JERUSALEM (Aug. 2)
Government officials indicated today that it had changed its stand and was now willing to see the Lebanese battalion sent from Beirut earlier in the week take up positions in south Lebanon. The officials added the proviso, however, that Maj. Saad Haddad and his Christian militiamen ensconced in enclaves near the Israeli border should not be harmed. The Lebanese battalion has been blocked for two days at the village of Kaukaba and has come under sporadic shelling from the Haddad militia.
In addition, Syria is reported to have demanded that Haddad and other local Christian commanders be brought to Beirut to face court martials. Christian militia in south Lebanon had fired artillery at Lebanese army regulars attempting to enter the area. The Christians claimed that the Lebanese force consisted mainly of disguised Syrian soldiers or pro-Syrian elements. The Syrians have been waging war against Christian strongholds in the Beirut area for the past month.
Earlier in the week, Israeli and Lebanese officers met at the Rasel-Nakura border post to discuss the return of the regular Lebanese army to south Lebanon. The Israeli position at that time was that there would be no objections to their return provided the troops are not dominated by Syria or escorted by Syrian forces.
Israeli officials gave two reasons today for their change in position: the Syrian “escorting force” which had accompanied the 600-man Lebanese battalion southwards has been withdrawn; Israel was now persuaded that the Lebanese force represented a sincere effort by Beirut to reassert Lebanese authority in the area–a longstanding Israeli desire–and was not sent south merely at the behest of the Syrians to heat up the border area, as had at first been suspected.
The Israeli turnabout followed intensive consultations with the United States, through the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. The United States urged insistently that the Lebanese force was to be seen in a positive light, as the first harbinger of a re-established Lebanese government control of the war-torn south. American officials pointed out that this was the clearly stated long-term aim of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 425, which set up the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in March, after Israel’s massive incursion into the south.
CHRISTIANS DISAPPOINTED WITH ISRAELI CHANGE
A deep feeling of disappointment over the Israeli change of attitude was reported among residents of the Christian enclaves. Francis Rezak, the outspoken spokesman of the Christian militia in south Lebanon, said today that his men are determined to prevent the “pro-Syrian” Lebanese force from entering the enclaves. He said that should the Lebanese unit try to force its way, there would be war.
There was sporadic shelling all through the night and day and the Lebanese soldiers were observed entering the UNIFIL enclosure nearby, as a protection against the shelling. Christians said that the shelling was not intended to hit the battalion but rather to prevent its advance into the enclaves.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for UNIFIL has reported that the Christians asked that UNIFIL’s troops in the Kaukaba region evacuate the area to give the Christians a free hand in attacking the Lebanese. UNIFIL rejected the demand, noting the serious consequences of a confrontation with the UN force.