Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Militias Stonewall Central Government in South Lebanon

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Militias Stonewall Central Government in South Lebanon

Article excerpt

If there were a Who's Who in South Lebanon, the Lebanese government would not be listed. The important headings would include Israel, the PLO, Hezbollah, Amal, the "South Lebanon Army" (SLA) and UN troops.

In January, the Lebanese government decided to remedy this. It announced that in February it would deploy army troops into the Iqlim Al-Tuffah province as a first step in reasserting control of the whole South.

The choice of this 50-square-mile sector in the foothills east of the coastal road has military, political and demographic motives. Once the arena where Amal battled Hezbollah, a peace accord brokered through Damascus in October 1990 quieted the area enough for its shaken residents to return. The Lebanese government would like to see them stay, and the army, once in place, will make sure conditions are conducive to doing so.

The deployment of the army was carefully planned to seek cooperation from members of the old who's who. Lebanese Foreign Minister Fares Boueiz made contacts with the US, France, Britain and other European countries to secure what he called "international cover" for the deployment. UN Secretary Marack Goulding lent support in early January during a trip he makes several times a year to inspect UNIFIL (UN Interim Forces in Lebanon), established in part to oversee the withdrawal of Israel after its invasion in 1978. A second provision of the UN Resolution that set up UNIFIL calls for assisting the Lebanese government in reasserting its authority all the way to the Israeli border. Boueiz also contacted Arab states with special ties to the PLO. He asked that they pass on a simple message: "Please don't give the Israelis an excuse to attack South Lebanon. Exercise self-restraint."

Similar appeals went out to Lebanese resistance groups. What followed was clearly not a part of that script. Palestinian rocket barrages into Israel's "security zone" attracted Israeli "retaliatory" air raids on Palestinian installations until, on Feb. 5, the Amal militia announced there would be no further exchanges of fire.

The exodus of civilians from South Lebanon is an old story. Chronic economic problems have made the area the poorest in the country. Heaped on top of that have been unstable security conditions -- the result of a vicious circle of PLO activity, Israeli reprisals, the growth of indigenous resistance groups and surrogate militias.

Reeling under these cycles of deteriorating security, and increasingly despairing of a peace settlement to end 15 years of turmoil, thousands of war-weary Southern Lebanese have traveled to neighboring Arab countries and to nearby Cyprus to apply for immigration visas -- to anywhere.

Boueiz and other Lebanese leaders see a new and sinister side to the exodus. They fear, ironically, that migration of Lebanese from the South could make room for the thousands of Palestinians that Israel would like to expel from the occupied territories. That expulsion would, the argument goes, open up land in the West Bank for Soviet Jews flooding into Israel.

A Familiar Exodus

On Jan. 18, a familiar exodus took place at the US Embassy in Beirut. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and his US mini-staff hastily departed by helicopter to Cyprus. Even in the staunchly Christian neighborhood where the embassy is located, pro-Saddam Hussain feelings coupled with anti-American sentiments proved too potentially dangerous. …

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