Generals call for Lebanon pull-out now

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The Independent Online
SENIOR ISRAELI combat commanders in south Lebanon are for the first time calling for an immediate withdrawal of Israeli troops from the country.

The commanding officers of the Golani and Givati infantry brigades told General Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli chief of staff, at the beginning of the week that a troop recall was both "possible and imperative".

Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister-elect, pledged during the election campaign to get all Israeli soldiers out of south Lebanon within a year of taking office. The demand by senior officers for a withdrawal puts further pressure on the new leader to start talks with Syria, which is the predominant power in Lebanon, to seek an end to the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967.

Dissent among senior serving officers over Israel's role in Lebanon flows mainly from their frustration over fighting a guerrilla war in which the use of Israeli firepower is limited by diplomatic agreement.

Israel's military position in southern Lebanon is also deteriorating. This is because of the disintegration of the 2,500-strong South Lebanon militia (SLA), armed and organised by Israel, which occupies frontline positions. Last week Hizbollah, the Lebanese-Islamic guerrilla organisation, paraded an Israeli armoured personal carrier, captured from the SLA. Earlier in the year a roadside bomb killed the senior Israeli officer in south Lebanon.

Overall Israeli casualties in Lebanon are not high. Nine soldiers have been killed this year. Losses have been running at the level of 30-50 dead and 100- 200 wounded annually. An internationally monitored agreement reached in 1996, after Israel bombarded southern Lebanon in the "Grapes of Wrath" operation, forbids Israel and Hizbollah from firing into and out of populated areas. When Israeli shelling killed two Lebanese civilians this week, Hizbollah fired a barrage of rockets into northern Israel.

A problem for the Israeli army is that it is under pressure to keep down its casualties. This means greater reliance on the SLA operations. But the SLA can no longer be considered a military force. General Haim Yifrah, a senior retired army intelligence office, told the Daily Maariv newspaper earlier this year that the SLA no longer had support among the 90,000 Lebanese still living in the occupation zone, while Hizbollah "is the most effective guerrilla force in the world".

General Yifrah believes Hizbollah has excellent tactical intelligence from the local population. He says: "Things are very simple. Hizbollah, time and time again, succeeds in placing roadside bombs next to the gate of our outposts, next to our ambushes, sometimes next to our headquarters."

He added that the only solution was for the army to withdraw across the border to northern Israel, where Hizbollah would not have information supplied by the local population.

Israel may now have very little choice but to leave. Mr Barak's deadline of a year for Israeli withdrawal will speed the collapse of the SLA. So will the new willingness of the Israeli army to admit that senior soldiers in the field want to pull out. The Lebanese still working with the Israelis have seen which way the wind is blowing and have a further incentive to co-operate with Hizbollah.

One option for Israel would be to stage a unilateral withdrawal. This has been ruled out because it would bring Hizbollah to the Israeli frontier. However, General Yifrah says: "There is no concrete quality intelligence to sustain the assessment that Hizbollah intends not just to kick us out of southern Lebanon, but to make the northern towns [in Israel] their objective."

The more likely alternative is for a settlement ending thewar in Lebanon plus an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Talks between Israel and Syria made progress under the previous Labour government, but ended when Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister in 1996.