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Wednesday, 23 December, 1998, 15:03 GMT
South Lebanon: Israel's Vietnam?
Two soldiers of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) talk to command
By Hugh Levinson

Shlomo Bohbot cannot forget the day in 1974 when a group of Lebanese terrorists infiltrated his town, Ma'alot in Northern Israel. For him, the events of more than twenty years ago are still very much alive.

Sholmo Bohbot
"They took over an elementary school - the kids were held hostage and the terrorists asked for the release of Israeli prisoners. When Israel refused, the terrorists killed 20 people." Mr. Bohbot is now Ma'alot's mayor, and head of the Association of Frontline Communities, a group of towns near Israel's border with Lebanon.

Listen to this report in full

It was attacks like the one in 1974 that caused Israel to create what it calls the Security Zone - a strip of heavily militarised territory running east to west along the border and ranging as much as 9 miles deep into Lebanon. The aim is to protect towns like Ma'alot from attack. But now, 20 years after the zone was created, more and more Israelis say the country should withdraw.

All sides are suffering in the grim guerilla war being played out in the zone. On one side are the Israelis, plus their proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army, headed by General Antoine Lahad. On the other are the forces calling themselves the Islamic Resistance, notably Amal and Hizbollah. In between are the few thousand villagers who continue to live in the zone.

Commandant Keiran McDaid of the UN Force in Lebanon
The village of Beit Yahoun is typical. To reach it, we travelled with Commandant Kieran McDaid of the Irish batallion of the United Nations force in Lebanon. We travelled south from the batallion's headquarters - Camp Shamrock - passing through a Lebanese Army checkpoint, then a South Lebanon Army checkpoint and into the zone itself.

Beit Yahoun is a sorry place. It was once home to 1000 villagers, mainly Shia Muslim. Now perhaps 200 remain. The houses on the outskirts have been levelled by the frequent bouts of shelling and most villagers live towards the centre of the town.

One old lady described how her son had been conscripted into the South Lebanon Army, and then killed by Hizbollah, leaving her entirely alone with no family to support her. Another villager pleaded with the Irish peacekeepers to set up a post in the village, to ensure some kind of protection from the shelling. A lady borrowed Commandant McDaid's mobile phone to call her family: there are no phone lines in Beit Yahoun. Her neighbour complained about the 5 p.m. curfew imposed by the SLA.

An older man, Abdul Hossein Maki said he was afraid to go to his tobacco fields, which were now sown with mines. "I am living in a village which is almost like an open prison," he says.

Leaving Mr. Karim's house, the shelling restarted. Lebanese fighters fired mortars into the SLA compound just outside the village. Israel responded a few minutes later with a barrage of heavy artillery. As we hastily left Beit Yahoun in the relative safety of an armoured personnel carrier, the villagers stayed outside, sitting in their gardens, apparently unconcerned by the shelling which has a routine part of daily life.

The villagers of Beit Yahoun are among the relatively few people from the area who have remained - and most of them are only hanging on to protect their property rights. The majority of people from the south now live in other Lebanese cities, especially Beirut. Among them is Adib Farha, a businessman and aspiring independent politician. He comes from Marjayoun, the biggest town in the occupied zone. "The town looks like an abandoned ghetto, it's like a ghost town," he says. "The people still living there don't see any hope or future for themselves. They're second-class citizens in their own country." Mr. Farha claims that even the fertile topsoil of some of his land near Marjayoun - which means "Spring Field" - was dug up by Israelis and removed to land south of the border, in Israel itself.

Mr. Farha is one of the many Lebanese who support the campaign by the guerrillas in the south, even while disagreeing with many elements of their ideology. Many observers believe the guerrillas are also succeeding in changing the military balance. Hizbollah has a new weapon: a range of increasingly sophisticated roadside bombs. These are concealed in the rubbish left on the verge of every Lebanese road, or sometimes inside imitation rocks made of fibreglass. The bombs are detonated by remote control, either by wire or by radio.

These have proved lethally effective. More than 20 Israeli soldiers were killed in 1998, most of them by roadside bombs. The Israel Defence Force is now believed to have cut back its patrols in the zone to an absolute minimum, and all forward positions are now manned by the SLA. IDF commanders admit that the intensity of the Lebanese assaults are increasing, with more than 1100 "events" - including exchanges of shelling - in 1998, compared to 600 in 1997 and 400 in 1996. But they maintain that the Lebanese forces lose three, four or even five guerillas for every Israeli soldier killed.

Small comfort perhaps to the troops stationed there. At the IDF's Paamonit observation post, which has commanding views north into Lebanon and south into Israel, Gal, one of the women soldiers, scans the countryside for signs of trouble. She agrees that the loss of so many soldiers recently has affected morale. "I'm sure nobody wants to die and nobody wants to fight," she says.

But Ariel, a junior officer who patrols the zone roughly once a week, is more bullish. "We know what we have to do," he says. "We are not afraid. We have our missions, we have our ways to deal with hard places, but we do it, and we succeed most of the time."

Ariel, junior officer and patroller for the IDF
His mission, he says, is protecting Israel's northern towns, including the biggest, Qiryat Shimona. This is a major target for Katyusha rockets, fired by Hizbollah from its strongholds in southern Lebanon. The rockets rarely kill anyone, but they succeed in keeping the population on a constant state of alert. The mood is often very tense, and everyone is aware of the need to be vigilant.

Barry Silverberg with one of his daughters
Every building in town is equipped with either a fullscale bomb shelter or a reinforced security room. "At the first blast, we're in the security room - no joking around," says Barry Silverberg, a teacher and a father of five. He has served in Lebanon himself and he believes the troops should stay. If they withdrew, then the Lebanese guerrillas would simply push forward their attack into Israel proper, targetting towns like Qiryat Shimona. "I know that our family can sleep at night knowing that the border is guarded."

Only few minutes away from Mr. Silverberg's house, however, you can hear a radically different point of view. His friend, Batya Gottlieb, is a member of the Four Mothers group, which is calling for Israel to withdraw from Lebanon.

It was founded by mothers of soldiers serving in Lebanon and Batya Gottlieb too is worried about the future of her own son, Noam, who will get his call-up papers in two years time. "The strain on the population as a whole has brought many people to say enough," she says. "We have to seek another way."

She argues that Hizbollah and the other Lebanese fighter groups have only one enemy: the occupying Israeli army. Once the Israeli soldiers withdraw, then the Lebanese government will keep the guerrillas in check. The Four Mothers are getting increasing media coverage and their argument has been taken up by some prominent opposition politicians, like the Labour Knesset member, Yossi Beilin. Israeli newspapers say that even the head of the Shin Bet secret service is in favour of withdrawal.

Uri Lubrani: the really tough issues lie outside Lebanon
The Israeli government agrees that in theory withdrawal is a good thing - but only once it receives security guarantees from the Lebanese government. Uri Lubrani, Israel's government coordinator on the issue, says he believes Lebanon would be willing to agree to this. The problem, he argues, is Syria, Lebanon's political Big Brother. Syria, he says, is after a bigger prize - the Golan Heights, taken by Israel in 1967. Syria won't let Lebanon make peace with Israel until the Golan is handed back. Since the Golan Heights are strategically vital to Israel, this is extremely unlikely to happen. So, he says, Syria funds and arms the Lebanese guerrillas in order to maintain the pressure on Israel.

Back in Beirut, the Lebanese government says it has no need to give any security guarantees to Israel and that Israel should simply withdraw unconditionally, in accordance with UN Resolution 425. Hizbollah also refuses to say what it would do if Israel left Lebanon.

Ibrahim Mousawi, Hizbollah spokesman, with one of the group's banners
"This is a question we don't answer. We have to see what shape, what kind of withdrawal takes place. Then maybe we will give an answer," says Ibrahim Mousawi, a spokesman for Hizbollah. Another unresolved question in the event of an Israeli withdrawal is the future of the 2,500-strong South Lebanon Army. The Lebanese government regards General Lahad and the other commanders as traitors and that it will treat them accordingly. Individual soldiers who can show that they were conscripted unwillingly may be treated more leniently.

Yet although the future is murky, some observers are - cautiously - optimistic. Among them is Timur Goksel, the UN spokesman in Lebanon, who has spent 19 years watching the conflict. He believes that the debate in Israel has now become so widespread that the government can no longer ignore it, and that sooner or later it will agree to withdraw.

If that happens, he thinks the Lebanese government - which managed to disarm countless militia groups after the 1975-1992 Civil War - could control Hizbollah. If peace then followed, the hundreds of thousand of Lebanese who have fled the south could return, bringing their money and their vitality with them.

"I really anticipate a booming, very colourful area when the Israelis finally withdraw," he says. "Then I think that would be the end of this episode here - time for us to finally turn out the lights and go home."

WEB EXCLUSIVES: A Beit Yahoun villager
describes the woes the zone has brought her
Abdul Hussein Maki:
'the village is like a prison'
Gal and Ariel, IDF staff in the zone
reflect on whether recent casualties have affected Israeli morale
Barry Silverberg, teacher in Qiryat Shimona:
could there be peace if Israel withdrew?
Batya Gottlieb of the Four Mothers group:
there has to be change, and soon
UN spokesman Timur Goksel:
an end to the fighting "would be a delight"
See also:

16 Nov 98 | Middle East
15 Nov 98 | Middle East
04 Nov 98 | Middle East
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