The siege of Beirut -- and the reluctant Israeli colonel

Col. Eli Geva was a very special Israeli soldier. At 32 the youngest brigade commander in Israeli Army history, he led the armored brigade that captured the Lebanese city of Tyre and was first to reach Beirut.

His chief of staff, Raphael Eitan, called him one of the most, if not the most, outstanding officers of the war. He seemed assured of a brilliant career.

But Eli Geva resigned his post this week rather than be forced by conscience to disobey orders to attack Beirut if such orders had come.

''I don't have the heart to look bereaved parents in the eye and tell them their sons died in an operation I felt was unnecessary,'' Geva reportedly told his superiors.

Political observers here doubt Geva's move will directly affect either Israeli Army morale or the government's final decision on entering Beirut. But they add that such a dramatic act, coming when most Israelis believe an invasion of Beirut is inevitable, will spark a heated debate within the government, the Army, and the public.

Eli Geva's odyssey of conscience reflects in many ways the progress of debate in Israel over the war in Lebanon. Colonel Geva was no dove. His father, a reserve general of German origin, served in every Israeli war except 1967, when he was defense attache at Israel's embassy in Washington. Geva's brother was severely wounded fighting in the 1973 October war.

After receiving a university degree in economics, ''all his adulthood was spent in the Army,'' says his father, Yosef. Acquaintances say Eli Geva was always best at everything, very brave and loved by his soldiers.

Geva was not opposed to the initial stages of Operation Peace for Galilee and agreed that the Palestine Liberation Organization had to be destroyed. His crisis of conscience occurred when he was faced with attacking Beirut - a move that seemed imminent on several occasions in recent weeks.

The young officer felt the risks to Israeli soldiers and Lebanese civilians were prohibitive. He preferred a solution whereby the PLO would be forced by diplomatic means to leave Beirut for Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, where Israel could, if necessary, strike at them later.

He told this to General Eitan, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, and even Prime Minister Menachem Begin, all of whom failed to persuade him to stay at his post. General Eitan agreed to reassign him. But Prime Minister Begin insisted on his dismissal. He will soon leave the Army, but is not yet free to talk.

Debate is nothing new in Israel's unique citizen army, where almost every adult male - reflecting the entire political and social spectrum - does several weeks of annual reserve duty following a mandatory three-year stint. ''Even in 1948,'' reflected Eli's father, ''soldiers on the front line with Egypt argued over Menachem Begin's ETZL fighters refusing to obey the Haganah (fledging Israeli Army).''

But in past wars heavy debate has usually waited until after battle. Nor has the need for the conflict been challenged. This war, however, has spawned a plethora, a group of demobilized soldiers - admittedly a small minority - protesting what they see as unclear aims and tactics. Like Geva, they come mainly from elite units and most of them are of European ancestry.

Most of the ex-soldier protestors have insisted that if recalled they would serve again at the front, a position in keeping with the historic, rarely questioned role of the Army in Israeli society as protector of the state's very existence. Eli Geva went beyond this in resigning his command.

Geva's family supports him - ''I love my son,'' his father said - but among his friends, reaction is mixed. An acquaintence said, ''It is very complicated. I admire his bravery. But what he did is bad for us because it makes Arafat healthy.''

Geva's action has also stirred emotions within the military. Some express admiration, others anger. Former Chief of Staff Haim Bar-Lev insisted that Israel cannot afford to let individuals choose their missions. Retired Col. Meir Pail, a well-known leftist opponent of the war said, ''I know there are many officers who are eating themselves up over this war, and Geva's outburst is an expression of this moral distress.'' He estimated Colonel Geva's conviction was shared by about 15 percent of Army officers.

Few here expect Geva's action to have any direct impact on military performance. ''In Israel it is one thing for a soldier to have opinions, but this does not affect performance on the battlefield,'' says Mordechai Bar-on, a retired military officer active in Peace Now, an antiwar group that includes many reserve officers. Nor does Bar-on expect other officers to follow Geva's course, said to be unique in the history of the Israeli Army. ''Resignation takes a special personality and courage,'' he said.

But such a loss of one of Israel's best and brightest has surely sent a tremor through the political establishment. A former military officer says, ''It highlights the severe burden of responsibility upon the government if it OKs a move into Beirut.''

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