the Israeli occupation. The military wing of Hezbollah, the Islamic Resistance (IR), fields approximately 300 seasoned fighters and also draws upon some 3,000 part-time fighters who live in the Shia Muslim-dominated areas in south Lebanon, the southern suburbs of Beirut, and the Beqa´a Valley. While opposing the peace process generally, Hezbollah´s activities in south Lebanon are increasingly viewed internationally as legitimate resistance to foreign occupation, and the party plays an important role in the Lebanese parliament, championing the cause of the dispossessed Shia community.

UNIFIL: The UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was created in response to Israel´s 1978 invasion. UNSCR 425 charged UNIFIL with the task of confirming the withdrawal of Israeli forces, restoring international peace and security, and assisting the Government of Lebanon in ensuring the return of its effective authority in the area. As of July 1999, the force consists of 4,500 personnel drawn from nine countries. The force is deployed in a buffer strip to the north of the occupation zone, although the areas of operation of some battalions fall inside the zone. Although UNIFIL has been unable to fulfill its mandate of supervising an Israeli withdrawal, the force continues to provide valuable humanitarian assistance to the residents of frontline areas.

Israeli Assaults North of the Occupation Zone: The IDF conducted two major air and artillery campaigns against Lebanon in the 1990s-the seven-day Operation Accountability offensive in July 1993 and the 16-day Operation Grapes of Wrath in April 1996. Operation Accountability ended with an unwritten agreement that neither the IDF nor Lebanese guerrillas would target civilians. Operation Grapes of Wrath concluded with the 1993 agreement being drawn up on paper-the April 1996 Understanding. A monitoring group of delegates from the U.S., France, Syria, Israel, and Lebanon meets regularly to assess breaches of the April Understanding. The Israeli Air Force (IAF) conducts air raids north of the zone almost on a daily basis, most of them in south Lebanon, but more occasionally including Hezbollah targets in the northern Beqa´a Valley. Power stations, bridges, and communication centers in Beirut and the south were targeted in Operation Accountability and Operation Grapes of Wrath, as well as in a series of air raids in June.

Human and Physical Costs: An estimated 20,000 Lebanese civilians have been killed by the Israelis since 1978, while the IDF reports that, since 1985, nine Israeli civilians have died, and 248 have been wounded. A total of 904 IDF soldiers have been killed in south Lebanon since 1982, while 410 SLA soldiers have been killed and 1,318 wounded since 1985. Since the establishment of UNIFIL in 1978, 222 peace-keepers have lost their lives in the conflict. British analyst Patrick Seale questions the credibility of Israel´s declared objective in the 1982 and 1996 operations, which was to protect its northern settlements from guerrilla action. . . . From 1982 to 1996, not more than ten Israelis died in northern Israel from Arab attack and this period includes the 1982 invasion itself, which brought death to over 17,000 Lebanese and Palestinians-a kill ratio of one Israeli for every 1,889 Lebanese or Palestinians killed. Massive population displacement has also characterized the occupation since its inception.

Only 100,000 of the original 250,000 residents from 1978 remain today. The occupation and its attendant violence have fueled the recession currently gripping the country and have discouraged overseas investment, key to Lebanon´s economic revival.

The Syrian Factor: Syria has dominated every facet of the political process in Lebanon since the Lebanese civil war ended in 1990. Syria´s direct involvement in Lebanon began in 1976, when 30,000 troops were deployed in the country to prevent a Christian defeat in the first stage of the Lebanese civil war. Today, Syrian troops number around 25,000, confined largely to the Beqa´a Valley. Syria views Hezbollah´s operations against the Israeli army in south Lebanon as legitimate resistance to occupation and links its activities to future talks over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Lebanon and the Peace Process: Dominated by Syria, Lebanon is coordinating its peace moves with Syria. Lebanon engaged in over a dozen rounds of Washington talks with Israel following the 1991 Madrid Conference. The bilateral talks ended in February 1994, however, when Israel broke off negotiations with Syria. There have been no subsequent direct talks between Lebanon and Israel, although Lebanese and Israeli delegates did meet at sessions of the April 1996 Understanding Monitoring Group. Technically, Lebanon remains at war with Israel.

Prospects of an Israeli Withdrawal: Syrian President Hafez al-Assad has signaled his willingness to resume direct negotiations with Israel but reiterated his insistence on full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is eager for a way out of the south Lebanon quagmire-indeed, he pledged to withdraw within one year-but his recent statements suggest that he is contemplating only partial withdrawal from the Golan. Because Israel cannot unilaterally remove its troops from Lebanon without risking cross-border attacks from Hezbollah, the negotiations on the Golan will take precedence over those on south Lebanon. The process will not be without difficulties. Barak is likely to ask Syria for a period of quiet in the south as a gesture of goodwill before negotiations resume. Hezbollah, which has a relationship of convenience with Syria but is ideologically, and financially, linked to Iran, has vowed to continue fighting until the last IDF soldier departs Lebanon, and may ignore requests to curtail military operations in south Lebanon. The 367,000 dispossessed Palestinian refugees in Lebanon represent the greater threat to the future stability of the Lebanese-Israeli border, however. Numerous armed Palestinian groups in south Lebanon´s refugee camps could de-stabilize the border if their grievances are not addressed.

Nicholas Blanford reports on south Lebanon for The Daily Star (Beirut). The above text may be used without permission but with proper attribution to him and to CPAP. This brief does not necessarily reflect the views of CPAP or The Jerusalem Fund.


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