JERUSALEM, May 24 (JTA) — Israel’s more than two-decades-old presence in Lebanon has long been compared to the tragic American experience in Vietnam.
And now, the political uncertainty generated by Israel’s hasty troop withdrawal from southern Lebanon is evoking comparisons with the chaos that surrounded the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam 25 years ago.
When Israel’s Cabinet unanimously voted in early March to pull Israeli troops out of Lebanon by July, there were fears that such a move could create a dangerous power vacuum in the region.
Order has been a rare commodity in the region for decades, but this week saw new levels of disorder, as hundreds of Lebanese civilians rushed in to take over southern villages only days after Israel abandoned nearby outposts and handed them over to its ally, the South Lebanon Army.
SLA soldiers this week left these outposts and many of them either turned themselves in to the Lebanese authorities or they and their families sought asylum in Israel.
Hezbollah gunmen this week were taking up positions near Lebanon’s border with Israel, sparking threats from Israeli officials that Hezbollah attacks could prompt Israel to send its forces back into Lebanon.
The situation, to say the least, is in flux. And it has prompted several questions — some of whose answers Israeli officials may have to improvise as they go along.
What if Hezbollah escalates its attacks?
Hezbollah has made no promises to cease its attacks against Israel after the troop withdrawal.
To the contrary, Hezbollah’s leaders have repeatedly pledged to continue fighting “until we reach Jerusalem.”
Israel’s current intelligence appraisals are pessimistic. Some officials predict cross-border attacks by Lebanese and Palestinian gunmen.
Barak has repeatedly threatened harsh retaliation against Hezbollah, Lebanon and possibly even Syrian targets.
This last option has raised concern that in the absence of progress in the now suspended Israeli-Syrian talks, a military confrontation between the two nations is possible.
Barak, however, does not consider such an escalation likely.
How will the withdrawal affect Israel’s northern border?
Israel first sent troops into southern Lebanon in March 1978, in an effort to halt terrorist attacks by the Palestine Liberation Organization, which had set up headquarters there after being ousted from Jordan.
Further escalation with the PLO led to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Three years later, Israel carved out a 9-mile-wide security zone in southern Lebanon to defend its northern communities against cross-border attacks from the PLO and, later, from Hezbollah.
Now, with the Israel’s troop withdrawal completed some six weeks earlier than planned, Israelis in the northern communities still fear attacks. Such fears only increased earlier this month, when Hezbollah launched a volley of Katyusha rocket attacks that killed one Israeli soldier and lightly wounded more than two dozen people.
Israeli officials this week twice sent residents of the country’s northern communities to bomb shelters.
Residents of the north are not only worried about Katyusha rocket assaults, but also by the fact that their enemy is now be just across the border. In some Israeli settlements, this translates into just a few yards from their homes.
How will Syria react to the withdrawal?
Syria initially opposed the unilateral Israeli withdrawal because it would cost Damascus considerable leverage in its own negotiations with Israel.
However, as Israel raised international support for the withdrawal, Syria has softened its position.
Israel insists that it withdrew to the international border that was defined in a 1923 agreement between Britain and France. But Syria wants the withdrawal to include parts of the slopes of Mt. Hermon, at the meeting point of the borders of Syria, Lebanon and Israel.
This strategically important area was captured by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War. Israel accuses Syria of artificially creating this latest crisis to complicate its planned withdrawal.
The demand for this land could prove significant because it would enable Damascus, which calls the shots in Lebanon, to maintain in the international arena that Israel did not fully withdraw from all Lebanese territory.
Moreover, Hezbollah has vowed to keep launching attacks on Israel if the Jewish state does not withdraw fully.
TIMELINE OF ISRAEL’S PRESENCE IN LEBANON
April 1975: Beginning of the civil war in Lebanon.
1976: Israel and Christian militias hold their first contacts, aimed at developing an alliance against their common enemy, the PLO.
March 1978: Israel launches Operation Litani, taking control of Lebanese territory south of the Litani River in an effort to curb cross-border attacks by Palestinian guerillas. Within days, the U.N. Security Council passes two resolutions on Lebanon: Resolution 425 calls on Israel to withdraw from all Lebanese territory; Resolution 426 establishes the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, a peacekeeping force that has remained in place until today.
July 1981: Israeli forces bomb PLO headquarters in West Beirut.
June 1982: Israel launches Operation Peace for Galilee, the start of its full-scale invasion of Lebanon, eventually driving the PLO out of the country.
September 1982: Christian Phalangists massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
1985: Israel creates a 9-mile-wide security zone after withdrawing most of its troops from Lebanon.
November 1989: Ta’if Agreement brings the civil war in Lebanon to an end. Brokered by the Arab League, it endorses a Syrian military presence in Lebanon.
July 1993: Following the killing of seven Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon, Israel launches Operation Accountability, during which the IDF carries out its heaviest artillery and air attacks on southern Lebanon since 1982.
April 1996: Israel launches Operation Grapes of Wrath, striking at targets in Lebanon to retaliate for Hezbollah rocket attacks on northern Israel. After shelling of the Kana U.N. camp in southern Lebanon results in the deaths of at least 91 Lebanese refugees who had taken shelter there, Israel suffers heavy international criticism and ends the operation.
September 1997: Twelve Israeli naval commandos are killed during a raid on Lebanon. It is the IDF’s heaviest casualty count in a single military operation in more than 12 years.
November 1997: Dozens of Israeli soldiers are killed in a crash of two helicopters en route from Lebanon. The accident prompts growing demands for an end to Israel’s military presence in Lebanon.
March 1999: Opposition leader Ehud Barak pledges during Israel’s election campaign that if elected prime minister, he will get all Israeli troops out of Lebanon by June 2000.
March 2000: Israel’s Cabinet votes unanimously for a full troop withdrawal.
May 24, 2000: Israel removes its last troops from southern Lebanon, some six weeks earlier than planned.
(Source: JTA staff research)