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Tuesday, March 2, 1999 Published at 13:45 GMT

World: Middle East

Analysis: Israel's Lebanese dilemma

Israel in action in south Lebanon, June 1993

By BBC News Online's Martin Asser

The death of a senior Israeli army officer on Sunday is a reminder of Israel's predicament in the hills and steep rocky valleys of south Lebanon.

[ image:  ]
It is dangerous territory for a modern army to be facing several thousand highly motivated and increasingly well trained guerrillas.

It can also be lethal for the Lebanese civilians who still live in and near the so-called "security zone", the 15km strip Israel carved out of southern Lebanon.

Israel says it wants to withdraw from the zone, which it established in 1985, ostensibly to stop attacks by Palestinian guerrillas on Israeli territory.

But there has been no organised Palestinian resistance in Lebanon for more than 15 years, when Yasser Arafat debunked to Tunis.

Israel now says it has to defend itself against attacks by Hezbollah. But Hezbollah says it attacks Israel because Israel occupies Lebanese land.

Israel's 'offer to withdraw'

Now opposition leader Ehud Barak has pledged to pull out troops from Lebanon by the end of next year if his party wins the upcoming general election.

Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu has also been exploring options for a withdrawal, echoing statements first made last year.

At the time, Uri Lubrani, the veteran Israeli diplomat who is co-ordinator of Lebanese policy, said Israel was finally certain that the Lebanese army had recovered sufficiently from the 1975-91 civil war to deal with the contingencies arising from an Israeli withdrawal.

[ image: Seventy soldiers died in mid-air collision en route to 'security zone' in February 1997]
Seventy soldiers died in mid-air collision en route to 'security zone' in February 1997
Lebanon rejected the proposal, arguing that it is not for Beirut to protect the Israelis, after decades of what it sees as Israeli occupation and unbridled aggression.

Israel maintains it has no territorial claims on Lebanon, but many Arabs call its professed willingness to withdraw a smoke screen.

They say Israel wants to keep the territorial advantage of occupying the Lebanon ridge which dominates the whole country south of Beirut. They also accuse Israel of plundering water and fertile topsoil from the area it occupies.

The Arabs believe Israel should simply implement UN Resolution 425, calling for Israel's immediate withdrawal from Lebanon.

The price of Israel staying has been many hundreds of troops killed in guerrilla attacks. The death toll among Lebanese fighters and civilians is far higher, in the thousands.

But many analysts believe Syria, which calls the shots in Lebanon, is in no hurry to see an end to military occupation while the Israelis continue to occupy the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967.

Military entanglement in Lebanon is used as a stick to beat to the Israelis, who remain ultra-sensitive to losses against what Israel insists on calling Hezbollah terrorism.

Lebanon and the Israeli elections

Israel's last major bombardment of Lebanon, Operation Grapes of Wrath, came shortly before Israel's 1996 elections.

Shimon Peres gained no electoral advantage from a sustained onslaught against Hezbollah. That operation resulted in severe disruption in Lebanon and some 175 casualties, including more than 100 civilians sheltering in the UN base at Qana, a couple of kilometres outside the occupied zone.

Many Israelis want a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, but no candidate in this year's elections is offering it.

The elections, and Mr Netanyahu's much-vaunted election platform of 'peace with security' in 1996, mean that the prime minister cannot do nothing when six soldiers die in guerrilla ambushes in a week.

[ image: Arens (left) and Netanyahu (centre), with Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz]
Arens (left) and Netanyahu (centre), with Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz
The question is how far is he prepared to go to extricate this thorn in Israel's side.

It is noticeable that in the Israeli 'security cabinet' Mr Netanyahu is flanked by Ariel Sharon and Moshe Arens, recently brought in as defence minister.

Both men are hard-liners on Lebanon. Mr Sharon, the foreign minister, never showed regret for masterminding the Israeli invasion of 1982-83.

It was a campaign designed to eliminate "terrorists" too, but it set the scene for the massacre of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Chatila camps, and it left 20,000 Lebanese dead, according to Lebanese figures.

Many in the region are now worried about the prospects of another all-out war. The only thing holding Israel back is probably the trauma of previous encounters in Lebanon.

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