JERUSALEM, Nov. 29 (JTA) – An alarming rise in the number of Israeli troops killed in southern Lebanon has reignited debate over the wisdom of Israel’s continued presence there. The debate was sparked by the deaths of seven Israeli soldiers and the wounding of nine others in roadside explosions during the past two weeks in Israel’s security zone. On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened his Inner Security Cabinet for the first of what he said would be a series of discussions about the situation in Lebanon. Israel has long debated whether to remain in southern Lebanon. Defenders of the policy say it is necessary to protect Israel’s northern settlements until comprehensive agreements are reached with Syria and Lebanon. Critics of the policy have argued that it only leads to more casualties. Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon said Sunday that negotiations with Syria and the hostilities in southern Lebanon were separate issues that must be resolved independently. “If we link the security situation in Lebanon to negotiations with Syria, our soldiers in Lebanon and Israel’s northern border settlements will become hostages to Syria and targets for terrorist attacks, which will likely increase,” he said. Sharon has previously called for a phased, unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon, accompanied by a strong warning to Beirut that continued attacks on Israel from its territory would result in the bombardment of essential infrastructure installations. Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai has been a leading advocate for an Israeli proposal advanced earlier this year that was rejected by Damascus and Beirut. The proposal was based on U.N. Security Council Resolution 425, which calls for an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon alongside security guarantees from Lebanon that attacks would not be launched on Israel from its soil. Netanyahu said Sunday that the Israeli army will remain in Lebanon until the safety of Israel’s northern communities can be assured. But at the same time, he said that every effort would be made to minimize troop casualties. Meanwhile, President Ezer Weizman called on Syrian President Hafez Assad to resume negotiations with Israel. Prime Minister Shimon Peres suspended the talks in March 1996 after Syria failed to condemn a series of suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Speaking after a condolence visit to the family of one of four soldiers killed last week, Weizman said only a political solution involving Syria would bring an end to the fighting in southern Lebanon. As politicians suggested ways out of the morass in Lebanon, the Israel Defense Force sought ways to lower the number of combat deaths sustained there. All of the seven Israeli soldiers killed during the past two weeks were victims of roadside bombs planted by Hezbollah near Israeli outposts in the security zone. Senior army and defense officials were reported to be considering ways to reduce the number of IDF positions in the 9-mile-wide zone.
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