Israel's `insecurity zone' in South Lebanon

AFTER the May Day holiday, about 2,500 soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) stormed into Lebanon to search for Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) guerrillas and to intimidate any Lebanese who might assist them. This 48-hour law-and-order operation was the latest incursion into what Israel calls its ``security zone''; the six-mile-wide and 50-mile-long strip has been under Israel's control since Israel's declared withdrawal from Lebanon in 1985. In terms of Israel's need for peace, this strip can be labeled more appropriately an ``insecurity zone.''

The security zone has not brought about the 40 years of tranquillity predicted by former Prime Minister Menachem Begin when he launched Operation Peace for Galilee. Rather, the zone provides a common ground for hostility toward Israel by all Lebanese, except for the South Lebanon Army (SLA), Israel's surrogate force. The Israelis, for their part, continue to equip and train the SLA. According to observers, SLA numbers have doubled in the last year, totaling 3,000 to 3,500, including a good mixture of Christians and Muslims. Recruitment and morale have been helped by regular salaries and benefits and by issuance of one work permit in Israel for a family member of each SLA soldier. Training and discipline have improved. So has firepower, which includes a fleet of armed personnel carriers and recycled Soviet tanks.

When they are not busy fighting pitched battles among themselves, Lebanese factions focus on the occupation of Lebanon by Israel and its surrogates. The sworn enemies of Israel - the radical Shiite Hizbullah and the remaining PLO fighters in Sidon or the Bekaa Valley - are determined to prove that the security zone is not an insurmountable barrier to their independence. Even the mainstream Shiite Amal is committed to the elimination of the security zone as it attempts to prevent Hizbullah and PLO actions that would bring Israeli retaliation.

The recent IDF/SLA operations succeeded in accomplishing what the Iranians had not: the temporary unification of the warring Shiite groups in resisting the Israeli attack on the village of Maidun. At least 40 Lebanese and three Israelis were killed in that attack.

The Israeli chief of staff did not understand the irony in his description about the necessity of making ``the security zone secure.'' While rocks and burning tires are at present the preferred responses to Israeli soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, more lethal means respond to the provocation of the IDF and the SLA in South Lebanon. AK-47s are almost as plentiful in Lebanon as are stones in the Holy Land.

Recently infiltration into Israel has increased markedly. There have been 10 incidents since the beginning of the year in which armed elements have penetrated Israel's northern border. Three civilians and five soldiers, including one battalion commander, have already been killed this year. In last November's hang-glider attack, six IDF soldiers lost their lives.

While the security risk of infiltration is obvious, Israel's policy of occupying South Lebanon is not the answer. It has not stopped but provoked infiltration.

A possible solution to the seemingly intractable problem resides in the extension of the only pocket of relative ``normality'' in a sorry south Lebanon: the operational area of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. Things are not only not getting worse in UNIFIL's area; they actually appear to be improving in small ways. Fields are being cultivated, children attend school, shops sell goods, and a construction boom of sorts is under way. Working closely with Amal, the official resistance, UN soldiers have taken away weapons from infiltrators. Armed troublemakers have been largely kept out.

In the impossible terrain, neither UNIFIL nor Israeli troops have been 100 percent effective. But the blue berets are doing remarkably well in a country without an effective government. Also, they are not viewed by the Lebanese as provocative.

UNIFIL's area of operation is not contiguous to the northern Israeli border; the UN area is separated from it by the security zone. Thus, UNIFIL has not been able to carry out the essential task in its 1978 mandate: to provide a buffer between Israel and its enemies along its international frontier with Lebanon.

Israel should now initially withdraw from the western half of the security zone, which already contains UN headquarters in Naquora; it is an idea that has been floated informally by the UN. Such action would for a time leave the main infiltration routes through the Jezzine and Bekaa Valleys in the foothills of Mt. Hebron under IDF/SLA control, and provide a test of UNIFIL's ability to extend its operational control. Such an Israeli withdrawal could improve not only Israel's own security but also the day-to-day lives of many Lebanese.

Thomas G. Weiss is executive director and Aage Eknes director of conflict management at the International Peace Academy, New York. They have just returned from south Lebanon.

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