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Last Updated: Friday, 28 July 2006, 02:28 GMT 03:28 UK
History repeats with a vengeance
BBC correspondent Jim Muir, who has been reporting the current conflict from the southern Lebanese port city of Tyre, has covered the upheavals in Lebanon since the original crisis erupted there in 1975.

In the first of a two-part series, he looks at how this round of violence compares with - and was born of - previous conflicts.

When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, the initial pretext - reflected in the codename given to the operation, Peace for Galilee - was to push PLO guns about 40km (25 miles) back from the border, beyond range of northern Israel.

Israeli soldier
Israel hoped to establish a friendly government in Beirut in 1982

The goal sounds familiar today, as Hezbollah rockets hail down on Israel's northern cities.

But the real agenda of then-Defence Minister Ariel Sharon in 1982 swiftly became clear, as Israeli forces raced to Beirut and besieged an Arab capital for the first time.

It was far more ambitious: to decapitate the Palestinian movement by destroying the PLO, to eject Syrian troops from Lebanon, and install a friendly government in Beirut which would make peace with Israel.

The Israelis failed to destroy the PLO, but succeeded in squeezing it out. Yasser Arafat and his fighters were obliged to evacuate on ships and be taken off to Tunis.

But even that was a pyrrhic victory. Yasser Arafat ended up returning to his homeland and died as President of the Palestinian Authority.

Iran and Syria

Israel's other goals were foiled by a banding together of its strategic regional foes - Syria and Iran.

There is little sign so far that Hezbollah has been operationally affected
In 1982, Lebanon's majority Shia community - fed up with paying the price for Palestinian guerrilla adventures against Israel - initially welcomed the Israeli intervention.

But its increasing resentment against the continuing Israeli occupation provided fertile ground for Iran and Syria to encourage the formation of a vehicle that was to prove both deadly and effective in driving the Israelis out: Hezbollah, which did not exist before the invasion.

Using suicide bomb attacks and other tactics, Hezbollah joined other Syrian-backed groups in expelling the Multi-National Force (MNF), which had intervened to take over from the Israelis in the Beirut area.

It is a sobering thought for any country considering joining the proposed international force for the south Lebanon border zone.

The MNF, led by the US and including French, Italian and British contingents, pulled out in 1983 when they found themselves embroiled in a militia war and taking casualties for no clear purpose.

It took 17 bloody years and hundreds of casualties for the Israelis, who had fallen back on a broad border security zone, run by their local proxies the South Lebanon Army (SLA), to draw the same conclusion.

In 2000 they pulled out, and the SLA collapsed literally overnight. Hezbollah moved forward into the border zone unopposed.

Now, following Hezbollah's massively provocative cross-border raid on 12 July in which eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two captured, history is repeating itself - but with many differences.

Mission impossible?

Israel has launched a stunningly violent attack on Lebanon with flexible but wide-ranging political ambitions, which are partly tied up with the perception that it is fighting part of its American partner's "war on terror".

Lebanese soldiers
Civil war could erupt if the Lebanese army fought Hezbollah
It would like to destroy Hezbollah and its leadership, or at a minimum, to see it disarmed and pushed beyond missile range of Israel, with either the Lebanese Army or some kind of international "enforcement" troops taking its place in the border zone.

But destroying Hezbollah is not possible. It is deeply rooted in Lebanon's biggest community. In alliance with the more moderate Shia movement Amal, it dominates Shia politics.

However hard the Israelis press, Hezbollah cannot be packed onto ships and sent off to Tunis like the PLO.

By inflicting massive damage on Lebanese civilians and the country's infrastructure, the Israelis apparently intended to exert pressure on the Beirut government to curb Hezbollah.

But that cannot work either. Hezbollah's militia is powerful, well-armed and highly motivated - as the Israelis have found to their cost, both now and before they left Lebanon in 2000.

Having been reconstructed under Syrian auspices before Syria's troop withdrawal last year, the Lebanese Army has many Shia in its ranks.

If it were to be sent against Hezbollah it would almost certainly fall to pieces on sectarian lines, as happened in the 1970s and 80s, raising the prospect of a civil war pitting the Shia against the rest.

US 'contradiction'

In contrast to many previous bouts of violence, there has been an extraordinary lack of US restraint on the Israelis, who have this time pursued a course more violent than anything they have unleashed on Lebanon before.

Washington has said nothing as Israeli jets have blasted targets from Beirut international airport to roads, bridges, factories, petrol stations and other non-military targets all over Lebanon, in addition to strikes on civilian areas and vehicles which have taken a heavy toll of life.

The US is caught in a contradiction here. It is committed to the elected, mainly anti-Syrian government headed by Fuad Siniora, who is being visibly weakened daily by the onslaught on non-Hezbollah economic and infrastructural targets.

So that is a tactic that may have already largely run its course and will be increasingly hard to pursue, with rising international concern over the militarily irrelevant damage and casualties it has inflicted, apart from the fact that it is not working.

It is akin to the tactics adopted by Israel in the Palestinian arena, urging Yasser Arafat and later Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to crack down on Hamas and other radical groups, while simultaneously destroying their ability to do so. The result was Hamas' ascendancy.

Unknown outcome

What other options does Israel have?

Despite the massive destruction inflicted on the teeming southern suburbs of Beirut, where the leadership is based, there is little sign so far that Hezbollah has been operationally affected.

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah
Sheikh Nasrallah has threatened to hit deeper inside Israel
Even if the Israelis succeed in their aim of killing the charismatic Hezbollah chief, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, and other leaders, there is no guarantee their deaths would have a functional effect on the conflict.

His predecessor, Abbas Musawi, was killed by an Israeli helicopter strike on his car on a remote road in southern Lebanon in 1992, with no discernible benefit to Israel.

The blitzing of the south has also failed to prevent Hezbollah missiles and rockets raining down on Israel's own civilian population. Hezbollah leaders say they have only used a fraction of their stocks.

In his latest televised message, Hassan Nasrallah has warned that the strikes would be carried beyond Haifa, and then deeper still. All his warnings so far, have been carried out.

With their air strikes apparently unable to silence the missiles, the Israelis resorted to ground incursions, despite a national consensus that Lebanon is a dangerous swamp in which to become mired.

That truism was immediately validated by the results of the incursion so far.

In the battle for the small border village of Maroun al-Ras, the Israelis conceded at least seven of their soldiers were killed. Pushing on to the regional town of Bint Jbeil, they lost even more to carefully-planned Hezbollah ambushes and counterattacks, despite the massive firepower thrown in to support their ground forces.

Border control?

Israeli leaders talk of establishing some kind of security belt along the Lebanese side of the border, an idea tried in many permutations with painful results from the invasion of the south in 1978 until the final withdrawal in 2000.

Israeli fighters
Foreign troops would face difficulties controlling southern Lebanon

Unless there is a very significant degradation of Hezbollah's capabilities - at the current rate of progress in the Maroun al-Ras/Bint Jbeil area - it would take Israel many weeks and many scores of military casualties to secure a contiguous strip of any depth along the entire border, far less the entire area up to the Litani River which seems to be the plan.

And if they did, what then?

Israeli officials have suggested they would hand the strip over to a robust international force, with "an enforcement role", as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert put it.

Or to the Lebanese Army, if it can be sent down.

A peacekeeping force with no peace to keep? If there is no ceasefire agreement with political underpinnings, which nation will commit troops to do Israel's fighting for it, to engage Hezbollah in a struggle which the Israelis themselves have not been able to win?

More likely, the Israelis would themselves be left in control of that border strip.

Any fixed presence would clearly act as a magnet for more attacks by Hezbollah and perhaps other Lebanese and Palestinian groups, rallying against a new occupation of Lebanese soil that would further bolster Hezbollah's raison d'etre as a resistance movement.

History repeating itself, again.

Jim Muir's second article:




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