Release Date: May 28, 2000
Eric Margolis, c/o Editorial Department, The Toronto Sun
333 King St. East, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5A 3X5
Fax: (416) 960-4803 -- Press Contact: Eric Margolis

Back to Square One in the Mideast

by Eric Margolis

ROME -- The most difficult of all military operations is a retreat when in contact with the enemy. Israel's generals performed this feat last Wednesday by deftly withdrawing the last of their occupation troops from Lebanon without losing a single soldier. After 22 years of bloodshed, and the loss of 2,000 soldiers, Israel's disastrous occupation of Lebanon is over.

Israel's rapid pullout from Lebanon was a victory for Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who promised to quit Lebanon last year. Most Israelis were delighted to be rid of a nightmare that had become their nation's version of Vietnam. After long violating UN resolutions calling for withdraw from Lebanon, Israel is finally compliant. Only Israel's far right, represented by former Gen. Ariel Sharon, who led Israel into the Lebanon disaster, mourned the end of the misadventure.

Israel stole a march on Syria by swiftly exiting Lebanon. Damascus hoped to keep Israel bogged down and bleeding in Lebanon in order to force Israel to return the captured Golan Heights to Syria. But now Syria's best hand has been trumped. Damascus will not be happy.

Lebanon has regained its south after two decades of Israeli occupation, allowing 200,000 Lebanese internal refugees to return home. However, the south is now fully under control of the Shia resistance group Hizbullah, not the feeble regime in Beirut and its even feebler army. The big question is whether Hizbullah will lob Katyusha short-ranged rockets over the border into Israel. In recent days, Israel threatened full-scale war against Lebanon, its patron, Syria, and even distant Iran, if its northern border settlements are attacked. Even a small raid by Hizbullah, the Amal militia, or various Palestinians groups could ignite a large war between Israel and Syria, which garrisons 35,000 troops in Lebanon. Israel would soon win, but at a cost of serious losses.

Hizbullah was created and armed in the late 1970's by Israeli intelligence to fight Palestinian forces in southern Lebanon. Israel's arrogant, highhanded treatment of Lebanon's Shias turned them against their former Jewish patrons and led to the long, bitter war between Hizbullah and Israel.

Still, Hizbullah fighters have usually fired rockets into Israel only in retaliation for Israeli air and artillery attacks on Lebanese villages. Now that Hizbullah has liberated its territory, there is no reason why it should deliver pinprick attacks on Israel that would bring a devastating response.

This being the Mideast, a renewed Israeli-Hizbullah alliance against the Lebanese branch of Yasser Arafat's PLO, and even fighting between Palestinians and Hizbullah in Lebanon's turbid south, cannot be totally excluded.

There are also many Lebanese seeking revenge on Israel for its brutal 1982 siege of Beirut, in which Israeli shelling killed 15,000-20,000 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians, and for the ravaging of southern Lebanon, where 8, 000 or more Lebanese civilians and 3,000 fighters were killed. Israel's use of the so-called South Lebanese Army -- which disintegrated this week -- a bunch of Arab renegades and criminals who performed most of Israel's dirty work in southern Lebanon, including wide-scale torture, mass reprisals against civilians, and holding 500 hundred Lebanese civilians hostage in the notorious Khiam Prison, will not soon be forgiven.

Further complicating matters, senior Hizbullah leaders have vowed to continue their `holy struggle' against Israel until it agrees to take back the 350,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon driven from their Galilee homes in 1947 by advancing Jewish forces, and return Hizbullah prisoners in Israeli jails. Lebanon's Palestinian refugees are packed into squalid camps, from where they meddled in Lebanese politics and attacked Israeli civilian targets. Their violent actions sparked both the twenty year Lebanese civil war, which killed 200,000, and the Israeli invasions of1978 and 1982. It was Gen. Sharon's attempt to eradicate the Palestinians in Lebanon, and turn it into an Israeli protectorate run by the Lebanese Christian Phalangists, a neo-fascist party patterned on Mussolini's Blackshirts, that led Israel into the Levantine quagmire, and the terrible massacres of 2,000 Palestinian civilians at Shatilla and Sabra camps.

Israel says it has no room to take back Lebanon's Palestinian refugees, though it found homes for one million Russian immigrants. None of the Arab states want the homeless Palestinians either. Israel's northern border has thus returned to the pre-1982 status quo ante bellum.

Iran, a backer of Hizbullah, and many Arab radicals, are crowing that Israel has finally suffered its first military defeat. This is true, to a point. Hizbullah won because its fighters were ready to die for their faith and country, unlike most of Israel's Arab foes.

As a democracy, Israel could not bear the loss of its sons in the pointless Lebanese conflict. Hizbullah's victory again demonstrated that Israel's overwhelming, high-tech military advantage over the Arabs can be nullified by guerilla and urban fighting. Israel can win every war against the Arabs, but it cannot hold land, as Lebanon showed. The more populated land Israel captures, the more it is at a military disadvantage.

Many Palestinians might wish to emulate Hizbulla's mujihadin by launching an urban war against Israeli occupation troops. But Palestinians have no outside source of arms and no room to fight or manoeuvre. The West Bank in not southern Lebanon. So back to Mideast square one and more of the same.

[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster, and author of the just released War at the Top of the World - The Struggle for Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Tibet which was reviewed in The Economist, May 13, 2000]

Copyright © 2000 Eric Margolis - All Rights Reserved
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