In Lebanon strife, memories of past war for Israel
TEL AVIV — When Israeli forces rolled over the Lebanese border in 1982, Michael Oren was a reservist paratrooper in a unit ordered to drive 25 miles north of the border to Sidon and stop.
The army called its invasion of Lebanon "Operation Peace for the Galilee," and Mr. Oren thought his mission was to push back Palestinian rocket-launchers so they couldn't hit northern Israel.
Then his unit was told to go to Beirut. "Suddenly, we realized we were doing something much more extensive and risky," he says, referring to Israel's intervention in the Lebanese civil war that resulted in 1,500 soldier fatalities. "It was ill-conceived."
The infamous war haunts Israelis in the way Vietnam figures in the American collective memory. Now, despite robust public approval for Israel's offensive against Hizbullah, the memory of the previous war keeps Israelis skittish about another ground war against a determined guerrilla force.
And as fierce fighting between Israeli infantry and fighters from the Iranian-backed militia expanded to the southern Lebanese town of Bint Jbail, Oren says public reluctance about soldier casualties constrains Israel in how it wages the war. Whether it opts for more focused assaults on Hizbullah positions or a sweeping invasion depends at least partly on public opinion.
"Many Israelis see Lebanon as a swamp. Lebanon is where proxy states like Syria and Iran play out their desire in the region," says David Makovsky, a former diplomatic correspondent for the Haaretz newspaper and a fellow at the Washington Institute. "I don't think there is any groundswell by the government coalition or opposition to come back and say, 'Lebanon, the sequel!' "
An Israeli Apache combat helicopter crashed Monday – the second in less than a week – leaving many soldiers injured and churning up memories of the 1997 crash of two troop transport helicopters bound for southern Lebanon in which 73 soldiers were killed.
Israeli media reported as early as last Friday that thousands of Israeli soldiers are already fighting on the ground in southern Lebanon. The army says it plans to enter other southern towns to clear them of Hizbullah outposts. But the details of those operations have been kept far from the public eye. So far the war has resulted in 377 deaths in Lebanon and at least 37 Israeli lives.
"I want the soldiers to come home. That is what scares me the most. Not the Katyushas," says Michal Porat, a resident at Kibbutz Hanita, an Israeli farming cooperative that sits in full sight of one of Hizbullah's border outposts. "We shouldn't go in on the ground. It's dangerous. We need to negotiate and reach a diplomatic agreement."
Public unease about a prolonged occupation of Lebanon helps explain one of the reasons why Israel's government said it would consider the introduction of an international peacekeeping force that will keep Hizbullah in check after any negotiated cease-fire.
"Almost an entire generation of Israelis have been raised on the Lebanon nightmare. I hear the word Bint Jbail, and I get a bad rumbling in my stomach," says Oren, who is now a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem research institute. "It does limit the government's latitude on the ground.... I think Hizbullah is banking on it."
Hizbullah's abduction of two Israeli soldiers July 12, the rocket barrage on the northern border, and Israel's punishing retaliation are just the latest installments of cross-border tensions that date back more than three decades.
In the 1970s, the cross-border attacks were carried out by Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). In 1978, Israeli forces swept into Lebanon to push the PLO north of the Litani River, and eventually withdrew after agreeing to the establishment of a UN peacekeeping force that remains in southern Lebanon to this day and is viewed as ineffective.
The 1982 invasion was tainted by the Sabra and Shatila massacre in which a Christian militia allied with Israel slaughtered hundreds of Palestinians, stirred up an unprecedented domestic antiwar movement in Israel, and eventually led to the resignation of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
Israel hunkered down in a narrow buffer zone in southern Lebanon, but support eventually eroded through the late 1990s. The May 2000 withdrawal was hailed with front-page pictures of jubilant soldiers on tanks waving Israeli flags as they crossed back into Israel, but the pullback is remembered as a hasty and disorganized retreat.
Some Israelis alleged that the unilateral pullback played a role in sparking the Palestinian uprising several months later.
Despite the criticism of the withdrawal, no Israelis are arguing that Israel needs to remain in Lebanon. Hizbullah guerrillas are seen as too formidable a match on their home turf in southern Lebanon. The gunmen are reportedly much better trained than the Palestinian militants in the West Bank and Gaza.
"We shouldn't insert our soldiers into such a massacre," says Hila Bass, who said an army colleague was killed last week when Hizbullah struck an Israeli naval craft off the shore of Beirut. "We should rely on air power."
Most Israelis acknowledge that they won't be able to claim victory over Hizbullah by avoiding a ground war. Nevertheless, hope that the massive bombing campaign force the Lebanese government to fight Hizbullah on its own.
"It's true you can't decide a war from the air, but a guerrilla war is not worth it," says Itzik Maloul, a falafel stand owner who favored expanding air attacks rather than a ground invasion. "There are other means that are less moral. We haven't been in the area for six years and know what awaits us."