Jerusalem (Apr. 14)
– Israeli military sources confirmed today that Israel is aiding Christian forces battling the Syrians in central Lebanon but insisted that there were no Israelis in that region either in training or advisory capacities. The sources refused to indicate the nature of the aid.
At the same time, Moshe Arens, chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, urged Israel today not to wash its hands of events in Lebanon. He claimed that the Syrians were responsible for acts in Lebanon unheard of since World War II and chided Israelis who tended to play down the situation or to criticize the Christian elements. Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who briefed the committee today, said the U.S. was reassessing its attitude toward Syria in view of events in Lebanon.
SAYS U.S. RE-EXAMINING ITS VIEW OF SYRIA
According to Shamir, Washington had tended to regard Syria in the past as a moderating influence in the Lebanese conflict. But the Reogan Administration is re-examing that concept, partly because of the presence of 10,000 Soviet advisors in Syria. Shamir also briefed the committee on his talks last week with Secretary of State Alexander Haig.
He said the stalled autonomy talks with Egypt were not discussed in detail but an agreement emerged between Israel and the U.S. that the goal of the talks was autonomy For the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, not the creation of a Palestinian state. Shamir said there was no discussion of possible American military bases in the area.
Shamir also said that Iraq has recently hinted to Washington that it was interested in improving relations with the U.S. But judging from his talks with Haig, the U.S. has not yet formulated a clear policy on its relations with Iraq, Shamir said.
Former Foreign Minister Abba Eban, who also appeared before the committee today, warned that the present American stress on the strategic balance in the Middle East vis-a-vis the Soviet Union and its consequent downplaying of the Arab-Israeli peace process was only temporary. According to Eban, once the Americans realize that their policy is opposed by the Arabs, a period of political tension will ensue and Israel had better be prepared for such a situation.
BACKGROUND OF FIGHTING IN LEBANON
The military sources discussing developments in Lebanon today, discounted Christian claims that the Syrians used their air force and ground-to-ground missiles in the recent fighting around the Christian town of Zahle. They also questioned reports that Soviet advisors were with Syrian forces in Lebanon.
The sources said the latest fighting in central Lebanon began when the residents of Zahle, mainly Greek Catholics, took advantage of the end of winter to resume work on a road linking Zahle with Christian-held areas on the Lebanese coast. The Syrians tried to halt the work and the Christians seized a bridge link on the main Damascus-Beirut road thereby blocking Syrian supplies to a large part of their army in Lebanon. The Syrians retaliated by shelling Zahle and the fighting spread to Beirut but was less intense there.
The Israeli military sources suggested that the Syrian interest in the Zahle area was due to their claim on the Beka valley in eastern Lebanon which Mandatory government created Lebanon as a separate state. The Syrians regard the valley as essential to the defense of Damascus, the Israeli sources said, and fear any relaxation of their hold on it, especially if the Lebanese elections next year bring to office a president less friendly to Syria than the incumbent Elias Sarkis.
The sources also said the Christians were ex-aggerating when they accused the Syrians of genocide. According to the sources, the Syrians are normally brutal and used heavy artillery against opponents of their regime even in Damascus.