Faced with increasing public pressure for an Israeli troop withdrawal from southern Lebanon, Israel’s Cabinet has convened to debate whether and how to make the move.
Cabinet Secretary Yitzhak Herzog said the purpose of Sunday’s session was to “get a comprehensive characterization” of the situation, not necessarily to take any decisive steps.
Cabinet member Haim Ramon, who is considered close to Prime Minister Ehud Barak, was quoted as saying before the meeting, “I hope that the outcome” will be that Israel “will not remain in Lebanon later than July.”
As the session took place, Hezbollah bombarded Israeli outposts in southern Lebanon.
Barak has vowed to withdraw the Israel Defense Force from southern Lebanon by July, but has hoped to do so in the context of a peace agreement with Syria, the leading power in Lebanon.
But with Israeli-Syrian talks now suspended, observers have suggested that chances of reaching an accord by then are dwindling.
Barak has hinted that a unilateral withdrawal is not out of the question. However, he is concerned that it might result in more casualties than a withdrawal carried out as part of an agreement with Syria.
Recent Hezbollah attacks that killed seven Israeli soldiers have resulted in stepped up public pressure for a withdrawal from the security zone, which Israel maintains as a buffer from cross-border Hezbollah rocket attacks on northern Israeli communities.
Meanwhile, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported Sunday that Iran has transferred to Lebanon rockets with a longer range than those used previously by Hezbollah.
The report said the latest rockets could possibly reach as far south as Haifa.
According to the paper, the weapons have not yet been transferred to Hezbollah and are being held by Iranian sources in Lebanon. Israel has informed the United States of the developments, the paper said.
At Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, Barak reportedly briefed his ministers on the positions previous government took regarding the Golan Heights, which Syria demands that Israel return as part of a peace accord.
The radio quoted Barak as saying that the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told U.S. officials that Israel was willing to withdraw to the border that existed prior to the 1967 Six-Day War, depending on security arrangements with Damascus.
Barak said former Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also worked from the assumption that negotiations would be based on that border, but that nothing was ever concluded with Syria.
Amid the growing calls for a withdrawal, morale among Israeli soldiers serving in Lebanon has sunk to new lows. Several have told reporters that they do not want to be the last fatality in Lebanon before a withdrawal.
On Sunday, Israeli military officials jailed a soldier for four weeks for refusing to serve in southern Lebanon.
Tank technician Yigal Ben-Moshe, who had served before in the region, reportedly refused to return because he became frightened by the recent Hezbollah attacks that killed seven Israeli soldiers.
French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin prompted an outpouring of Arab criticism when he weighed in on the situation in Lebanon during a three-day visit over the weekend to Israel and the Palestinian self-rule areas.
After he described Hezbollah attacks on Israeli soldiers as “terrorist acts,” Palestinian students pelted him with stones at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah on Saturday.
Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat later apologized for the incident.
On Sunday, thousands of angry Palestinian students in Hebron burned French flags and pictures of Jospin, whom they called on to “take off the mask and show that you’re a Jew-man.”