Israel seems eager to repair damage caused during its six-day sweep of south Lebanon in search of two soldiers captured by Shiite Muslims. There is concern in military and political echelons here that the extensive search by thousands of soldiers may have undermined the Shiite Amal organization and enhanced the prestige of Hizbullah. Hizbullah is a more radical, Iranian-backed Shiite group that rivals Amal for control of the mostly-Shiite south.
An active Israeli military presence in south Lebanon outside Israel's so-called security zone provokes strong opposition from Shiites and tends to strengthen radical groups such as Hizbullah.
Israel believes it can work informally with Amal to maintain peace in the south, because Amal is a grass-roots organization that fears that attacks against Israel will only result in retaliation against Shiite villagers. Israel's assessment of Hizbullah is that it is a radical, fundamentalist organization bent on exporting the Iranian revolution to Lebanon and on attacking Israel.
The Israelis ended their six-day search of 20 villages in south Lebanon Saturday when it became clear that the captured soldiers would not be found and that Hizbullah would benefit from a prolonged stay, Army sources said.
``Hizbullah would have liked for us to stay another 10 days,'' said one source. ``The withdrawal really pulled the rug out from under Hizbullah.''
The organization had started enlisting new recruits in the port city of Tyre, which is controlled by Amal, before the Israelis withdrew their forces.
Should Hizbullah gain the upper hand over Amal in the south, Israeli officials say, the results could be devastating for Israel. The fragile balance that has allowed Israel to maintain its self-proclaimed ``security zone'' above the border and keep northern Israel free from attack would be shattered. Israel could again be sucked into Lebanon's anarchy.
Over the weekend, Israel began releasing groups of Shiites from among the estimated 150 it arrested during the search. Sources in the United Nations Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) said that Israel is believed to be still holding 70 Shiites. An Army spokesman would not confirm the number held, but said they are not being held in Israel and that those detained are believed to be Hizbullah members.
The captured Hizbullah members, one source said, may be used as bargaining chips in any future negotiations for the return of the captured Israelis.
What worries Israel is that no concrete demands have yet been made by the soldiers' captors. The Israelis believe that at least one of the two soldiers is dead, according to informed sources. The Israelis say they have three reasons for this suspicion: evidence collected where the two soldiers were captured; information garnered during the Army search; and the fact that no demands have been issued.
An Army spokesman said special police units normally used to investigate murder scenes were brought to the site of the ambush in the early stages of the search. The soldiers were captured Feb. 17 while driving in the northern end of the security zone. Military sources said Israel had been warned by UNIFIL and through its own informers a week before the ambush that an attempt would be made to kidnap soldiers and that steps had been taken to guard against attack.
Two Lebanese, whom the Israelis captured during the first days of the search and who the Israelis say were involved in the ambush, allegedly reconstructed the attack. Their account revealed that the ambush had been well-planned and rehearsed, the Army spokesman says.
There were three teams of Shiites: one that shelled the convoy, one that kidnapped the soldiers, and a third that operated a command post above the site and kept in radio contact with the other two teams during the operation. The ambush showed a degree of sophistication that Israel had not experienced before in attacks on the security zone, the spokesman said.
Investigators determined that both soldiers had been hit by bullets during the ambush, before they were dragged from their car by the abductors. The blood-stained skullcap and glasses of one soldier were found near the scene.
Because both soldiers were wounded, the military believes that if they are still alive they probably are being held in Beirut, Tyre, or the Bekaa Valley, where they would be able to receive medical attention. The Army is now relying on intelligence reports to locate the soldiers.
Yesterday an Army spokesman repeated Israel's denial that any Israeli soldiers or members of the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army (SLA) militia had tortured villagers during the search.
Reporters in Lebanon said Sunday that they had interviewed five men from the village of Shaqra who were being treated for wounds at a hospital. The men said they had been tortured during interrogation sessions with the SLA on Friday, the day before Israel ended its search.
UNIFIL sources said they were investigating the incident, and that seven Shaqra villagers were being treated in the Tibnine hospital. That the men had been tortured ``nobody can deny,'' said one UNIFIL source, adding that UNIFIL does not know yet what happened in Shaqra. The Israeli Army kept UNIFIL soldiers out of the village during its questioning of hundreds of villagers, the source said.
An Army spokesman ``flatly denied'' that either Israeli Army soldiers or SLA soldiers tortured anyone in the village during the search. But the spokesman said he could not dismiss the possibility that Lebanese connected with the SLA who were not in uniform could have entered the village after Israeli and SLA troops withdrew and abused villagers in an effort to ``settle personal scores.'' But the spokesman insisted that Israeli soldiers had been under strict orders to maintain discipline during the searches.