Israel tests strategy to pull forces out of south Lebanon

This village nestled among steep, terraced hillsides of fruit and olive trees is an odd place for a battle front. But Arabslim, a Shiite Muslim comma in a line of largely Christian communities, has become a prime focus in Israel's bid to gradually turn over occupied south Lebanon to a surrogate Christian-Lebanese general named Antoine Lahad and bring its own troops home.

So far, similar Israeli efforts have been marked by fits, starts, and failure. Still, after many months of getting nowhere fast, the strategy may be getting somewhere - slowly.

Israel's latest approach has consisted largely of an escalated campaign of raids and arrests in Shiite towns like Arabslim. Many of the detainees are sent to the Israeli prison camp of Ansar, quietly back in business since Israel freed its inmates last November in a swap for six Israeli soldiers held by the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Israel's goal is to persuade the Shiites to join General Lahad's forces. The strategy remains fraught with potentially serious pitfalls. At the very least, ''success'' will come slowly. Anything resembling total withdrawal of Israeli troops by the present government seems many months away.

The chief problem, says a prominent Shiite political figure in south Lebanon, is this: ''By turning to collective harassment and punishment for individual acts of violence against the occupation force, Israel is turning large numbers of Shiites against it. Shiites are the overall majority in south Lebanon. And hatred is a difficult thing to erase.''

Oddly enough, most Shiites welcomed Israel's 1982 invasion. Palestinian guerrillas had turned Lebanon's impoverished agricultural south into their own state. The Palestinians bullied the local population and drew attacks by Israeli warplanes.

But the Shiites, as did many Israelis, assumed the invasion force would leave in a matter of months. Instead, Israel stayed put, convinced a pullout would risk forfeiting the main gain of the war: removal of the Palestinian military infrastructure from north of Israel's border.

Scattered Shiite attacks on Israeli troops gradually increased, peaking with the car-bomb destruction of an Israeli headquarters in Tyre last November. That strike prompted Israel to close free passage between the south and the rest of Lebanon, ensuring enmity from farmers and other civilians for whom the south-north route was a commodity lifeline. Other collective punishments for other attacks followed.

Now, the Israeli government seems intent on giving the ''South Lebanon Army'' - or SLA - of General Lahad control of the region. Since the death early this year of south Lebanese Christian militia leader Maj. Saad Haddad, Lahad has been groomed by Israel to put together a more widely representative client force.

If the Shiites bridle, so be it, the reasoning seems to go. Sooner or later, the apolitical Shiites of the south will realize their best bet is to go along with the SLA.

Specifically, Israel hopes that a combination of stick and carrot will persuade more Shiites, which currently number about one-fifth of Lahad's force, to join the SLA. Israel's Defense Minister Moshe Arens spoke recently of the need for ''agreements with the local population, mainly the Shiite population . . . and (for) consolidating the strength of the South Lebanon Army.''

Arabslim and its 6,000 people have become an important test case in the first stage of Israel's new strategy.

The idea is to leave for later the main centers of the almost daily bomb or grenade attacks on Israeli troops - the coastal cities of Sidon and Tyre. Both Israelis and their principal south Lebanese allies acknowledge Lahad and his roughly 2,000 soldiers are in no shape to assume ''security responsibility'' for south Lebanon's coast.

But meanwhile, Israel has quietly halted its own armored patrols in an L-shaped area of hill towns from Marjayoun in the southeast, through the region's ''Christian capital'' of Jezzin, and on to the village of Kfar Flous beside the main road to Sidon.

Arabslim has in rapid succession been shown both carrot and stick in the past 10 days.

In mid-June, Lahad forces accompanied by Israeli military security agents swooped down on the town and detained an alleged ''terrorist network,'' including 15 locals and Sheikh Abdel Karim Shamseddin, Arabslim's Shiite religious leader. Nine men have since been freed.

In an ironic footnote to the failure of earlier Israeli efforts to piece together a surrogate south Lebanese security force, the six still detained - besides the sheikh - were members of a ''national guard,'' set up with Israeli backing, in villages throughout the south.

''How can we supervise our supervisors?'' quips a key political figure in Arabslim.

He and the seven other members of a locally formed ''security committee'' went to see Lahad at his headquarters in Marjayoun after the arrests. The group was received by the general and by Israel's No. 2 military officer in south Lebanon.

Then came the carrot: ''They made it clear to us that the sheikh would be well treated, that he was being held separately and in good quarters. . . . And they gave us to understand they'd genuinely like to release him as promptly as possible, despite their contention that he was involved in violence.''

And then, a mix of carrot and stick: ''As for the future, we were told, 'If you want all in your village to go safely, you should send some people to join the South Lebanon Army.' '' The committee member says the group was told that Lahad would formally ''open the force to volunteers'' in about 20 days.

The idea was financially attractive: A soldier in Lahad's force is paid $300 a month. Salaries were raised this month, partly from Israeli coffers.

Days after the meeting, a Lahad envoy showed up in Arabslim, met with a committee member, and ''asked what we were doing about the request for volunteers.''

At the town's main coffee-and-backgammon mecca, voices young and old argue against joining Lahad.

''What we want,'' says a mustachioed man, ''is the legitimate Lebanese Army from Beirut.'' This force has just been reorganized, shaving the Christians' traditionally dominant role in favor of increased Muslim say.

Another man adds: ''We are all Amal here,'' a reference to the Beirut-based Shiite militia and political group of government minister Nabih Berri. ''If Amal says to join Lahad, we will join. . . .'' Amal officials say this is out of the question.

A member of the town committee is more circumspect. He and others in the south stress that, down here, Amal is more an idea than an organization. ''It simply represents Shiites' rights. That, we all support,'' he says.

As for joining the SLA, the man says the committee will have to meet with the rest of the village. When?

''I think we cannot do anything now until the sheikh comes home. . . . The people will not accept this.''

Few in the south doubt Israel's strategy has better chances for success in villages like Arabslim than in cities like Sidon and Tyre.

Most rural Shiites remain concerned with finding a way to get on with their lives. Indeed, even in the coastal cities, Shiites have quietly adjusted to Israel's complication of south-north travel by increasing imports via either Israel or through Sidon and Tyre, where Lahad's force collects a tax on incoming shipments. Lahad also takes about $165 per truckful of produce heading north across the area's only open south-north crossing.

On the other side of that Israeli-manned checkpoint, the leftist Druze forces collect a similar ''tax.''

Pepsi Cola - not for sale in Israel, since this would automatically trigger boycott regulations in the Arab market - now comes to south Lebanon via the north Israeli port of Haifa. Such imports and the enlistment of Lahad's 20 -percent Shiite contingent are described by a prominent Israeli-allied Christian in the south as evidence of a ''gradual trend toward a more realistic approach by Shiites on the ground.''

But a prominent Amal supporter counters: ''Only by dealing with truly representative Shiites - that is, Amal - can the Israelis ever hope for real stability here.

''For a while, they were talking frequently to Amal representatives in the south. . . . Not any more, as far as I can tell. It seems as if Israel has given up on cooperation with truly representative Shiites. This is a big mistake.''

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