Israel has called off its massive search of south Lebanon, convinced that it would not find the two Israeli soldiers captured a week ago by Shiite Muslims. A primary reason for the weekend withdrawal, according to Israeli officials, was the mounting resistance to the search by local Lebanese Shiites.
Israel appeared worried by reports that an Iranian official visited the south and urged members of the Shiite fundamentalist, Iranian-backed Hizbullah to boost resistance to the search, and by the increased presence of Hizbullah activists in Tyre, which is run by the more mainstream Shiite Amal organization.
The Israelis searched some 200 square miles, questioned thousands of villagers, most of them Shiite, and took between 80 and 150 men prisoner. The Army uncovered caches of arms, demolished homes of people suspected of ``hostile activity,'' and engaged in firefights with Shiite resisters. Two Israeli soldiers were killed during the operation. As many as 10 Lebanese were reported killed.
The operation started out as a desperate effort to avoid having to negotiate with the Hizbullah, which Israel believes is holding the two soldiers. Officials here are still sensitive to the idea of a prisoner exchange. The government was lambasted last year for trading 1,050 Palestinian prisoners for three soldiers captured during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
The search operation for the two soldiers captured Feb. 17 was launched 15 minutes after they were taken prisoner when their convoy was ambushed in Israel's self-proclaimed ``security zone.''
By the fifth day of searching, an Israeli Army spokesman said, it became clear to the Israeli high command that ``either we're having another round of the Lebanon war or we pull out.''
Uri Lubrani, coordinator of activities in Lebanon for the government, said in an interview on Israel Radio that the local Shiites were beginning to doubt whether the Army would withdraw and were gearing up to launch attacks on the Army.
Israel Radio reported that several Katyusha rockets were fired into northern Israel from south Lebanon Friday and Saturday nights. No one was injured by the rockets, but on Sunday Israeli forces and members of the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army (SLA) militia reportedly shelled the areas from where the rockets were believed to have been fired.
Thirteen months ago, the Israeli government decided to withdraw from South Lebanon, ending a three-year occupation that began with the June 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The government's decision to withdraw came in the face of mounting attacks on Israeli soldiers by local Shiites and other attackers in the south.
Most Israeli forces had withdrawn from Lebanon by last June, but a contingent of several hundred men remain in Israel's security zone.
Contrary to predictions by Israeli and Western analysts last June, the security zone has functioned better than expected, from Israel's viewpoint. Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin says that the zone, patrolled by a patchwork of Israeli-paid militias that function loosely under the SLA, helps prevent terrorist infiltration into Israel and rockets from hitting population centers. Mr. Rabin has said that despite the capture of the two soldiers, the concept of the zone is still valid.
There was widespread support in Israel for the search effort in its early days, but as its scope increased and the chances of finding the soldiers waned, there were warnings from academics, editorialists, and former intelligence officers that the search could destabilize the volatile south and enmesh Israel again in Lebanon.
Intelligence sources said the Israelis will now concentrate on intelligence and diplomacy to locate the soldiers. No clear demands have been made by the kidnappers, though an anonymous phone-caller to a Beirut newspaper said that Hizbullah wanted some 300-400 prisoners held by the SLA released and wanted Israel to pull out of the security zone.
``There could now be a very lengthy period in which Shiite extremists will try to put pressure on Israel to gain the release of the Shiite prisoners,'' said Prof. Ariel Merari, an expert on terrorism at Tel Aviv University.
Public opinion will be against an exchange of hundreds of prisoners for the two soldiers, Professor Merari predicted, referring to the public outcry last spring over the release of 1,050 convicted Palestinians. That move is now acknowledged by many government officials to have been a mistake, although at the time only one Cabinet minister abstained from voting for it.
Merari said that he does not rule out the possiblity of a rescue attempt by the Army if the two soldiers could be located. Israel has a vested interest, he said, in turning around the impression of weakness it created by exchanging so many prisoners for three soldiers last year.
``I would give the active measures a try first, at least,'' Merari said.