Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
1 - 7 June 2000
Issue No. 484
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A win-win game?

By Mohamed Sid-Ahmed

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed Israel's attempt to depict its abrupt withdrawal from southern Lebanon as nothing more than a belated compliance with Security Council Resolution 425 is a distortion of reality. To begin with, the resolution was issued 22 years ago and, contrary to Resolution 242, called for Israel's immediate withdrawal without requiring the elaboration of a definition of peace in counterpart. What confirmed still further that Israel's decision to pull out of Lebanon was determined by factors in the present is the fact that the withdrawal did not take place, as formerly promised, on 7 July, but three weeks earlier, on 25 May.

The key factor which forced Israel to move the date of its withdrawal forward was the collapse of the South Lebanon Army (SLA), a band of mercenaries recruited by Israel to man the security strip it installed along the Lebanese border to avoid direct contact between its forces and the Lebanese resistance movement, particularly Hizbullah. The SLA could exist as long as Israel retained control over the security strip, but as soon as it decided to pull out, the SLA disintegrated. Some of its members deserted to Israel, others surrendered to the Lebanese authorities or to Hizbullah guerrillas.

The complete collapse of the proxy army which had served as a buffer between Israeli forces and armed Lebanese resistance fighters left Israel with no option but to accelerate its evacuation of Lebanon under cover of darkness. The unseemly haste with which the withdrawal was effected meant that UN peace-keeping forces could not be called in to replace the Israeli forces, with the result that Hizbullah guerrillas were able to fill the vacuum. These stormed the notorious Khiam prison and released 145 detainees who had suffered dreadful torture at the hands of their SLA guard for long periods of time. With that, Israel's self-proclaimed security zone was transformed into a zone marked by a total lack of security on its direct borders.

So critical was the situation that Barak was forced to cancel a trip to the United States to meet President Clinton. He had to concentrate all his attention on a situation he had created but whose consequences he could neither foresee nor control. The situation was succinctly summed up by historian Martin Van Creveld: "For the first time since its creation, Israel was being defeated in a war, as the United States had been defeated in Vietnam and Russia in Afghanistan. True, this defeat did not affect Israel's crushing military superiority, but Israel failed, as great powers before her had failed, to successfully wage a sustained war against a resistance movement that enjoyed widespread popular support."

The fact that Israel implemented its decision to withdraw from Lebanon unilaterally, without bothering to consult with the other concerned parties or even to inform them of the date of withdrawal, is totally incompatible with its alleged commitment to a process attributed to peace, where the protagonists are assumed to have prior knowledge of the successive steps and to collectively assume the responsibility for their implementation. A basic objective of a peace process is to replace one stable situation by another, while avoiding loopholes that could allow the resumption of hostilities.

It is possible, of course, that Israel's unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon will confound expectations of destabilisation and turn out to be a win-win game for all concerned. Certainly Lebanon has emerged a clear winner from a bitter confrontation that has spanned over two decades. The Arab parties in general also benefit from the withdrawal of Israeli troops from any Arab territory. And Israel benefits from ending a confrontation in which it lost 900 of its troops since 1978, that is, more than the total number of casualties in all the other wars it waged since its creation.

Thus the withdrawal could prove to be a non-zero sum game plus for all concerned, bringing about a more stable situation, a step forward in the direction of a settlement. But because the withdrawal was unilateral, it also reveals loopholes which are potential flash points that could trigger new upheavals.

For example, differences can emerge over the exact location of international frontiers between Lebanon and Israel. Already a dispute has broken out over the Shebaa Farms, a small area, 25 kilometres long and 14 wide, that was transformed under the Israeli occupation from a tiny village with scattered houses into a luxury tourist resort. Hizbullah insists that Shebaa is Lebanese territory, as does the Lebanese government, which maintains that it is in possession of documents in support of its claim. Israel, on the other hand, claims that Shebaa is Syrian territory that was occupied by Israel in 1967 and that it is accordingly not required to withdraw from Shebaa as it withdraws from Lebanon. UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan supports the Israeli viewpoint, thus making 242 and not 425 the Security Council resolution that will decide Shebaa's fate.

Hizbullah's fighters have moved into the positions abandoned by the Israeli forces and have seized many of the tanks and much of the heavy artillery left behind by the SLA. Today, there is no buffer separating them from the Israeli settlers. What if Hizbullah insists on considering the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon to be only partial and decides to pursue its resistance movement?

It is true that French President Chirac has requested Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad not to take any step that Barak could consider provocative. And Barak has promised to be flexible over Shebaa, and withdraw from part of it, "to defeat Assad's attempts to encourage Hizbullah terrorism"! But Barak has made it clear that he has no intention of pulling out of all Shebaa, prompting Syria to engage in talks with Lebanon over the issue, and leaving the situation open to a possible confrontation.

Moreover, Hizbullah is not the only group that could spark off a confrontation. Remnants of the SLA, embittered militias who neither fled to Israel nor turned themselves in to the Lebanese government, might well engage in terrorist acts to avenge themselves against Israel which, after using them to further its own agenda and involving them in hostile acts against their country, unceremoniously dumped them when their usefulness was over.

Then there is the major problem of the 350,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. The Lebanese government was ready to shelter them on a temporary basis pending a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. With the withdrawal of the Israeli occupation forces from its territory, Lebanon is no longer a confrontation state. Where does that leave the Palestinian refugees, whose presence was tolerated in the different context of an ongoing conflict? How can Lebanon accept the perpetuation of a temporary situation, especially with most of the 450,000 Lebanese driven out of their homeland by the civil war now wanting to return? How can sheltering Palestinian refugees take precedence over the return of native Lebanese?

Moreover, the Palestinians cannot fail to notice that negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, when they are not stalled, yield only meager results, while the armed struggle waged by Hizbullah has produced a spectacular result. This could spur Hamas and other radical factions in the PLO to emulate Hizbullah's example and resume armed resistance.

All these loopholes make the possibility of a smooth transition to a stable situation in the region questionable. Each on its own is capable of plunging the region into a spiral of violence than can spin out of control. Fully aware of the precariousness of the situation, Barak has decided to preempt a worst-case scenario by launching a war of words not only against Beirut but also against Damascus, threatening to take retaliatory measures against the Syrian forces both inside and outside Lebanon if Hizbullah launches any fedayeen actions across the border into Israel.

Such a momentous development on the Lebanese front is bound to have an impact on the Syrian front as well as on relations between Beirut and Damascus. That is not to say, however, that the Israeli pullout from southern Lebanon will necessarily be followed by a pullout from the Golan.

In all cases, the UN is called upon to play a role in what was formerly Israel's self-proclaimed security zone in Lebanon. UN peace-keeping forces now stationed in Lebanon could be reinforced to allow the international organisation to assume its new responsibilities. France, which is keen to project an image as the friend of both Israel and Lebanon, could eventually play a key role within the UN forces. But it has made it clear that it will not commit itself without guarantees from both sides that it will not be exposed to acts of violence.

The Lebanese are certainly entitled to congratulate themselves on the successful conclusion of their long perseverance. But they should also be concerned and vigilant, for, with the present divisions in their ranks, it is doubtful whether the Arab parties are up to facing the coming challenges.

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