Israel's choice in Lebanon: pullback or 'war of attrition'?

Israeli political and military leaders are growing increasingly concerned about the rising number of Israeli military casualties in Lebanon. With tension subsiding over the danger of imminent war with Syria following the end of Syrian military maneuvers on the Golan Heights and in eastern Lebanon , public attention has focused on the frequent hit-and-run attacks on Israeli soldiers in Lebanon by armed Palestinian and Lebanese irregulars.

The casualty statistics are putting pressure on the government to pull back Israeli forces unilaterally - even if Syrian objections block the implementation of the Israel-Lebanon agreement on Israeli troop withdrawals from Lebanon.

In May, seven Israeli soldiers were killed in Lebanon in 60 separate attacks, several of them during the past week. This brings the total to 145 dead along with 368 wounded (including 76 fatalities in an explosion in an Israeli military headquarters in Tyre, south Lebanon) since the exit of the Palestine Liberation Organization from Beirut last September. Another 345 Israeli soldiers were killed during the actual invasion of Lebanon.

The independent Israeli daily Ma'ariv wrote on Tuesday, ''There is only one suitable name for what is now going on in Lebanon: a war of attrition . . . despite all the official Israeli proclamations over the years that we will not permit an enemy to force us into such a war. . . .''

Prime Minister Menachem Begin has discussed the rising casualty toll in recent days with Defense Minister Moshe Arens and with opposition Labor Party leaders. He was said to have been deeply affected personally by the deaths early this week of two sergeants when their jeep was ambushed in central Lebanon by unidentified men in a speeding car.

But the Israelis are in a difficult bind when it comes to stopping such attacks.

Many of the attackers, referred to as ''terrorists'' by the Israelis, are believed to have infiltrated from behind the Syrian side of the cease-fire line. They include members of various factions of the PLO; Lebanese leftists, including members of the pro-Syrian Druze sect militia led by Walid Jumblatt; and factions of the Lebanese Muslim Shiite militia known as Amal.

Israeli military sources insist the Syrians could prevent most of the infiltration if they so desired. But, say these sources, the Syrians want to provoke an Israeli military response that would place the blame for instigating open hostilities on Israel.

Defense Minister Arens has insisted publicly that Syria will not be allowed to dictate the terms of hostility.

''The fact we are not responding in military terms doesn't mean that this will be our policy in the future,'' says one Israeli military source. ''We are restraining ourselves to keep the situation stable. But we have various military options and they don't have to be symmetrical to the attacks in location or in scope.''

In reality, Israeli military options are hindered by political considerations. Notes Ma'ariv, ''The traditional Israeli response was to assign responsibility to whoever provided the cover (for infiltrators) and to retaliatory action against them. In the current circumstances and in light of the tension between us and the Syrians, it is hard to imagine such a response. It would likely be the spark which would ignite the powder keg.''

Any military conflict between Israel and the Syrians takes on the extra dimension of risking involvement in some form of Syria's increasingly close ally , the Soviet Union.

Another Israeli alternative, one that opposition groups are beginning to clamor for, is for Israel to set a deadline for Syrian acceptance of its treaty with Lebanon, and if this fails, to redeploy unilaterally to safer and more limited lines inside Lebanon.

But Israel is constricted in this move by consideration for American policy. The United States still hopes that the Syrians will ultimately come around. A unilateral Israeli pullback would virtually concede the partition of Lebanon between Israel and Syria, thus rendering obsolete the US-engineered Israel-Lebanon accord.

Moreover, it would provide the Syrians and the PLO with the opportunity to move back into Lebanon's central mountainous Shouf area - a scene of vicious Lebanese inter-ethnic conflict from which Israel would dearly like to withdraw - unless the Americans or other nations were willing to send in more multinational peacekeeping troops.

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