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Israel ‘Mercedes Army’ Watches Lebanon

Times Staff Writer

Three weeks after officially completing its redeployment to the international border, Israel has replaced its regular combat troops in southern Lebanon with what one Western security source in the area describes as “the biggest Mercedes army in the world.”

The troops are still Israeli, but many wear jeans and pullovers instead of uniforms. They carry Galil assault rifles but--as the description suggests--often travel in Mercedes-Benz automobiles, rather than jeeps and armored personnel carriers.

Some belong to the secret service; others to the regular army. Some are obvious, helping man crossing points between what Israel describes as its “security zone” and more northern regions of Lebanon; others are apparent only from the antennas jutting skyward from their distant hilltop observation posts.

Israel won’t say exactly how large the “Mercedes army” is, but officials speak privately of “dozens” of troops still based in southern Lebanon, primarily as liaison with the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army militia.

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May Be Several Hundred

Independent security sources in the south say the number is probably more like several hundred and includes personnel at four fixed Israeli army positions along the northern edge of the “security zone,” as well as an unknown number of others closer to the international border.

In either case, this shadow Israeli army is just one element of a shifting security situation in the region that has suddenly taken on new importance in the wake of the hijacking of TWA Flight 847.

The hijackers still hold 39 Americans hostage, and as the price of their freedom they have demanded that Israel release 735 mostly Shia Muslim prisoners captured in south Lebanon and now held across the border at a military prison camp in Atlit.

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While neither Israel nor the United States wants to be seen as giving in to terrorist demands, Israel has said that it planned all along to return the Atlit detainees to south Lebanon “in accordance with the security situation in the area.”

Guerrilla Activity Down

That security situation would appear to be improving. Figures compiled by U.N. peacekeeping troops based here in Naqoura document a sharp drop in guerrilla activity as Israel withdrew its major combat units from Lebanon in phases starting earlier this year and ending, officially, on June 5.

So far this month, there have been 46 attacks on Israeli troops or members of allied militias, according to the U.N. count, compared to a peak of 285 attacks in March.

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No Israeli soldiers have been killed in Lebanon since April, and contrary to widespread fears when the withdrawal plan was announced, there have been no significant attacks on Israel from evacuated Lebanese territory.

“The developments we’re seeing today are quite encouraging,” an Israeli army spokesman said.

“We actually expected a more severe buffeting than we have encountered in the security zone,” added a senior Israeli official involved in shaping policy toward Lebanon.

Critics See Proof

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Critics of Israel’s Lebanon policy see developments in recent weeks as buttressing their argument that Jerusalem should withdraw its support for the predominantly Christian South Lebanon Army militia and dismantle the security zone. They believe the continued presence of Israeli and proxy forces only invites trouble from southern Lebanon’s Shia Muslim majority.

Amal, the main Shia military and political organization in southern Lebanon, led the resistance to continued Israeli occupation of the area and is generally credited with pressuring Jerusalem to speed up its military withdrawal. Amal’s leaders say that once Israel is truly out of Lebanon, they will have no more quarrel with it, and that they are as interested as Israel in keeping the peace in the south.

Amal has backed up its words with action, clashing openly with armed Palestinians who were trying to re-establish themselves in the south. It was in part to crush a Palestine Liberation Organization military infrastructure in the region that Israel invaded Lebanon in June, 1982.

“Where Amal is strong, the area is quiet,” an Israeli military source testified. “The villages that were the hottest in February and March (during the peak of Amal-led resistance to the occupation) are the quietest now.”

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Israelis Remain Cautious

While encouraged, however, Israeli officials remain extremely cautious concerning southern Lebanon.

“To take seriously public utterances by Amal leaders that they will do their best (to maintain quiet along the border) is from the point of view of a responsible government a non-starter,” said a senior Israeli policy-maker who spoke on condition of anonymity.

He also contended that if southern Lebanon has been surprisingly quiet, it is only partly because of Amal. The South Lebanon Army, he said, has successfully preempted a number of attempted infiltrations.

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Amal, he added, is “simply not able to control (the region) to the extent that would satisfy us security-wise.”

Another element in Israel’s assessment of security conditions in the region is the growing strength of radical, fundamentalist Shia Muslim groups in competition with the more moderate Amal.

Most recent attacks against the security zone have come from around Shia villages where the pro-Iranian Hezbollah (Party of God) is thought to be particularly strong, Israeli and independent military sources agree.

Shia Villages Shelled

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Israel’s South Lebanon Army allies, who have been the target of most of the latest attacks, retaliated with what at one point became almost daily shelling of Shia villages. About 2,000 residents have reportedly evacuated one village after SLA shellings killed two villagers and wounded three others.

“I’m not denying that (SLA commander, Gen. Antoine) Lahad is using Lebanese methods,” a military source said. The Shias shell his troops “and he thinks that’s the best way to respond. . . . Lahad is determined to send a very clear message to villages on the other side” of the security zone.

Ironically, it is also Lahad who has provided perhaps the strongest argument that release of the remaining 735 Atlit prisoners would pose no threat to Israel. Earlier releases involving 635 prisoners who returned from Atlit to Lebanon have not affected the security situation in the south, he told Israeli military correspondents 10 days ago.

“Generally, we find that once a man has spent time in detention, he does not return to terror activity,” Lahad told the reporters.

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At this stage, however, Israel remains convinced that neither Lahad nor the general security situation in south Lebanon would be so calm without the backing of the “Mercedes army.”


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