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Israelis Vague on Final Pullout After 3 Years in Lebanon

Times Staff Writer

Israel on Thursday marked the third anniversary of its invasion of Lebanon but left unclear whether it has completed its promised withdrawal.

The government had promised that all but a handful of military advisers and observers would be out of the neighboring Arab nation by the anniversary.

But when reporters asked army officials if the troops had been withdrawn, they were told: “You can quote military sources as saying the withdrawal has not been completed (but) that it is in its very, very final stages.”

Early today, sources at army headquarters in Tel Aviv quoted the northern commander, Maj. Gen. Ori Orr, as saying, “For all practical purposes, it (the withdrawal) has been completed. The meaningful masses of troops have left Lebanon.”

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However, the sources reiterated that the withdrawal is still in its last stages and, although they refused to say how many Israeli troops remain in Lebanon, they did not argue with estimates that the figure may be as high as 500.

The Israelis have never specified how many men they would leave behind in Lebanon, but the generally accepted assumption here has been that it would be “a few dozen,” varying according to the need.

Government sources said there will be no more official public discussion of the matter until Sunday, at the earliest.

The Israelis have been stationed in a narrow strip of land just north of the border since earlier pullbacks from Beirut and other Lebanese areas. The area that Israel calls its “security zone” runs for about 70 miles along the frontier and is 5 to 15 miles wide.

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Some unofficial analysts speculated that the withdrawal has been delayed because of concern that the Israeli-created and -supported South Lebanon Army, a largely Christian militia believed to number 1,000 to 1,500 men, is not ready to hold the security zone against Muslim forces determined to take control of the area.

At the same time, in the complex world of Israeli politics, there was room to think that the pullout might still be finished by the weekend.

No Public Acknowledgement

One government source said it had been decided two weeks ago that the government would make no public acknowledgement of the withdrawal’s completion even though Prime Minister Shimon Peres told reporters earlier this week that it would be over by the June 6 anniversary.

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Furthermore, usually well-informed Israeli reporters said the withdrawal might already be considered to be complete--within the government’s definition.

They explained by noting that Peres and his ministers have always said Israel would keep “a presence” in southern Lebanon to support local allies and to keep the area clear of guerrillas. But since there has never been a definition of “a presence,” the several hundred Israeli troops who remain in southern Lebanon could qualify, the journalists explained, meaning that the evacuation has been completed.

The reason for keeping the affair as low key as possible is that the government is understood to believe that the withdrawal is not a matter of celebration or ceremony. Also, being ambiguous might prevent anti-Israeli guerrillas and the foes of the South Lebanon Army from attacking if they think that major Israeli forces remain in the area.

There was almost no public reaction here Thursday by either politicians or ordinary citizens.

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The government’s policy of keeping the matter quiet was quite successful. Throughout the day, Israel’s government-controlled radio and television stations made no mention of the withdrawal, its delay or even the anniversary of what has been one of the most wrenching experiences in Israel’s history, the invasion itself.

Another reason for the lack of reaction relates to the fact that the withdrawal seems to have been settled in the public mind last January when the Cabinet responded to overwhelming public unrest over the occupation and its corresponding troop casualties and voted to bring the troops back on a specific timetable.

“What is there to say now?” asked Michael Anot, a Jerusalem businessman. “We said it all last year when we forced the government to get out.”

The initial part of the three-stage plan went into effect in January, when the first of the 15,000-man Israeli occupation force was pulled back from Sidon.

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The muted method of dealing with the withdrawal timetable was in keeping with the quiet way in which the troops themselves were being moved across the border during the last month.

Contrast to Attack

And it was in stark contrast to the lightning attack three years ago, when 25,000 troops, hundreds of tanks and other heavy equipment moved across the Lebanese border under air and sea cover.

When the Israeli troops entered southern Lebanon in 1982 and drove out the Palestine Liberation Organization guerrillas who had all but occupied the territory, they were cheered as liberators and showered with rice and flowers by the Shia Muslims who populate much of the region.

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Children jumped on tanks and businessmen quickly accepted Israeli goods to sell and switched from Lebanese pounds to Israeli shekels as the common currency.

But when resistance began and Israel’s troops began a tough campaign to suppress its opponents, they lost the support of the local populace in what became a cycle of repression and reaction.

Thus, to a serious degree, it was those same flower-throwing Shia Muslims who created the pressures that ended in the Israeli withdrawal by firing bullets, throwing grenades and driving bomb-laden vehicles at the invaders.

The withdrawal was forced on the Israeli government by a public and military reacting to the daily attacks by Lebanese resistance movements, especially by Amal, the Shia Muslim militia that is now fighting to keep the PLO from re-establishing itself as a major actor in the Lebanese drama.

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If the Israelis have evacuated as far as they intend to go and plan to leave more than a dozen or so observers in southern Lebanon, Shia leaders have promised to resume the violence they have recently discontinued in an effort to encourage the Israelis to leave.

The critical attitude of much of the Israeli public also was responsible in large part for the resignation of Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who had ordered the invasion, and the subsequent election defeat of his right-wing Likud bloc.

Begin has refused to talk this week about the Lebanese affair. So has another major figure in the planning and execution of the attacks, Ariel Sharon.

Now minister of trade and industry, Sharon was forced to quit as defense minister after a special panel of inquiry said he was indirectly responsible for the massacre of residents of two Palestinian refugee camps attacked by Israeli-supported Christian militias just south of Beirut.

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When Israeli units crossed the border on June 6, 1982, Begin said they would go only about 25 miles north of the frontier and that the invasion was aimed only at clearing out the Palestinian terrorists that had been attacking the northern settlements.

It was on this basis that Begin’s political opponents, namely Peres and former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, supported the 1982 invasion.

However, it became clear almost immediately that Begin and Sharon had much larger visions as they sent the powerful Israeli army on its way to Beirut.

‘Became a Mistake’

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“If the operation had been kept within the original framework,” Peres said earlier this week, “it would have been a useful and successful operation. But the minute it became more of a war and less of an operation . . . it became a mistake.”

Perhaps 20,000 Lebanese were killed over the last three years, although many of them died in the tribal-like warfare among Lebanese militia that accompanied the Israeli invasion and occupation. The economic cost to Lebanon, which had already been drained by seven years of civil war, is beyond calculation.

Israel itself lost 654 killed and 3,840 wounded, a serious loss in a country with a population of less than 4 million people. The three years also cost Israel $3.2 billion and brought about for the first time in the nation’s history a serious challenge to the government’s use of the military to achieve political goals.

Over 130 Opt for Jail

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More than 130 Israelis choose to go to jail rather than serve in Lebanon, and some observers estimate that thousands tried to avoid joining the invasion-occupation force.

The Israeli army also suffered, not only in casualties, but also in esteem both at home and abroad. Now, there is great concern among politicians and the public that Israel’s ability to deter its potential enemies through the reputation of its military has been seriously damaged.

Although the invasion did wreck the PLO’s military structure and drove 14,000 PLO fighting men out of Lebanon, at least initially, Israel failed in the other great goal that, it became clear soon after the invasion, it had in mind: installing a friendly and stable government in Beirut.

But the Israeli occupation of Lebanon is ending with that country virtually destroyed as a working political unit and with at least 17 heavily armed militias tearing at each others throats.

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And rather than having been able to impose a new Middle East order in which Israel, backed by the influence of the United States, would finally force the Arab world to accept its place in the region, the Israelis now find that Syria, its most rigid and powerful opponent, has emerged as a dominant force.


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