South Lebanon: after the Israeli withdrawal

THREE years after its invasion of Lebanon, Israel completed the third phase of its troop withdrawal from south Lebanon. Although Lebanon presumably will continue to be the scene for bloody turmoil as sectarian militias struggle to tilt an unsteady balance of power, it now seems possible that south Lebanon finally may enjoy a modest ration of peace. Whether this possibility will be realized will not only depend on factors internal to Lebanon but also on the wisdom and the intentions of policymakers in Israel and Syria. Unlike the period before the 1982 Israeli invasion, when the PLO enjoyed dominance in the south, the Shiite political movement-cum-militia, known as Amal, is now the most effective force in the area. As Israeli forces have withdrawn from the area, Amal militiamen have filled the void. Although more radical Shiite elements are present as well, they are being overshadowed by the well organized and centrist Amal movement. The Shiites of the south have amply demonstrated that they will no longer tolerate their subjugation by external forces, whether Palestinian or Israeli, and they have the unique distinction of having fought and resisted both parties.

In the period preceding the Israeli invasion, major battles between the Shiites and the Palestinian guerrillas raged near Beirut as well as the south, and Amal's recent brutal assaults on Palestinian camps in the Beirut area and in south Lebanon may be seen as a resumption of the earlier fighting, intended to prevent the reestablishment of PLO military power. While the fighting near Beirut has gathered most of the headlines, Amal has concurrently acted with firmness in the south to remind the Palestinians resident in the area that an armed presence will not be tolerated. Much is uncertain about future developments in Lebanon, but it is obvious that the PLO has few allies left in Lebanon.

In an interesting case of shared interests between belligerents, Syria and Israel both have good reason to applaud the PLO's plight. The PLO can expect to continue to encounter a vicious response if it attempts to reestablish itself in Lebanon.

For much of the time that it occupied south Lebanon, Israel attempted to create an infrastructure of pliant militia forces to help protect its northern border, but the effort failed. Amal will continue its campaign against vestiges of the occupation. Most knowledgeable observers expect the Israeli-sponsored militia of Gen. Antoine Lahad, a small and predominately Christian force, to shrink slowly until it adopts a more natural pattern of deployment in the Christian villages and towns scattered along Israel's northern border. So long as the Lahad militia attempts to extend itself beyond its natural orbit, it will be opposed by Amal. But unless Israel is willing to commit significant resources to buttress the militia, we can expect its transition to a more modest role to occur with relative rapidity.

UNIFIL, the United Nations force which has been deployed in the south since 1978, will continue to serve a useful if limited role in maintaining the security of the south. Although underequipped and not permitted to play a decisive role as a peacemaker, UNIFIL makes a contribution that should not be underestimated.

Despite the withdrawal of its Army units, Israel will attempt to maintain a security zone north of its border. This means that Israeli intelligence officers and agents will continue to operate in the area, and the border will continue to be porous to Israeli military forces. In such circumstances, UNIFIL may serve as a de facto buffer force between Amal and the Israelis. Amal has consistently supported UNIFIL as a force for Lebanese legitimacy, and its attitude is not likely to change.

The Syrian attitude toward Amal supremacy in the south is positive. The Amal leadership has opted for the Syrian card, and unlike their more radical colleagues in HizbAllah (the Party of God) the Amalists seem to well understand that politics is the pursuit of the possible not the ideal. The relationship with Syria will have its tenuous moments, but Damascus and Amal share more interests than they differ on, especially with respect to precluding a PLO return to a south Lebanon outside of the control of Damascus.

Undoubtedly there will be occasional cross-border attacks from Lebanon into Israel. It is just not possible to preclude all such incidents. However, the vast preponderance of the people of the south are not diehard opponents of Israel, and it is very important that Israeli leaders not react spasmodically to an occasional rocket attack or incursion. Throughout its occupation of the south, Israel learned that overreaction may well create more enemies than it destroys, and the lesson must be remembered. Instead of immediate retaliation, it may often prove wiser to announce that Israel will respond when it chooses, so as not to harm those in the south dedicated to maintaining peace.

Many have had difficulty understanding that Israel must pursue a strategy of tacit alliance with responsible forces in south Lebanon, and by definition that means an unspoken but understood alliance, in which actions take the place of words.

If the latter definition is remembered by all concerned, the south indeed may hold the spark of civility and peace for Lebanon.

Augustus Richard Norton is associate professor of comparative politics at the US Military Academy. The views expressed are his own.

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