Thursday, May 25, 2000

After 22 years of defending Israel’s security in southern Lebanon, the Israeli military bombed its own tanks, artillery and armored personnel carriers on Monday to prevent them from being taken over by the anti-Israel Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas. Israel’s exit from the conflict-ridden occupation zone which it has controlled since 1985 has brought a dangerous response from the Syrians, the Lebanese and the Hezbollah guerrillas. Instead of promoting protection for the buffer zone between Israel and Lebanon via the Lebanese army, the Syrian government has watched as the guerrillas move into the post evacuated by both the Israeli military and its Lebanese allies, the South Lebanon Army (SLA).

After all, the Israelis were doing what the Syrians and Lebanese wanted and more. For years the Lebanese chaffed under the Israeli occupation, and Syria had complained with them. But after an emergency security cabinet meeting Monday, Israeli ministers decided to speed up the pullout from Lebanon ahead of the original July 7 deadline set by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The pullout was completed overnight Tuesday. Days after the Israelis ceded their posts to the SLA, the allies defected from three key posts, allowing the guerillas to move in. By Wednesday, the Hezbollahs had pushed to within yards of the Israeli border.

“If you don’t stay in the occupied territory and don’t surrender and don’t leave with the [Israeli] forces of occupation, we’ll come and get you with our guns,” said Hasan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah’s leader on Sunday.

The Hezbollah takeover threatens the safety of Israeli civilians near the border. SLA militiamen who have surrendered now number 300, with at least another 2,000 members and their relatives forced to flee to northern Israel in tent refugee camps. SLA members found in Lebanon could be executed or sent to prison. And in Israel, tens of thousands of civilians near the border had to grab food and medicine and head to bomb shelters. So much for an Arab “thank-you.”

“All those forces and vectors that were supposed to be cheering are shelling now on southern Lebanon,” said Yoram Ben-Zeev, deputy director general for North America at the Israeli Foreign Ministry. The Hezbollah have made clear their intent to fight on, even after they have forced Israel out of Lebanon. In the best case scenario, the United Nations and the Lebanese army would work together to protect the buffer zone, but a return to a peaceful cross-border relationship was not very promising, Mr. Ben-Zeev told The Washington Times.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has recommended ultimately increasing the peacekeeping force from 4,513 to 7,935 to help keep peace during the transition, and oversee the Israeli withdrawal, which given the U.N. record can hardly be reassuring for anyone. Lebanon and Syria must now prove they are willing to work for peace by curbing the guerrilla forces. If a few days can produce this much chaos for both Israelis and the Lebanese, Israel’s Arab neighbors have little time to be apathetic.

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