Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
11 - 17 May 2000
Issue No. 481
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The 'madness' ahead

Hezbollah attacked a string of military posts in the Israeli-occupied zone of southern Lebanon early yesterday, provoking airstrikes and artillery shelling, Lebanese security officials said.

Security officials confirmed the attacks, saying Israeli troops and their allied militiamen responded by shelling the source of fire north of the Israeli-occupied enclave. An Israeli helicopter gunship fired two missiles at targets near the village of Majdel Silim. The violence followed Israel's destruction last Saturday of Lebanese power stations and other civilian targets -- the third action of its kind in less than a year.

Meeting on 5 May, Israel's security cabinet said the attacks were in line with Israel's long-held policies of "punishment and deterrence," and a retaliation for Katyusha rockets that had hit northern Israel the night before. But it is an explanation very few any longer buy. Rather, the emerging international consensus is that Israel's policy is a cover for the increasingly desperate actions of a bloodied army in retreat. And a bloodied army is often the most dangerous of all.

In the wake of the latest assaults, the Israeli army gave the clearest indication yet that it was contemplating bringing forward Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon, currently scheduled to occur "no later than the beginning of July." Such a move would put in jeopardy UN efforts to replace the occupation with an expanded peace-keeping force in southern Lebanon. It could also leave a dangerous vacuum to be exploited by Israel's increasingly errant proxy in southern Lebanon, the South Lebanon Army (SLA).

It was the SLA's "unauthorised" killing of two Lebanese women on 3 May that drew the first Hezbollah fire on Israeli towns in nearly a year. It also prompted open discussion in the Israeli press that Israel has "lost control" of its erstwhile Lebanese "brother." On Monday, SLA leader Antoine Lahad sought amnesty from the Lebanese government, if not for "the man at the helm" of the militia, then at least for the 2,500 men under his command.

Coordinated with the Israeli army, the plea was largely seen as a trade-off for the UN's explicit demand that Israel must fully disarm the SLA as part of its withdrawal from southern Lebanon. Israel has yet to respond to this condition.

Ehud Barak, given what he now views as the "negligible" prospect of reaching a peace deal with Syria, has started to sketch a future for Lebanon post-withdrawal in which the "rules" that have governed the war since the 1996 Grapes of Wrath Understandings will, come July, no longer apply. "As long as we were in Lebanon, there was a certain set of rules," he told Israel's Channel 1 TV on 6 May. "If we leave Lebanon, I wouldn't suggest that anyone, including the Syrians, test Israel's fortitude or readiness to accept strikes against her citizens."

The Israeli raids on Lebanese power stations have raised fears in Beirut of an even larger Israeli military operation against Lebanon prior to the expected withdrawal. Emile Khouri, a political columnist in Al-Nahar daily newspaper, quoted Western diplomatic sources as sharing this concern.

Saturday's raids, which targeted two power relay stations in Bsalim, northeast of Beirut, and Deir Ammar, north of Tripoli, plunged most of northern Lebanon and parts of the capital into darkness.

Ibrahim Amine, columnist for the daily Al-Safir newspaper, believes that the Israeli military raids could be repeated. He suggested that one "scenario" Israel could resort to was to raise tension in the occupied zone through the SLA militiamen.

The biggest fear, however, is that the situation would escalate to become "the black scenario that is currently on everyone's minds: an Israeli madness reflected by a wide-scale military action prior to its unilateral withdrawal."

On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Amr Moussa held extensive talks with Terje Larsen, the Middle East envoy of the UN secretary-general. Larsen heard, and agreed, to three main points related to the planned Israeli withdrawal: the withdrawal has to be in accordance with relevant UN Security Council resolutions 425 and 426; the SLA has to disarm and, towards this target, Israeli encouragement is needed; and an answer has to be found to the issue of the Chebaa farm that Lebanon describes as part of the territories from which Israel will have to withdraw, although Israel says otherwise since the land was captured from Syria in 1967.

And in a show of support for Syria, the foreign ministers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia joined their Syrian counterpart for a meeting in Palmyra last week. "The meeting reassured Syria of Arab support, dispelled some of Damascus' worries about political isolation in case of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, and sent a message to Israel that it cannot put Syria in a corner," commented a diplomatic source. Efforts are currently being made by both Egypt and Saudi Arabia to facilitate the resumption of talks between Damascus and Tel Aviv.

Graham Usher in Jerusalem,
Ranwa Yehia
in Beirut,
Dina Ezzat
in Cairo

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