South Lebanon buffer zone

WE strongly support this week's UN Security Council vote -- 14-0, with the United States abstaining -- which calls on Israel to withdraw its troops completely from southern Lebanon. Neutral UN peacekeeping forces would then move in to keep tensions low along the Israeli-Lebanese border. This is a reasonable request. Despite the US abstention, reflecting its steady support of Israel, the UN call is consistent with the longtime US position that foreign troops must leave Lebanese soil and that an independent central Lebanese government must evolve, having authority that reaches to the nation's borders.

Israel, which invaded Lebanon in 1982 to rout Palestinian guerrillas, withdrew its troops under pressure in June 1985. But it never withdrew completely. It continues to deploy about 1,000 of its own soldiers and the South Lebanon Army (SLA), a surrogate Christian force which Israel trains and finances, in an arbitrarily determined three- to 12-mile security zone inside Lebanon.

The UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) -- a nine-nation band of 5,800 troops -- has been relegated to guarding the area north of that zone. It is a tough chore, and UN soldiers have been having a particularly rugged time of it lately.

They have come under almost daily attack from the well-organized and well- financed Iranian-backed Shiite fundamentalist militia known as the Hizbullah, who see the UN forces as sanctioning Israel's existence and blocking their own efforts to attack Israelis and the SLA more directly. French soldiers, who make up the majority of the UN contingent and whose nation strongly supports Iraq in the Gulf war, have been particularly hard hit in recent assaults.

Israel, which views the UN attacks as largely the result of internal struggles between radical and moderate Shiites, made it clear long before the expected Security Council vote that it has no intention of scotching the buffer zone and pulling its troops back. Israel says it needs the security zone for protection and that, without the Israeli presence there, UN troops would be even more vulnerable than they are now.

If UN troops go, Israel has plans to fill the gap rather than let Palestinians and Muslims move in. Indeed, Israel shows every sign of taking the offensive with respect to protection of its northern border. This week Israeli jets in a ``defensive'' action bombed Palestinian targets in four villages east of Beirut. Further raids against radical Shiite militia in southern Lebanon are also contemplated.

In a report to the Security Council last week, UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar argued that the world body should consider withdrawing UN troops if the Israelis do not pull back. While one can understand the frustration behind that suggestion, a UN pullout at this point would seem a mistake.

What is needed, however, is a global strengthening and bolstering of the UN peacekeeping concept. Security efforts such as the recent deployment of French soldiers to less exposed positions should be stepped up. So, too, should global diplomatic and financial support. Both the US and the Soviet Union are among those who at times have not paid their share of the admittedly costly $140 million-a-year upkeep of UNIFIL. And the recent demonstration of support for UN troops by moderate Amal Shiites could afford to be duplicated elsewhere.

In the meantime, Israel should heed the UN's call for cooperation. Responsive action could serve the interests of Israel as well as of the UN: Prolonged occupation of another country in one's own defense can only deepen antagonism. Israel's withdrawal is widely viewed as the only possible way to secure the support of all Lebanese for the UN effort. There is still time for a change in policy. The Secretary-General set a deadline of 21 days for a progress report.

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