Israel-Lebanon: It's a 'kids' war' on both sides

The children's war had slackened, despite the rumors of Israeli tanks and Palestinian artillery moves. For a few brief hours, there was peace, and hot tea, and talk.

That peace was not to last.

On the evening of Feb. 1, as on many recent evenings, the sound of shelling thudded intermittently amid the rolling hills near Lebanon's southern frontier. Palestinian guerrilla youths and teen-aged Lebanese Christians (armed and supported by neighboring Israel) were back at the trigger.

But for the time being at least, no one could locate the dozens of Israeli tanks, which, the Lebanese media suggested, had been streaming into Christian militia territory in preparation for all-out war.

Nor could three other Western reporters and myself find signs of what the Israeli newspaper Maariv had termed the "seizure," by Palestinian "army units equipped with artillery," of a Mediterranean coastal strip south from Beirut toward the Israeli border.

The Syrian-dominated Palestinian army troops -- not to be confused with Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization -- had indeed taken over coastal positions ceded in a sudden January withdrawal by regular Syrian troops.

But it was the most serene of "seizures." The Palestinian army roadblocks were not visibly backed by artillery. The checkpoint crews eschewed even perfunctory identification checks of southward- bound autos. Some sipped tea.

And closer to the Israeli frontier, the roadblocks were manned by smooth-faced youngsters from the small, leftist Lebanese Arab army, allied with the Palestinians. One who held a rifle by its barrel, was clearly only 12 or 13 years old, but did his best to look older by glaring silently as automobiles slowed at his checkpoint.

There was no artillery, no words, in fact.

Still closer to Israel we came to the area controlled by right-wing Christians. The Israeli-backed youngsters looked a little older -- maybe 18 or so. And they talked. "Where are you from?" one asked of a Lebanese Muslim attached to the United Nations peace-keeping force in the south.

"The UN," the official replied uneasily.

"But where in Lebanon?" came the curt militia demand.

A French UN officer fortuitously drove by. "The Lebanese official is with us. So are the reporters," he said, and the teenaged gunman grunted an OK.

Then we came to Israel itself -- which, in perhaps the most graphic denial of the war scare, let the reporters cross the border in what one Israeli official said was the first such instance he knew of since Israel's stormy birth three decades ago.

"What's going on over there?" asked one Israeli official, motioning from the ridge-top border post up the south Lebanese coast. He, like just about everyone else except the rival Arab-Israeli press, seemed genuinely baffled.

So did a young American girl who moved to Israel from Oklahoma about a decade ago, and was now halfway through her mandatory two-year Israeli military service.

Intrigued by her meeting with a Beirut- based reporter, she asked quietly: "What do you think of the conflict here? What are the [guerrilla] Palestinians like, anyway?

"It's so hard for me to grasp. You see, I've never really met one."

Officials from the 6,000-man UN force, sandwiched among the rival forces in southern Lebanon, would answer in just about the same way as any longtime observer of the area.

"They are like the Israeli girl," said one official at the cluster of squat white buildings that serves as UN just inside Lebanon from the Israeli post. "They are kids."

The commanders, of course, are older. So are the Israeli "advisers" who shuttle in and out of the five-mile border strip effectively controlled by the Christian militia forces. So are some of the Palestinians, grizzled veterans of the 1970 civil war in Jordan and the 1970-76 civil strife in Lebanon.

But many, indeed, are "kids."

The Arab-Israeli battle -- and its south Lebanese spinoff -- is an old conflict waged by young warriors.

That, said the peace-keeping official is part of the tragedy: "This is mostly a children's war, with kids given the power of a gun."

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