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NEWS ANALYSIS South Lebanon Army leaves town; Is it prelude to Israeli withdrawal?

JERUSALEM, June 1 (JTA) — No Israeli soldier moved an inch, but this may have been the week that the Israel Defense Force’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon began. The first move came not from Israel, but from its ally in the region, the South Lebanon Army, a 2,500-member Christian militia that has been fighting Shi’ite Hezbollah gunmen with arms and money supplied by Israel. On Tuesday, the SLA began to withdraw from its stronghold in Jezzine, a predominantly Christian enclave at the northern tip of the security zone. Optimists in Israel hope that the withdrawal will create a precedent for more redeployments by the SLA, and by Israel, from the security zone. Pessimists, however, are worried that the vacuum created by the withdrawal will be filled not by the regular Lebanese Army, but by Hezbollah, who would turn the town into another base for attacks against the SLA and the IDF. The withdrawal highlights the debate within Israel over how and when to get out of Lebanon, where seven Israelis have died this year alone. Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak has said he would seek an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon within a year after his election. Statements like Barak’s have so decreased morale among SLA soldiers that Gen. Antoine Lahad, the 70-year-old SLA commander, could no longer keep his soldiers in place. The SLA took control of Jezzine in 1985 — the year that Israel carved out the 9-mile-wide security zone at the conclusion of its war in Lebanon — to protect the local Christian population from the rival Shi’ites. Fourteen years later, with morale down and many of its commanders deserting the field, the SLA was all but admitting defeat. In 1985, Jezzine had some 40,000 residents. When Lahad announced the two-week withdrawal process this week, the town had barely 4,000 residents. In more than a decade of fighting, the SLA found that rather than defending civilians, it was mostly busy defending itself. Over the years, the SLA suffered heavy losses from Hezbollah attacks. On Monday, when he announced the withdrawal, Lahad said the town had become too dangerous for his militia. Since 1982, when Israel launched an invasion of Lebanon aimed at rooting out Palestinian terrorists, some 154 SLA militia members have been killed, with another 443 wounded. During the past several weeks alone, the SLA suffered 18 casualties in the Jezzine region. And on Tuesday, the first day of the withdrawal, which took place under heavy fire from Hezbollah gunmen, two SLA soldiers were killed by roadside bombs planted by Hezbollah. In some respects, the SLA presence in Jezzine was counterproductive. SLA forces often caused flare-ups in the area without prior coordination with Israel, forcing Israel into unnecessary confrontations with Hezbollah. In fact, the IDF recently ordered the SLA to refrain from reacting forcefully to Hezbollah attacks. In addition, Jezzine had no real strategic value from the Israeli point of view. Just the same, the SLA presence continued there — to some eyes, only through the power of inertia. Indeed, many observers see a similar reason for the continued Israeli presence in the Lebanon quagmire. For years, the best military and political minds in Israel have sought a way out. But the debate over the best way to do so still goes on — accompanied by a steadily mounting death toll of Israeli soldiers. This week, some observers questioned whether the SLA withdrawal was handled correctly. Reserve Gen. Yossi Peled, a former commander of Israeli forces in Lebanon, said Israel should have used the opportunity for a major diplomatic initiative. According to Peled, Israeli officials should have announced that they endorsed Lahad’s announcement — a move that could have been interpreted as a goodwill gesture toward Lebanon and may have cleared the way for an eventual Israeli withdrawal. Instead, Israeli officials said this week that they had not been consulted in advance about Lahad’s decision to withdraw from Jezzine. During a recent meeting with outgoing Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens, Lahad presented his decision as a fait accompli, telling Arens he had no choice but to order the withdrawal. “I accepted his arguments and told him I would give him full backing,” Arens said this week. Arens downplayed the hope of some in Israel that the withdrawal will create a precedent for an Israeli redeployment. “The SLA withdrawal is not the first step of a general Israeli pullout from Lebanon,” Arens said. “The purpose of our presence in the security zone is to protect” Israel’s northern communities. “We do not intend to quit” the region, he added. But, with the tenure of outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government set to expire within a month, many Israelis are focused on Barak’s promise of a redeployment. But that promise depends on Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon. Barak would seek an Israeli withdrawal as part of an overall agreement with Syria. But Syrian President Hafez Assad may give Hezbollah the green light to keep launching strikes at the IDF, a move that could force an Israeli redeployment — that is, an Israeli defeat — outside the context of any agreement on the Israeli-Syrian negotiating track. One way to tell whether the SLA move will be followed by any Israeli withdrawals is to watch the IDF positions in the Lebanese villages of Ayishiya and Reihan, which are located within the security zone. Both villages were manned by IDF soldiers to protect the corridor to Jezzine. But with that corridor no longer of importance, Israel may no longer keeps its forces stationed at sites that may be subject to continued Hezbollah attacks. Lahad warned this week that if Hezbollah used Jezzine as a base for more attacks, the IDF would retaliate with shelling and air raids that would flatten the town. Under such a scenario, the SLA withdrawal, far from being a prelude to an Israeli redeployment, could lead to yet another escalation of fighting.
Arens refused this week to predict what would result from the SLA withdrawal. “Everything depends on Syria,” he said. “Only Damascus decides what happens in Lebanon.” For Lahad, the withdrawal from Jezzine is also a personal tragedy. The former Lebanese army officer had linked his fate to Israel because he had believed that with Israeli backing he could control the southern portion of the country. But the man who was sentenced to death in absentia by a Lebanese military court in 1996 never saw the fruits of victory. This week, he denied rumors that he would soon join his family in exile in France. But there may be an even larger tragedy looming for ordinary SLA soldiers who will not be able to seek haven abroad. Indeed, there were reports this week that some SLA members have begun seeking amnesty from the Lebanese government. “Our commanders have deserted us,” Michel, a 32-year-old SLA soldier who comes from Jezzine, said this week. “I joined the SLA when I was 18, because I wanted to protect my town. But now our commanders have left us to our destiny.”