Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Israel Withdraws from Lebanon but Peace Is Not Yet in Sight

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Israel Withdraws from Lebanon but Peace Is Not Yet in Sight

Article excerpt

Israel Withdraws From Lebanon But Peace Is Not Yet In Sight

Rachelle Marshall is a free-lance editor living in Stanford, CA. A member of the Jewish International Peace Union, she writes frequently on the Middle East.

"Today for the first time in decades, international monitors reported no Israeli violations of Lebanon's land, water and airspace."

--News report in The New York Times, May 25, 2000.

For tens of thousands of Lebanese citizens the retreat of Israeli troops from their land on May 24 was the end of a long nightmare. As cheering crowds poured back into the former occupied zone waving banners and tossing rose petals and rice at Hezbollah and Amal soldiers, their elation belied Israel's claim that its presence in Lebanon had been a benign one. What television viewers around the world saw was a population celebrating its liberation.

The people were returning to homes they had been forced to leave after the Israelis invaded Lebanon in 1982 and remained in the nine-mile stretch of territory bordering northern Israel. Under Israeli occupation an area of 400,000 residents that was rich in agriculture and citrus trees became a depopulated battleground, scarred by bombs and artillery shells. One of the darkest episodes of the occupation ended when guards at the notoriously brutal Al Khiam prison abandoned their posts and scores of men were freed who had been held for 10 years or longer without trial or other legal proceeding. Thousands of Lebanese and Palestinians spent time at Al Khiam, many of whom died under torture. Lebanese officials announced that the empty prison would be preserved as a monument to the misery the Lebanese people had overcome.

The Israelis' departure was hastened by the collapse of the surrogate South Lebanon Army (SLA), whose top officers fled to Israel. There were no reprisals against rank-and-file SLA members, most of whom had joined from fear of arrest if they refused, or against villagers who had worked for the Israelis. United Nations officials credited the peaceful atmosphere to Hezbollah and Amal leaders who had repeatedly reassured Christians in southern Lebanon they had nothing to fear. Hezbollah also moved in quickly to provide reconstruction aid and a broad range of social services. The organization still considered terrorist by the State Department restored water that had been cut off by the departing Israelis, and sent in nurses and doctors to reopen hospitals and operate mobile clinics. Roads are being repaired, and Hezbollah's engineers and architects have begun to plan the rebuilding of nearly 3,000 homes that were destroyed or severely damaged by Israel and its surrogate militia.

Despite Israel's withdrawal, the two sides are not at peace. One complicating factor is the remaining claim by Lebanon to a strip of land in the foothills of Mount Hermon called Shabaa farms, which Israel seized from Lebanon two weeks after the 1967 war ended. Hezbollah forces have threatened to continue fighting if the area is not returned. They are also demanding the release of two resistance leaders, Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid and Mustafa Dirani, who were abducted by Israel in 1989 and 1994 and held ever since as bargaining chips for an Israeli navigator, Ron Arad, whose plane went down in Lebanon in 1986. The Israeli Supreme Court recently barred holding Lebanese prisoners as hostages but Israel claims the two men pose a threat to Israel's security.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has warned both Syria and Lebanon that if Hezbollah does continue fighting, "The response will be painful." In fact, some analysts see Israel's withdrawal of troops from Lebanon as simply a change of tactics in order to limit casualties. According to Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University, in the future Israel will avoid ground warfare. "By fighting from the air Israel can use its real capabilities," he said, recalling Israel's devastating raids on Lebanon over the years. The air force is known to have prepared detailed plans for prolonged bombing aimed at destroying Lebanon's infrastructure, and it undoubtedly has similar plans for Syria. …

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