Israeli Army breaks ranks over its role in Lebanon fighting
Beirut — When Samia Khalidi found her apartment in west Beirut smashed and looted by Israeli soldiers, she stopped an Israeli officer on the premises and urged him to explain.
''Don't take this as an apology,'' Mrs. Khalidi recalled a serious young officer's reply, ''but this is the soldiers' way of relieving the pressures of the past four months.''
Israel's invasion of Lebanon has been a different and difficult war for the Israeli Army. The difficulties have not been military.
The war's length (the longest for Israel yet - four months), its venture into urban fighting, and its culmination in the Beirut massacre of Palestinian civilians by Christian militiamen allied to Israel have roused unprecedented public controversy in Israel's military ranks.
This dissatisfaction has climaxed in a head-on confrontation between senior army personnel and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon in which officers reportedly have called for his resignation.
The BBC Monday reported on two meetings of top army commanders, brigadier and major generals, including Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan. At the first meeting on Sept. 24, said respected Jerusalem correspondent Michael Elkins, the officers leveled exceptionally severe criticism at Mr. Sharon and the great majority asked for his resignation.
At the second meeting on Sept. 28, said Mr. Elkins, when Sharon demanded to be confronted face to face, the officers were somewhat calmer but repeated the call for him to resign. Sharon reportedly charged that it was intolerable for officers to call for a minister to resign in a democracy. Israeli Army spokemen have acknowledged the meetings took place but deny that Sharon was asked to resign.
The officers' principal concern was that the government would try to put the blame for the Beirut massacre on the army, which Sharon reportedly denied would happen.
Free debate within the Israeli Army has always existed and been encouraged. A senior commander publicly defended the right of disgruntled soldiers to demonstrate during the invasion of Lebanon. After the l973 war there was a celebrated ''war of the generals'' in which leading military men including Sharon debated the military preparedness of the Israeli Army. However, the officers involved were already out of uniform.
What is new in this war is the public debate and press coverage of internal military dissension while a war is still in progress. This reflects to a great extent the enormous barrier of distrust that has been building between senior military staff and Sharon since the beginning of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
This distrust was built up over several issues.
* Many officers believed they were lied to during the war's early days about the objectives of the campaign. Several officers of the Israeli Defense Forces told the Monitor that Israeli claims of attacks by Syrian forces, which provided the justification for Israeli advances toward Beirut, were false. They say their units had already advanced past the locales where nonexistent Syrian attacks were supposed to be taking place. These officers claimed such dishonesty undermined the basis of confidence on which the Israeli Army traditionally operated. They subsequently founded a protest group of demobilized reserve soldiers called ''soldiers against silence,'' which called for Sharon's dismissal.
* While most Israelis accept the need for Israel to push Palestinian guerrillas out of artillery range of Israeli towns and cities, many questioned the need for pressing on to Beirut, and entering west Beirut. On this issue, Col. Eli Geva, a promising young officer, resigned.
* Sharon's role in permitting Christian militiamen to enter Palestinian refugee camps was the final straw. Throughout the Lebanon campaign, international reproach was showered on Israel for the killing of Lebanese civilians during fighting. But Israeli soldiers insisted that as individuals they took every precaution to avoid such killings. Thus Sharon's decision, following a warning by senior field officers that such a massacre could happen, is seen as blackening the army's honor.
Until the massacre, military protests, usually by demobilized reservists, have usually stressed that protesters would serve in Lebanon again if called. This is in keeping with the army's special role in Israeli society. But since the massacre, 1,000 reservists signed a petition refusing to serve in Lebanon.
Sharon also told the Israeli parliament that he had decided not to mobilize a brigade of reservists because of known dissension in their ranks. On Monday it was announced that Daniel Timmerman, son of renowned Argentinian dissident and emigrant to Israel Jacobo Timmerman, has gone to prison rather than do reserve duty in Lebanon.
The length of this war and its extension into west Beirut have produced another phenomenon that may cause further army unrest and public unease when it becomes more widely known inside Israel: Israeli troops in west Beirut allegedly engaged in significant amounts of looting.
However, local Lebanese point out that they have gone through several years of looting by Syrian, Palestinian, and other armed bands prowling the city that surpassed what they saw from the Israelis.
Incidents of looting by Israeli soldiers cited to this reporter include equipment taken from Barbir hospital, the entire Middle East Airlines (MEA) computer system, six minibuses and four Land Rovers from MEA, refrigerators, radios and other items from Beirut international airport, two television sets, a radio, cassettes, money and clothes from Xavier Baron, the bureau chief of the Agence-France Presse news agency.
Fifty such incidents were reported to one police station in a middle class section of west Beirut.
An Israeli military spokesman in Tel Aviv said the army was investigating reports of looting. During the first months of the invasion soldiers' vehicles were strictly checked for contraband when reentering Israel. But there is speculation here that the extended length of the war, plus Israeli soldiers' exposure to an occupied city full of consumer goods, overcame army discipline.
As such behavior becomes known, army morale can be expected to be affected further. As for the future of Defense Minister Sharon, he still commands strong public support inside Israel and also the respect of many ordinary soldiers. But whether he stays or goes, the unrest and misconduct bred by a continuing war in Lebanon has given many Israelis strong motivation to seek withdrawal of the country's troops as soon as politically feasible.