A buffer zone in Lebanon? A flashback many Israelis don't like

If the UN Security Council approves the US-French draft cease-fire proposal this week, Israel's army will be allowed to remain in a southern Lebanon "security zone" until the arrival of a new peacekeeping force.

But if the cease-fire falters and the international troops don't materialize, Israel may find itself mired in a buffer zone inside its northern neighbor's borders. To many Israeli experts and officials, that sounds like a replay of the ill-fated security strip of the 1980s and 1990s.

"If Israel is stuck inside a security zone having to defend its troops, then you're back to square one," says an Israeli Defense Ministry official. "It depends on the terms of the cease-fire."

The parallels between old and new security zones are striking. Both buffers reflect the stalemate following Israeli invasions of Lebanon aimed at eliminating cross-border attacks by guerrillas.

This time around, Israel insists that it has no intention of remaining in southern Lebanon. But if Israel finds itself alone against what it considers an Iranian proxy, it may keep the buffer to prevent Hizbullah from returning to the positions along the border.

"A vacuum will be filled in a short time," says Yossi Peled, an ex-general who headed Israel's northern command during the initial years of the first security zone. "If we accept a cease-fire, and withdraw to the border without a replacement force ... what have we achieved?"

But the reoccupation of Lebanon risks giving back to Hizbullah its rallying call which helped stir up resistance to the occupation in the 1980s and 1990s and burnish the Islamist militants' credentials in Lebanon, say analysts.

"One wonders whether a long-term presence in Lebanon and the revival of a security zone will work to Israel's advantage or disadvantage, in that it will give Hizbullah the justification to operate against the occupation and refuse disarmament," writes Aluf Ben, the diplomatic correspondent for the Haaretz newspaper.

Israeli forays into southern Lebanon to secure the border date back to the 1970s, but it was only in 1985 that it set up the security zone that eventually became the stage for 15 years of ground skirmishes with Hizbullah. The establishment of the buffer was part of the second major pullback after Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and attempt at regime change.

Israel held onto a strip of territory with a depth ranging from two to 12 miles to prevent infiltration of Hizbullah fighters and to prevent rocket attacks. To share the buffer-zone burden, Israel outsourced the work by financing and training a militia of local Lebanese allies called the South Lebanon Army.

The buffer represented the rump of Israel's initial goal of the 1982 war: trading the land it occupied in return for a peace treaty. But the small size of the territory made it an ineffective lever.

The old security zone prevented most infiltrations across the border, but it wasn't able to stop occasional Hizbullah rocket fire on northern Israeli cities. It also left Israeli soldiers exposed to ambushes by Hizbullah guerrillas who infiltrated the zone with ease.

As Israeli troop casualties rose in the late 1990s, public support for remaining in the security zone gradually eroded. "The security zone brought security to the north [of Israel], it just didn't give security to the soldiers in the zone," says Michael Oren, a military historian and a senior fellow at Jerusalem's Shalem Center.

As Israel sets up a new security zone in Lebanon along similar contours of the old one, analysts say it won't be deep enough to protect civilians in northern Israel. Hizbullah reportedly still jas an arsenal including hundreds of medium-range missiles capable of flying over the buffer zone.

As a result, Israelis are debating whether Israel should push all the way to the Litani river – as far as 25 miles from Israel's northern border – or remain in the narrower strip along the border.

Proponents of a Litani buffer argue that the natural frontier will be easier to defend. "Either you chose a logical defensive line, or you go back to the international border," says Yuval Steinitz, an Israeli parliament member. "To stay in a zone of 6 to 10 kilometers (4 to 6 miles) is a recipe for disaster, leaving us side by side with Hizbullah terrorists."

Alex Fishman writes in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth on Sunday, that in response to the UN cease-fire proposal, Israel "can remain as it is in the security zone; it can withdraw to the international border and use air and artillery activity to keep Hizbullah in check; or, three, it can come and go, carrying out incursions as necessary."

The main function of a buffer zone would be to use as a bargaining chip to give back in return for a calm border. In that sense, Israel has returned to the land-for-peace formula that it used following the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. This time around, analysts say, Israel is betting on intervention from the international community rather than a peace agreement to extract it from the buffer zone.

"Israel is saying, 'We're not trying to remake Lebanon. We don't want a peace treaty with Lebanon. We just want the international community to make order," says Martin Kramer, a fellow at the Washington Institute. "This time its not Israel alone which is seeking to refashion Lebanon, it's the international community."

But history has shown Israelis that the best planned entries into Lebanon often have no clear exit. "These things have their own dynamic," says David Newman, a geography professor at Ben Gurion University, "and I doubt very much that when Israel went in 20 years ago that they expected to be there for 20 years."

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