Israelis raid Shiite areas of south Lebanon in effort to halt attacks
Tyre, Israeli-occupied south Lebanon — A week after Israel completed the first stage of its withdrawal from Lebanon, a bitter war of repression and revolt is raging between the Israeli Army and the largely Shiite Muslim population behind the new Israeli front line. Pursuing a new, consciously harsh policy, the Israelis have raided at least 15 Shiite villages -- in one case, beyond the new front line.
In one case they announced they had shot dead eight men whom they said had been trying to escape. The body of a ninth man, shot in the back, was found in the village of Tura.
Such raids are meant to stifle the spate of attacks on Israeli troops and positions. The Israelis blame local Shiite activists for most of the strikes. Israeli officials have said that their ``iron hand'' policy is aimed partly at rooting out the ``terrorists,'' and partly at turning the local population against them. The Israeli Cabinet backed the crackdown on Sunday.
So far, the policy seems to have backfired. In a 24-hour period between Friday and Saturday alone, United Nations observers in the Tyre area reported no fewer than 11 attacks on Israeli positions. Some of the strikes involved light mortars and rocket-propelled grenades as well as small arms fire, UN sources said.
The pattern of the Israeli operation is already established: The Israelis move in, usually just after dawn, with several hundred troops and 20 or more armored vehicles and tanks. Anyone seen trying to run away is shot. All houses are searched while the male population is interrogated. Any house where arms or suspects are found is bulldozed. Several dozen villagers are usually taken away for more questioning. None has yet returned.
Villagers in Bazuriyah described what happened when the Israelis arrived there last Wednesday.
``They came in with tanks and troops, shooting everywhere,'' one said. ``All the men betwen 14 and 60 were taken to the village school for interrogation. They took police dogs into the houses where the women were.''
The village schoolmaster described the scene at the school. ``We were all herded into the courtyard and fenced off with barbed wire,'' he said.
``They brought in some informers, hooded, and carried on chairs so we couldn't recognize them from their gait. The informers stood in the classrooms behind closed doors, looking out through the slats and pointing out suspects among the people in the courtyard. The suspects were taken into other rooms for interrogation. Some of them were beaten and many were taken away.
``When the village sheik tried to explain to the Israelis that they were turning the whole people against them, they shouted at him to get back in line,'' he added. ``The Israelis were weighed down with arms, but they were more frightened of us than we were of them. We laughed at them.''
In this and other villages, the Israelis made no pretense of using kid gloves. Houses were ransacked, furniture turned upside down, foodstuffs mixed and spoiled. In Tura this reporter was shown a bundle of bank notes -- the family savings -- that had been torn in pieces. Other reporters have seen the same phenomenon in other villages.
Because no arms were found in Bazuriyah, the village was let off lightly in comparison to others. Only the gas station was bulldozed. It was opposite where a bomb had gone off three days earlier, killing an Israeli sergeant. Villagers were warned that their houses would be destroyed if any more attacks take place in the area.
In the eastern sector, the village of Arab Salim was less fortunate. It was still sealed off and under curfew Sunday, nearly a week after Israeli Col. Avram Hido was killed in a nearby ambush. He was the Israeli Army's senior liaison officer with the local Israeli-backed militia, the South Lebanon Army (SLA).
``We haven't done anything against the Israelis -- yet,'' one Bazuriyah villager said. ``But they come in here shooting and setting dogs on our women -- isn't that terrorism? They are stirring a revolution against them. Some people here support Amal [the mainstream militant Shiite movement], some support other nationalist parties. But we're all against the Israelis.''
UN force spokesman Timor Goksel also believes Israel's crackdown on the villages may be pouring oil on the flames. ``The further the reprisals against the villages go, the more likely it seems that attacks will escalate. If I know the behavior of the southerners, they will not be subdued,'' he said in an interview.
``The more they're repressed, the more likely it is they'll at least condone attacks on the Israelis, if not actually assist them.
``The attacks on Israelis near the villages are not usually carried out by those villages, but the Israeli reprisals are against that particular location, so this could explain why these villages are getting more radicalized. It's ironic that these same villages were challenging the Palestinians with weapons just before the Israeli invasion. Now they're reacting to the Israelis. They just don't like a foreign presence and being told what to do.''
As the Israeli-Shiite war heats up, the battle lines harden.
Shiites who earlier joined the SLA are leaving it in droves. One Shiite deserter in a village near the border told this reporter: ``It's all over. There is too much shooting. In this village alone, 10 of us have left the SLA. Many of them are joining up with Amal.''
On Saturday, the Amal leader Nabih Berri issued a 15-day ultimatum for SLA men to desert. After that, they will be regarded as beyond the pale.
It is not only the men in uniform who are feeling the pressure. Several civilian informers and local collaborators with the Israelis have been found shot dead near Tyre, too.
But SLA commander Gen. Antoine Lahad, speaking at his headquarters in the Christian town of Marjayoun, seemed unperturbed. ``We have only lost 130 men recently,'' he said.
``We are strong enough to keep order after the Israelis withdraw. When they go, I will keep part of the south, especially the areas which want the SLA to stay.
``I'm not prepared to stay in places where the people are being directed against us, because I don't want to stay by force of arms.
``But the relationship with Israel will continue, and I'm sure that if there are attacks on Israel, the Israelis will be obliged to come in and out, back and forth, and perhaps to keep certain strategic positions in south Lebanon.''
The general's remarks appeared to support the belief of some UN observers that the Israelis will end up falling back on the old border enclave as it was before the invasion, with General Lahad's SLA reduced to a largely Christian force of under 1,000 men, providing political cover for continuing Israeli involvement.
Local sources say the Israelis have already been scouting sites for bases in the enclave.
But with the Shiites now as bitterly angry and hostile as they are, can the Israelis prevent the flames reaching the border itself -- and beyond?