Arabs set high price for Israel to quit Lebanon

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The Independent Online
ISRAEL is not leaving southern Lebanon. Despite all the honeyed words from Israeli itself, despite all the reports on CNN, despite the private suspicions of Arab diplomats who should know better - Israel is not going to withdraw a single soldier from its occupation zone 60 miles south of Beirut. Indeed, over the past few days, more Israeli troops have been sent into front-line positions previously held by Israel's proxy "South Lebanon Army".

True, Israel would like to leave. It lost 39 of its occupation troops in southern Lebanon last year and another eight have died in action in 1998; its Lebanese militia ally has lost a further 29 men in the same 15 months. Almost equally serious is the fall in casualties among Israel's Hizbollah enemies. While the guerrillas were losing as many as 100 men for every Israeli killed 10 years ago, they are now taking casualties on an almost one-to-one basis. Just 82 Hizbollah men have died in the past 15 months, only six more than Israel and its militia. The outcry from the mothers of Israeli soldiers serving in Lebanon grows.

Listening to Israeli politicians these past two weeks, the world might be forgiven for believing the mothers will get their way. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister - who is not interested in abiding by UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 (calling for total Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Arab territory) - suddenly announced he wanted to abide by Security Council resolution 425, which calls for a total and unconditional withdrawal from southern Lebanon. The Israeli cabinet, we are told, has "agreed" a withdrawal.

But Israel wants conditions attached. It wants a promise that the Lebanese army will safeguard the border and prevent cross-border attacks. And it wants the Hizbollah disarmed before a withdrawal. The first desire is reasonable enough. But the second will never be agreed by the Arabs, for two reasons. Firstly, Syria wants Israel to withdraw from the Israeli- occupied Syrian Golan Heights, and Syria's support for the Hizbollah is the only pressure it can bring upon the Israelis to hand back Golan as well as southern Lebanon. Secondly - in the words of a former Lebanese diplomat - Israel, in the eyes of the Arabs, has run out of credit. "Oslo was a big test for us and for the Israelis," he said. "Israel signed the Oslo agreement. But despite its signature, it is still controlling much of the West Bank and is building even more Jewish settlements on Arab land. What is to stop them doing the same thing if we agreed to their conditions for withdrawal from Lebanon?"

"We could disarm the Hizbollah, which is the only force pushing them to leave, and then the Israelis might find a reason to stay. And we could do nothing about it. We learned a lot from Oslo and we are not going to make the same mistake again. These deals need international guarantees, not just peace accords that can then be broken."

In Cairo, the Arab League rejected Mr Netanyahu's proposal for a withdrawal. Farez Bouez, the Lebanese foreign minister, told delegates that if Israel wanted to abide by Resolution 425 - passed in 1978 after Israel's first invasion of Lebanon - then "it should just pack up and get out". In reality, numerous Hizbollah officials have made it clear the guerrillas would not pursue the Israelis over the border. Hizbollah has already set up a political organisation within Lebanon's own internal political structure to secure a future once the war is over. An Iranian government spokesman, the culture minister Atallah Mahajarani, has himself said if Israel leaves Lebanon, there would be "no need to continue its resistance activities". Since Iran arms the Hizbollah - if less generously than America arms Israel - this was a significant remark.

The ironies of the situation, however, are all too clear. Whereas 20 years ago, the Lebanese demanded an Israeli withdrawal and the Israelis refused, now the Israelis are demanding a withdrawal and the Lebanese are turning them down. This has provided good propaganda for the Israelis. Here they are, vainly demanding to end their own occupation while the world accuses them of reneging on the "peace process". In truth, southern Lebanon is the only area where the Israelis are bleeding - literally - to hang onto occupied land; and the Arabs are not going to oblige them by letting them go.

The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon have been in southern Lebanon for 20 years and have signally failed to complete their mission of moving up to the Israeli frontier and securing the sovereign territory of Lebanon for the Beirut government. UN forces are a mile further from the Israeli border than they were two decades ago.