Israeli Retaliatory Options Limited In Fighting Hizbullah Militants

AS Israeli troops pulled back from south Lebanon over the weekend and calm returned to northern Israel after repeated barrages of Katyusha rockets, a worrying question hung over the area: How long would the tranquillity last?

Israel's threatening military buildup on the border last week was sufficient to persuade the Islamic fundamentalist militants of the Hizbullah, or Party of God, to stop rocketing Israeli towns and villages. "But even if the message was understood this time, who knows if it will be next time?" wonders former government spokesman Yossi Olmert.

And the withdrawal of the tanks underlined the Israelis' dilemma. "The most powerful armies are sometimes inherently helpless in confronting small, evasive terrorist groups like Hizbullah," in the words of retired Gen. Aharon Levran.

Hizbullah's second wave of rocket attacks in as many weeks on northern Israeli towns and villages, although causing no casualties, has prompted calls by the opposition here for decisive military retaliation. Quiet for now

But Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin restricted himself to a highly publicized concentration of Israeli troops and air and artillery strikes against Hizbullah. The rockets stopped falling, Hizbullah guerrillas went underground, schools reopened in Israeli towns such as Kiryat Shmona and Metulla, and the Israeli troops went home. Until the next round.

The irony of a few hundred guerrillas with primitive rockets confounding the Middle East's most powerful army is not lost on Israeli planners. But their options are limited.

The Katyushas themselves are easily carried and easily fired: It is almost impossible to catch the gunners in the act, and they operate out of their homes in villages where they enjoy considerable public support. "They are irregulars, easily mobile and easy to blend into the local background," points out Dore Gold, an analyst at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

This has prompted some prominent Israeli voices, such as former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, to demand an extension of Israel's self-declared "security zone" in southern Lebanon. Israeli troops and their allied Lebanese militia should occupy all Lebanese territory up to the Litani River, he proposes, putting Hizbullah's Katyushas out of range of Israel.

But aside from the international uproar such a move would provoke, it would also engender increased security problems, analysts here point out, since it would increase the number of mainly Shiite Lebanese under Israeli control from 200,000 to nearer half a million.

Demanding that the Lebanese government control Hizbullah, officials here say, is pointless, since the fragile authorities in Beirut are powerless to do so. And even if they were not, Lebanese Foreign Minister Faris Bouez insisted last week that "the Lebanese state cannot ask any Lebanese citizen to give in to the [Israeli] occupation. The rejection of this occupation using any means is a legitimate right." Turning to Syria

Asking Iran, which funds and directs Hizbullah, to control its guerrillas would be equally pointless, and there is nothing Israel could do to force Tehran to bring its fighters to heel.

"The address to which we can direct our influence," says General Levran, "is Syria," whose troops control the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon where Hizbullah's bases are located.

Israeli officials have made it plain to Damascus that they expect President Hafez al-Assad to rein in Hizbullah, seeing as how their arms are transported through Syria and their bases are next to Syrian ones in Lebanon.

That he has not done so, argues Levran, suggests that Israel should "start hitting Hizbullah targets ... in the Bekaa, with all the risks of a direct flare-up with the Syrians themselves" if Damascus felt threatened.

Those risks would be great in a large-scale ground operation, where it would be hard for Israeli troops to avoid engaging Syrian forces. But they might be minimized, Dr. Olmert and others suggest, by smaller, more carefully pinpointed assaults against particular targets.

Though the Syrians have responded to Israel's protests by disclaiming any responsibility for protecting the Jewish state, "if they felt they were on the verge of a major flare-up, they would change their minds," Levran predicts. "Bombing Hizbullah in the Bekaa might send a message to the Syrians that Israel is running out of patience."

Whether Israel's Labor government, which has made the peace process central to its platform, would be prepared to risk a fight with the Syrians, however, is unclear. Its behavior so far indicates that Mr. Rabin is doing everything he can to avoid any escalation of the violence in the region, and that he is only too aware of the risks involved in any attempt to be decisive.

Rabin has also been adamant in his refusal to link events on the ground with the peace talks in Washington, rejecting calls to pull out of the talks until Syria and Lebanon put an end to Hizbullah's attacks. To do so, officials here argue, would be to hand Hizbullah on a plate the power to sabotage the peace negotiations - one of the fundamentalists' goals.

Even if the government does choose to take firmer action, "there could be no guarantee there would never be any more Katyushas," Olmert says. "Even doing all the right things will not give us total satisfaction."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.