Entangled in S. Lebanon, Israel Debates Its 'Vietnam'

Loss of 35th soldier this year in combat Sept. 29 fuels talk of a pullout.

The image of America's lost war in Vietnam is emerging in southern Lebanon, where Israel - the strongest military power in the Middle East - is suffering critical losses at the hands of Hizbullah guerrillas trying to expel an Israeli occupying force.

The Vietnam example is never far from the debate among Israel's top brass, who are facing mounting pressure at home to withdraw but for whom the US solution - declaring victory where there is none, and going home - is not easily followed.

A defeat at the hands of an Arab force - something that has never happened in the Jewish state's 49-year history - would be wrenching.

The debate now centers on how Hizbullah would respond if Israel pulls out. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warns that Hizbullah would "follow" Israeli troops into northern Israel, but sources familiar with the Islamic guerrillas counter that such action is unlikely.

Recent Israeli losses, which include the killing of a soldier by a Hizbullah missile Sept. 29 and the deaths of 12 naval commandos during a botched raid deep into Lebanese territory earlier last month, seem to have caused Israel to adjust its demands.

In February, 73 Israeli soldiers were killed when two military helicopters collided en route to operations in Lebanon.

Even Ariel Sharon, a hawk and minister of defense during Israel's 1982 invasion, in which it incurred heavy losses, has said that the government should reassess its role in Lebanon.

For years, Israel has insisted on the disarming of Hizbullah before any Israeli pullout. But now Mr. Netanyahu talks of receiving "security guarantees" from Lebanese authorities to prevent cross-border attacks.

Despite near-consensus among Western diplomats that Hizbullah would show restraint in the event of an Israeli departure, a State Department official in Washington echoes the Israeli line that such a move would "leave all of northern Israel completely vulnerable" to attack.

Lebanon is linked to the wider Arab-Israeli peace process. With some 30,000 troops in Lebanon, ostensibly as "peacekeepers," Syria is the main power broker facing Israel. Syria has made clear that it will scuttle any deal that leaves Syria - and Israel's return of the Golan Heights to Syria - off the agenda.

'Resistance will continue'

Officially, top Hizbullah sources do not reveal how they would react if Israeli troops packed up and left. "We don't say we will stop or not stop [at the Israeli border]," says one. "We have our secrets, and the Israelis have theirs. But if they don't pull out, they are going to receive more corpses.

"This resistance will continue," he says. "It is a sacred thing."

But long-term observers say Hizbullah knows well the distinction between attacking occupying Israelis and launching unprovoked raids on Israel itself that would invite a severe Israeli response and undermine the current widespread support for Hizbullah within Lebanon.

Israeli troops have controlled chunks of southern Lebanon since 1978, at first to create a buffer against attacks from Palestinian militants.

Israel's 1982 invasion reached as far north as Beirut and flushed out the Palestinians. But it also spawned the local Islamic Hizbullah militia that has transformed itself - with hands-on training and supplies from Iran, and tacit support from Syria - into a formidable guerrilla force.

"The Palestinians had nothing to lose when they were here ... there were no civilians in the south," says Timur Goksel, the senior political adviser to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), who has been with the organization for 18 years.

"But today the villages of the south are full of people who are investing and building. Hizbullah knows more than anybody else that the people who would get hit in retaliation would be their own," he says. "They are not going to destroy their own families - no one wants to be responsible for that."

Even now, Mr. Goksel adds, Hizbullah does not launch Katyusha rockets into Israel "for kicks," but in retaliation for an attack against them, making it is obvious when the rocket attacks will come. After a series of mortars fired by Israel's militia allies, the South Lebanon Army, struck the Lebanese town of Sidon in August, "nobody could stop" Hizbullah's Katyusha response, he says.

"Hizbullah has all the classic advantages of guerrillas, so they will win," says a Western military analyst. "But the moment they cross that border, they would [become] the aggressors in their own right."

Inspiring Palestinians?

Lebanese analysts say other Israeli anxieties are at work that may be preventing a pullout. One is the resulting morale boost for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, who blame Netanyahu for the collapse of the peace process. Their "idea of resistance would be reinforced," says one Arab analyst, who asked not to be named.

Another reason could be the inability of Israel to stomach a Vietnam-style defeat - something never faced by the Jewish state since its founding in 1948. "South Lebanon is not Vietnam," Mr. Netanyahu said recently. "South Lebanon adjoins our northern border, and we cannot take the risk of exposing our communities in Galilee to terrorism."

The fact that Hizbullah's high-profile successes have generated opposition inside Israel to the occupation of Lebanon is already a "big achievement," says Issa Goraieb, editor of the French-language L'Orient-le Jour newspaper in Beirut.

"But if Israel pulls out, Hizbullah will be the first Arab force ever to impose its will on Israel," he says. "It will bring them immense prestige."

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