TEL AVIV (Jul. 9)
The Lebanese army’s apparently successful takeover of parts of southern Lebanon, which the central government has not had under its control for more than a decade, has created a new situation for Israel and for the various other parties embroiled in the region.
Beirut is now pressing for the withdrawal of Israeli troops and allied forces from the southern Lebanon security zone Israel created in 1985 as a buffer against terrorist raids across its northern border.
The Lebanese hope U.S. pressure on Jerusalem will hasten the Israelis’ departure. But Israel is by no means ready to give up the security zone and, according to Defense Minister Moshe Arens, Washington understands and appreciates its reasons.
Equally determined to stay is the South Lebanon Army commanded by Gen. Antoine Lehad, a largely Christian Lebanese force trained, equipped and financed by Israel.
The SLA patrols the security zone day by day and participates in military operations with the Israel Defense Force within and outside the zone.
But according to Lehad, the SLA’s primary mission is to protect the Maronite Christian enclave in southern Lebanon surrounded by the region’s much larger, often hostile Moslem population.
The Maronites are centered in the SLA-controlled town of Jezzine, located north of the security zone and considered vital to its defense. Lehad bristled recently at the Beirut government’s claim that 1,000 of its soldiers entered Jezzine, implying its takeover.
He admitted there were hundreds of Lebanese regulars in town mingling with his own men. But he insisted he had invited them from Beirut five years ago and that they are under his command.
“We are fully prepared to fight for Jezzine,” said Lehad, observing that if it were to fall, the lives of 20,000 Maronite Christians would be in jeopardy.
From Israel’s point of view, there are two major reasons to maintain the security zone and its alliance with the SLA. One is the Palestine Liberation Organization, whose fighters are still firmly entrenched in southern Lebanon.
The other is the presence of Syria, whose armed forces occupy large areas of the Levantine nation and protect President Elias Hrawi’s government in Beirut and its army.
PLO STILL HEAVILY ARMED
The Syrians are credited with finally putting an end to Lebanon’s 16-year civil war by enforcing Hrawi’s legitimacy with its armed might.
Israel estimates there are 40,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon, mainly in the Bekaa Valley, in the eastern part of the country.
So far they have not overstepped the “Red Line,” the imaginary boundary tacitly agreed to by the two countries separating their forces.
For Syria, the question is how far the Beirut government will go to assert its independence. Israeli observers believe Damascus regards Lebanon as another potential northern front against Israel in the event of war.
Syria and Israel share a common border on the Golan Heights.
The bottom line for the Beirut government is whether it controls all of Lebanon in fact as well as appearance. The central government has said it intends to disarm all guerrilla groups.
In addition to the PLO, they include the pro-Iranian, Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah, or Party of God, and the mainstream Shi’ite militia Amal, which appears to have lost ground recently.
The PLO’s goal is to retain its strongholds in southern Lebanon, home to tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees and its principal staging area for attacks on Israel.
After bloody but short-lived resistance, the PLO last week surrendered its positions in the southern Lebanon port city of Sidon to the Lebanese regular army. Beirut also claimed it disarmed the PLO and other factional militias.
But both Israeli and SLA observers are skeptical.
INCREASE IN INFILTRATION ATTEMPTS
Lehad told reporters this week that his observations from positions in Jezzine overlooking the Mieh Mieh and Ein Hilweh refugee camps convinced him that the Beirut troops seized no more than a tenth of the PLO’s medium and heavy weapons.
The PLO fighters in the camps also retained their personal weapons and small arms.
According to Lehad, the PLO forces still constitute a menace to the SLA, the security zone and Israel itself. His view is shared by Uri Lubrani, coordinator of Israeli activities in southern Lebanon.
Israel has made clear that it will not dismantle the security zone as long as there are armed guerrillas and foreign armies in Lebanon.
Israel and the SLA admit the Lebanese army performed better than expected. But despite this success, the basic situation remains unchanged, the Israelis say.
“We paid a very high price for the safety of Israel’s northern villages, and we are not about to give up the safety zone,” Arens said.
“The fact of the matter is that during the past few weeks, we have had an increase in the number of terrorists trying to penetrate Israel from the north,” the defense minister said.