A week ago today at 6:30 a.m., Yehuda Toval and Yitzhak Bareli brought home an unmistakable message that all Israel wanted desperately not to hear.
Even as scores of Israelis were being killed and wounded by guerrilla fighters, most of them Shia Muslims, in the western part of South Lebanon, many Israelis wanted to believe that with completion of the first stage of the army’s withdrawal, scheduled for tomorrow, the bloodletting was nearing an end.
It was probably wishful thinking all along, like so much of Israel’s thinking in connection with Lebanon in the past three years. And when Toval and Bareli were killed in a roadside bomb blast within a few hundred yards of the border crossing at Metulla, Israel’s northernmost settlement, all remaining hope was smashed.
The two men died on Israel’s doorstep, in an area so heavily guarded by Israeli troops that it could be a military base. It is part of a narrow “security zone” in south Lebanon where the Israelis intend to exercise direct or indirect military control indefinitely, according to senior military sources. At the least, that will mean keeping Israeli advisers there to help a local, Israeli-backed militia; or it could also mean keeping Israeli combat units in the area. But as the deaths of Toval and Bareli suggest, any Israelis who stay north of the border are likely to be targets for an increasingly bold and confident southern Lebanese resistance movement led by the Shia Muslims, who represent about 80% of the population in the area.
“We have the right to struggle for our freedom and we are going to continue struggling until they leave completely,” Mohamed Ghaddar, a Shia leader, told a visiting Times correspondent the other day.
The main question in Israel now is whether even a complete withdrawal would satisfy the Shias; or have the Shias become so radicalized that attacks are likely to start on the Israeli side of the border as well?
Israeli officials talk about Shia terrorism in south Lebanon, but “terrorism” is the wrong word. The Shias are waging guerrilla warfare against purely military targets. They are not attacking civilians, except those southern Lebanese who collaborated with the Israeli occupation.
In that sense, there is some consolation in the fatal bomb attack near Metulla. Any attackers who could come close enough to plant a roadside bomb within a few hundred yards of the border gate could just as easily have fired a Katyusha missile into Metulla or Kiryat Shemona, two towns subjected to regular shelling by the Palestine Liberation Organization when it held sway in south Lebanon.
Nonetheless, the bomb incident is reported to have deeply disturbed the Israeli defense establishment. According to the newspaper Haaretz, high-ranking military officials are now recommending a speedup in the withdrawal, to be out of Lebanon by mid-April at the latest. Under the plan approved by the Israeli Cabinet last Jan. 14, the withdrawal was to proceed in three stages, with timing of the second and third stages to be decided later. Prime Minister Shimon Peres has spoken consistently of finishing the job this summer.
The phased withdrawal was apparently decided for political rather than military reasons. Peres and others in his Labor alignment were said to have favored a complete, immediate withdrawal. But the Likud Bloc, Labor’s partner in the unusual national unity coalition and the party that marched Israel into Lebanon in June, 1982, was opposed. The three-stage approach, approved by a vote of 16-6, was a compromise.
The interim line that Israel must defend after completing the evacuation of Sidon has little military justification. “This line is untenable,” a diplomatic source in Lebanon said. It is twice as long as the Awwali River line Israel is abandoning and it has few defensible features.
“It’s certainly not defensible in terms of a conventional military confrontation, and in many respects it’s much more porous and permeable even for filtering out terrorist activities than was the previous line,” said Mark Helleu, deputy director of Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.
Moreover, U.N. sources in south Lebanon say that more than two-thirds of some 110 attacks on Israeli forces in the region last month occurred in areas the Israelis will continue to occupy after the first stage of their withdrawal.
Irony trails behind withdrawal. The Lebanon invasion was undertaken as an effort to destroy a Palestine Liberation Organization “state within a state,” and the Shias quietly welcomed Israel’s help in evicting the PLO. “We could have resisted (the invasion), but we didn’t,” one Shia said. “We wanted them to help.” Now Israel’s war is not with Palestinians but with the Shias.
After the Palestinians were gone, Israel remained intent on winning a political victory and its forces stayed in Lebanon, becoming the new occupiers. Shia resistance really began only in late 1983, nearly 18 months after the invasion, and after an Israeli campaign to tighten its control over the south.
Today, only about 100 of the 1,400 prisoners at Israel’s Ansar detention center west of Nabitiyeh are Palestinians. The great majority, according to U.N. sources, are Shia Muslims.
When they failed to leave south Lebanon in Shia hands after expelling the PLO, “the Israelis blew a historic chance,” a diplomatic source in Lebanon said. The good relations of those early days following the invasion could have been the best guarantee of a secure northern border for Israel.
Now some of the same officials responsible for the long Israeli occupation are arguing that stepped-up Shia resistance is proof that the Cabinet decision to withdraw was ill-considered.
“The problem is how we can ensure that terrorism, whether Palestinian or Shia, will not endanger the security of Galilee,” Yitzhak Shamir, the Likud foreign minister and alternate prime minister, said not long ago. “It is according to this that we should determine the speed of the withdrawal, and whether it should be continued altogether.”
Shamir and his fellow Likud ministers see the Shias as tools of Syria and Iran--as fanatics bent on Israel’s destruction, not unlike the PLO. There certainly are radical Shias in South Lebanon, and the number is probably growing. But to most Israelis that seems a weak argument for prolonging an occupation that is only radicalizing more people.
“If there is any prospect of removing the Shia motivation for waging war against us, it is by us not being there,” Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said the other day. “Today I am no longer certain that as far as certain elements in the Shia community are concerned, we have not passed the eleventh hour.”