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News Analysis: 10 Years After the War in Lebanon, Menace is Back in Different Guise

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Ten years after the Israel Defense Force invaded Lebanon, the menace that prompted the Jewish state’s most unpopular war has returned.

It is no longer Yasir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization that threatens Israel’s northern border towns and settlements with Katyusha rocket fire and incursion.

The enemy today is the Shi’ite fundamentalist Hezbollah, a fanatical Islamic organization that acts from nationalist-religious motivations and is just as brutal and just as hostile to Israel as the PLO.

On the eve of the Lebanon war in June 1982, the PLO dominated most of southern Lebanon. It was, in effect, a heavily armed mini-state extending from the Litani River to Beirut, from the Mediterranean coast to Mount Hermon.

But the PLO had been observing a cease-fire agreement with Israel reached in July 1981, through the mediation of the late U.S. diplomat Philip Habib, and there was no “casus belli” compelling Israel to go to war in Lebanon.

While the PLO posed no strategic threat, and its mini-army was certainly no match for the IDF, Israel’s leaders believed that the Jewish state could not live under a potential threat in the north.

The threat was mainly psychological — the worry that Katyusha rockets could at any moment make life unbearable for the inhabitants of Israel’s northern region.

Even a potential threat was not acceptable to Israel, which was determined never to engage in a political dialogue with the PLO.

A pretext for going to war occurred when gunmen severely wounded Israel’s ambassador to Britain, Shlomo Argov, in London on June 3, 1982. Israel retaliated the next day with massive air raids on the PLO in southern Lebanon, soon followed by the full-force invasion by the IDF.

The officially stated goal of the war was swiftly achieved. The PLO’s military infrastructure in Lebanon was utterly destroyed in a few days.

But Israel’s more ambitious agenda was not achieved. It failed to establish a friendly state in Lebanon, ruled by the pro-Israel Christian minority faction it had arduously cultivated and supported. Instead, the country was plunged once more into a deadly civil war.

SYRIAN THREAT MORE DAUNTING

Israel paid dearly to achieve even its limited success — the ouster of the PLO from southern Lebanon. The war cost the IDF about 650 dead and thousands wounded, and was a tremendous drain on the national treasury.

It seriously divided the country. It was the first Israeli war that did not enjoy the support of the overwhelming majority of Israelis.

The tragedy is that for all of the blood and treasure, the northern border is hardly safer today than it was 10 years ago.

Israel’s avowed enemy, Syria, has replaced the PLO as the main military force in Lebanon, and it is a much larger and more powerful force than the PLO ever could be.

Terrorist activity has been taken over by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

Before Israel’s final withdrawal from Lebanon in 1985, there was a dispute in the IDF’s high command over how best to ensure calm on the border.

Ehud Barak, head of military intelligence at the time, proposed that Israel withdraw behind its international boundary with Lebanon and keep only minimally involved in that country’s affairs.

But the chief of staff at the time, Lt. Gen. Moshe Levy, and Maj. Gen. Ori Orr, then commander of the northern sector, wanted a broad security zone on the Lebanese side of the border to serve as a buffer and a corridor for IDF troops.

Barak, on the other hand, wanted to avoid a further rift with the Shi’ite population in southern Lebanon, which had been considered neutral toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He understood that Israel’s continued presence on Lebanese soil would only create a new enemy.

And the general, who is now IDF chief of staff, turned out to be right.

USING LEBANON AS BAIT

Having wiped out the PLO mini-state, Israel is confronted with new forces in Lebanon, this time composed of the local population, which is just as hostile as the PLO.

Ten years after the war, the Hezbollah militia has become Israel’s worst enemy in the north. It gets its orders directly from Teheran. Although the Syrians, who are in de facto control of Lebanon, are quite capable of restraining Hezbollah, they have no interest in doing so at the present time.

After all, Damascus says, “the people of southern Lebanon have a legitimate right to remove the occupiers.”

The Syrians are using Lebanon as bait for Israel. Once the peace talks resume after the Israeli elections, Damascus is expected to offer a deal: peace and security along Israel’s northern border as partial payment for Israel’s withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

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