Hostages: American and Shiite

THE TWA hijacking has produced some notable posturing and hypocrisy. The seizure of the plane and the hostages, and especially the murder of one of them, are condemned on all sides including the Shiite leaders of Lebanon. Yet Nabih Berri, the commander of Amal, who took control from the more militant original hijackers, is seeking to negotiate the release of more than 700 Lebanese held by Israel in exchange for the freeing of the TWA hostages. On our side the official position of the United States (and of Israel) is that there is ``no connection'' between the hostages and the Israeli captives. The reality is quite different. In truth, they are closely linked through the disastrous policies of Israel and the US in Lebanon since the Israeli invasion of June 1982.

Those policies have converted the Shiites in Lebanon into bitter enemies. In 1982, they welcomed the Israelis as liberators from the PLO guerrillas. The larger goal of Israel's then-government, to decapitate the PLO in order to facilitate absorbing the occupied West Bank, did not concern them until it led to the merciless attack on Beirut and widespread devastation.

But the second Israeli aim -- to impose on Lebanon a Maronite Christian regime subject to Israeli influence or dominance -- did conflict directly with Shiite interests and aspirations. They have long been underdogs, but now with nearly half the population of Lebanon, they are determined to get a greater political role and reject Maronite dominance. Inevitably the Israeli objective and the extended occupation by its forces alienated them. Thus they turned to guerrilla resistance and harassment to compel the withdrawal of the Israeli Defense Forces.

The Israelis' response was the ruthless ``Iron Fist'' policy of raiding Shiite villages with armored units. They forced the men out of their homes, killed some, and arrested and carried off many others. They bulldozed and blew up houses and destroyed furniture, cattle, and other property. The purpose was clear -- to terrorize the Shiite population in order to deter guerrilla action against the IDF or future attacks on Israel or in the border area of Lebanon, which Israel intends to control indefinitely with the help of its proxy force, the South Lebanon Army, which it trains, arms, funds, and supervises.

The intent to mold these captives as hostages became crystal clear in April, when Israel moved some 1,200 or more of them to Israel. At that time the State Department stated that this action violated the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention against removal of civilians by an occupying power. But the US did nothing about it. Last week, however, the President and Secretary of State George Shultz reaffirmed this position unequivocally.

In essence, therefore, Israel is holding more than 700 Lebanese, mostly Shiites, as hostages to coerce compliant behavior in Lebanon. They are not prisoners of war. They are not charged with crimes. While Israel has earlier released several hundred, and may have planned to free more before the TWA hijacking, Israeli leaders have explicitly stated that such release depends on conditions in southern Lebanon.

It is hardly surprising that the Shiites and other Lebanese consider the US an essential accomplice of Israel. As they see it, Israel's ability to ravage Lebanon depended on US support and acquiescence. During this period US aid to Israel has risen from about $2.5 billion a year to some $4-$5 billion. The weapons used by the IDF were supplied by the US, which disregarded Israel's formal commitment to use them only for self-defense. The US vetoed any UN resolutions that imposed sanctions to restrain Israel, as well as one condemning the ``Iron Fist'' raids. And US naval guns shelled Muslim positions near Beirut in support of the Gemayel regime.

Thus the US cannot treat the 700 Lebanese prisoners as solely Israel's concern. It has declared that their retention is illegal. So, obviously, is the holding of the TWA hostages by the Amal. The US should explicitly call on both parties to end their illegal detention forthwith. Israel has said it would comply with such a request. If it does, Berri has promised to release the hostages.

Such action would not be caving in to the hijackers. Israel has already made this point in releasing 31 of its prisoners. Complying with the law is not capitulation; it is conforming to a basic principle of a civilized society. And it therefore provides no precedent for yielding to other, illegitimate demands. Effective protection against terrorism and hijacking depends primarily on better safeguards and precautionary measures and, if possible, on tracking down and punishing specific perpetrators.

The US should act promptly. Temporizing only increases the risk of having the hostages caught up in rivalries among Shiite factions. And if Berri is not able to deliver all the hostages, it is better to know that now so that we may shape our course accordingly.

Robert R. Bowie has been concerned with foreign affairs for nearly 40 years on the Harvard faculty, in government posts, and as a consultant.

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