Israel's self-declared ``security zone'' in south Lebanon is threatening to drag Israel into the very conflict it sought to avoid by setting up the buffer strip last year. A wave of attacks by Shiite Muslim guerrillas on Israel's militia ally in the zone, the South Lebanon Army (SLA), brought a massing of Israeli troops and armor on the Lebanese border early last week and Israeli pledges of full support for the beleaguered force. Israeli troop detachments were dispatached to bolster the SLA and the militia's front-line fortifications were strengthened.
The recent events have raised concern here that Israeli forces could be dragged into another costly invasion and occupation of Lebanon, similar to the three-year occupation from which Israel extricated itself in June 1985. However, Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin is known to be opposed to a reoccupation. He told Israeli legislators Sept. 24 that the security zone would not be expanded.
The Shiite attacks during recent weeks appear designed to bring about the disintegration of the SLA and the collapse of the security zone, which has been patrolled by the militia and several hundred Israeli troops since the Israeli pullout from Lebanon last year. Israel set up the zone as an alternative to full-scale occupation and as a means to distance anti-Israeli guerrillas from Israel's northern border.
Rabin has blamed the radical Iranian-backed Hizbullah (Party of God) and also the mainstream Shiite Amal movement for the attacks. He claimed Iran was orchestrating the Shiite offensive with support from Syria.
Israeli news reports said the Hizbullah guerrillas have been trained by Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, and that some of the Iranians may have joined Hizbullah reinforcements who rushed south to join the fighting.
Rabin has warned of Israeli reprisals against the Shiite guerrillas. In a show of support for the SLA, he visited its frontline positions last week and said he was confident the force could hold its own.
The signs of Israeli troop movements brought a sharp response from Syrian President Hafez Assad, who was quoted last week as saying an Israeli invasion would be met with ``stunning retaliation.'' Shiite guerrilla bases throughout south Lebanon were reported to be on high alert.
By midweek, however, Israeli officials appeared to be making concerted efforts to defuse the tension at the border. The masses of Israeli troops appeared to have dispersed, though it was unclear whether they had all moved back or if some had gone into Lebanon. Prime Minister Shimon Peres said he believed the tension was subsiding, and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir said Israel had no plans to invade Lebanon.
The calculated scaling down of tension did not, however, prevent Israel from pursuing its ongoing war against Palestinian guerrillas in Lebanon last week. Israeli jets struck two guerrilla bases in hills east of Beirut Sept. 23. A military spokesman said the bases had served as launching points for attacks on Israel.
The airstrike, Israel's 10th this year, did not appear to have any immediate repercussions on the situation at the border.
Israel's continued presence in south Lebanon also came under fire at the United Nations last week. UN peacekeeping troops, known as UNIFIL, have become an additional target of repeated attacks by Shiite militiamen. A wave of recent assaults, mainly against UNIFIL's French contingent, prompted charges at the UN that Israel's continued presence in south Lebanon had led to the rise in Shiite attacks.
A report by UN Undersecretary-General Marrack Golding said that ``Israel's continuing occupation'' and the SLA's behavior had provoked armed resistance and put UN troops at risk. UN Secretary General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar called on Israel Sept. 19 to withdraw completely from Lebanon and to allow UN troops to deploy all the way to the Israeli-Lebanese border.
Israeli officials rejected UN charges and said the attacks on UNIFIL were the acts of anti-Western extremists and unconnected to Israel's presence in south Lebanon. They said Israel was opposed to a UNIFIL deployment up to the border because the force could not provide Israel with protection from cross-border attacks on Israel's northern settlements.
For now, Israeli officials seem convinced that the ``security zone'' is still the best means of insuring security for northern Israel, despite the mounting Shiite attacks that threaten to embroil Israel once again in full-scale combat in Lebanon.