Israel continues to conduct a harried retreat from southern Lebanon, sending its soldiers and tanks into village after village in preemptive and coercive efforts to head off further attacks on its withdrawing forces. In the process it is killing a lot of Lebanese. The dead Lebanese men are automatically identified as "terrorists," with the invariable claim that they were either armed or fleeing when they were gunned down. Others who end up dead, those to whom no combatant role can plausibly be ascribed, are described as the unfortunate victims of war. Two of those victims last week were Lebanese who were working for CBS Television.
The Israeli version is that the newsmen had placed themselves in the midst of armed anti-Israeli guerrillas when they were fired on by an Israeli tank. A French reporter on the scene denies that. She says that the crew was simply going about its job of filming, and that the Israelis, about 800 yards away, could see what was going on. Israel says that its tank was about 2,700 yards away--the implication being that at that distance the Israelis could see what they were shooting at, but perhaps not whom.
Whatever the truth, this one tragedy among the many of recent days exemplifies what has happened to the Israeli army in Lebanon. By trying to gain too much and by staying too long, Israel has succeeded in developing a fanatical new enemy in the Shias of southern Lebanon, and death at the hands of that enemy--from the sudden roadside explosion or the hidden sniper--can come at any time. In these conditions soldiers stay nervous. The other day Israeli troops in a convoy shot up a car that drove too close for their liking. The car contained Israelis from the civilian security service.
Of the many blunders that have been committed by Israel in Lebanon, none may prove more far-reaching than its alienation of the Shias in the south. And still the blunders go on. It is folly to hope that the Shias can be intimidated into quiescence, no matter how many of their men are killed or how many of their homes are demolished. All that is certain is that with each incident their appetite for vengeance grows. Israel has already been forced to advance the date for its full withdrawal from Lebanon by four months, to sometime in May. A lot more people, occupiers and occupied alike, can die between now and then. A lot more undoubtedly will.