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The BBC Richard Meiron
"Many Israelis are unhappy with the way the army has been leaving Lebanon"
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Tuesday, 23 May, 2000, 19:29 GMT 20:29 UK
What next in Lebanon?
Israeli forces
The IDF could remain targets for guerrilla forces

By BBC News Online's Martin Asser

It is easy to imagine doomsday scenarios once the dust has cleared behind the hasty retreat of the Israel Defence Force and its local client militia from South Lebanon.

Israel's enemies, led by the Hezbollah guerrillas, can now get up close and personal with Israeli settlements south of the border and might also find reasons to attack the IDF deployed along the border.

Hezbollah's principal raison d'Ítre may have been ending the occupation, but the border will remain a flashpoint.

The resistance has unfinished business, with the continued detention of Lebanese prisoners in Israel and disagreements over what is and is not sovereign Lebanese territory from which Israel should withdraw.

Scant protection

Lebanon scene
Reclaiming the land, but will Lebanese joy turn to tears?
There are two policies that Israel can pursue, apart from ceding to Hezbollah's demands - but neither of these seem to offer a great deal of protection.

The first is to carry out pre-emptive attacks against the guerrillas over the border, a policy which could set off a spiral of violence culminating in attacks on civilian targets by both sides.

The second is to hold fire - but respond massively against all of Lebanon in the event of unprovoked guerrilla attacks.

That way Israel would hope to isolate Hezbollah within Lebanon, believing - against all precedents - that a majority of Lebanese civilians would withdraw support for the guerrillas.

IDF leaving Lebanon
Escaping with their lives: Moments of relief for retreating Israeli troops
But Israel could also follow the logic that, since Syria calls the shots in Lebanon and keeps a sizeable force in the county, the IDF should retaliate against Syria - something it has refrained from so far.

Such threats have already been made, a message to Syria for it to clamp down on guerrilla activity.

Total war?

But what if Israel were to attack Syrian targets in Lebanon? The Middle East would only be a few short steps from a devastating conflict.

Arabs today are watching how the occupation of Lebanon has crumbled against a force of a few thousand highly motivated and self-sacrificing Lebanese guerrillas.

The shelling of Lebanese civilians has continued
Those who still want to take the fight to Israel may well be coming to the conclusion that the once all-conquering regional superpower is no longer prepared to take the casualties.

Of course, these are far-fetched scenarios - but dangerous ones, particularly with a nuclear-armed Israel.

It is more likely that Syria will see little to be gained from confronting the much more powerful Israel in the field of combat.

Indeed, observers in Beirut say uniformed Syrian soldiers have already left some bases and checkpoints to be replaced by plain-clothes agents of the mukhabbarat (intelligence service).

But as for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's promise that the "tragedy is over" - don't bet on it.

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See also:

22 May 00 | Middle East
Annan warns of UN withdrawal
22 May 00 | Middle East
Arab concern over Israeli pullout
07 May 00 | Middle East
Lebanese seek UN protection
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