Behind the Headlines: Questions Emerge from Chaos Created by Lebanon Withdrawal

Israel’s nearly two-decade-old presence in Lebanon has long been compared to the tragic American experience in Vietnam.

And now, the political uncertainty generated by Israel’s planned 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.

There were reports Monday that SLA soldiers had defected from these outposts and that they and their families were either seeking asylum in Israel or turning themselves in to the Lebanese authorities.

There were also reports that Hezbollah gunmen were taking up positions near Lebanon’s border with Israel, sparking threats from Israeli officials that Hezbollah attacks after an Israeli withdrawal 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.

How firm is the withdrawal date?

Prime Minister Ehud Barak does not want to wait until July. He would like to pull out the troops as soon as possible to prevent further fighting with Hezbollah.

On Monday, there were reports that Israel is moving up the withdrawal to June, but they were denied by Defense Ministry officials.

In the meantime, the situation remains dangerous, with Hezbollah forcing the Israel Defense Force to withdraw under fire.

Israel wants to leave in an orderly manner to emphasize that it is doing so out of its own free choice. One way to accomplish this is for U.N. peacekeeping forces already in the region to expand their presence and take over positions as they are evacuated by the IDF.

U.N. officials are demanding that any deal be linked to disarming of the SLA and closing the notorious Khiam prison in southern Lebanon, where Israel and the SLA held prisoners for years without trial.

Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan discussed these issues, without resolving them, during a meeting earlier this month in New York.

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 planned troop withdrawal, 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.

On Monday, Israeli officials sent residents of the country’s northern communities to bomb shelters. The move came amid reports that Israeli strikes in Lebanon had killed two civilians.

Residents of the north are not only worried about Katyusha rocket assaults, but also by the fact that their enemy may now be just across the border. In some Israeli settlements, this may translate 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 will withdraw 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.

What will become of the SLA?

The 2,600-member South Lebanon Army has been Israel’s prime ally in the fight against Hezbollah.

In addition, some 2,300 Lebanese, many of them relatives of the SLA soldiers, work in Israel proper.

The planned Israeli withdrawal has the SLA soldiers and their families fearing for their lives — given how the Lebanese government considers them nothing less than traitors.

Israel has offered asylum to the SLA, but there are questions regarding whether this promise will actually be fulfilled.

Observers believe that Israel will absorb a limited number of SLA families, but that the vast majority of the local population will be left behind.

Israel recently cut down its military support of the SLA. As a result, the SLA is no longer blindly following orders from the IDF.

The SLA commander, Gen. Antoine Lahad, declared recently that his soldiers would stay together as a fighting force to protect their villages after an Israeli withdrawal.

Lahad, who was sentenced to death in absentia by Lebanese authorities in December 1996, made the threat after his request that Lebanon grant amnesty to all SLA members was flatly rejected by the Lebanese government.

But it is far from clear whether the general’s threats will be backed up by his soldiers.

Indeed, SLA units reportedly fled Monday from advancing Hezbollah gunmen and sought asylum from Israeli officials.

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