Israel PM flies home as death toll rises

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BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, the Israeli Prime Minister, broke off his European tour and returned to Jerusalem for an emergency cabinet meeting last night to face the impossible task of withdrawing his army from Lebanon. The deaths of two more Israeli occupation soldiers on Thursday - seven have been killed in two weeks - only compounded his government's predicament.

For in most wars, occupation armies want to stay; and the occupied - or their supporters - want them to leave. In Lebanon, the opposite is the case. This, in a nutshell, is the reason Mr Netanyahu broke off his tour.

The truth is that the pro-Iranian Hizbollah - whose chairman, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, is in Tehran this week - have won their war in southern Lebanon and the pro-American Israeli army wants to leave.

The two Israeli soldiers were killed on Thursday night when landmines blew up three tanks. The deaths bring to 23 the number of Israelis killed in the occupation zone (22 soldiers and a construction engineerhelping to build an artillery base) so far this year. In all, 200 Israelis have been killed inside Lebanon since 1985. A total of 105 Israeli air raids on Lebanon in the past 11 months have failed to protect them.

In Israel, there is an overwhelming desire to abandon the Lebanese war, although some ministers, such as the Public Security Minister, Avigdor Kahalani, would prefer to punish Lebanon for Hizbollah attacks. Yesterday he suggested bombing Lebanon's infrastructure - including electricity grids - because the Lebanese army will not disarm the Hizbollah.

But international law allows the occupied to fight the occupiers and United Nations Security Council Resolution 425 of 1978 demands the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon.

Israel still wants to withdraw with conditions, including the amalgamation of its own rag-tag "South Lebanon Army" militia into the Lebanese national army, something that Lebanon's new President - the former army commander General Emile Lahoud - refuses to do. Indeed, it was President Lahoud who stated at his inauguration on Tuesday that peace requires "whatever the circumstances or considerations, the indivisibility of negotiating tracks with Syria's, on the basis of a total and equal Israeli withdrawal from the south and western Bekaa and the Golan in accordance with UN security council resolutions".

And herein lies the rub. Syria supports the Hizbollah. For as long as Israel bleeds in southern Lebanon, Syrian pressure for an Israeli withdrawal from Golan can continue. If Israel withdraws unilaterally from Lebanon, it can stay in Golan without paying the price of occupation. Hence the refusal of Lebanon - which "hosts" 22,000 Syrian troops on its soil - to let the Israelis off the hook.

In Israel, public opinion is coming round to the idea that it must pull out of Lebanon. Yesterday's edition of the Israeli daily Maariv indicated that 40 per cent of Israelis support a unilateral withdrawal, compared with just 16 per cent in February of last year. The mothers of Israeli soldiers serving in the occupation army in Lebanon have pleaded for their sons to come home. Yediot Aharanot has demanded that Mr Netanyahu "take an initiative" and withdraw.

Even General Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Foreign Minister - held indirectly responsible in Israel for the Sabra and Chatila massacre of up to 2,000 Palestinian civilians in 1982 - now talks of withdrawal.

General Antoine Lahd, the SLA commander, has asked President Lahoud to implement UN security council resolution 425.

Perhaps the Israelis will try to retreat in stages - although they will be attacked as they do so.

The real question is why the Israelis stay in southern Lebanon at all. Although they call their occupation area their "security zone", it is the least secure piece of real estate in the Middle East. In April 1996, the Hizbollah fired more rockets across the border in three weeks than had been sent into Israel since 1948. The Lebanese suspect the Israelis are staying to obtain access to Lebanese water as part of an overall peace agreement.

In any event, the Syrians will not want to see a unilateral withdrawal and will insist that Israel is given no concession - or allowed to demand conditions - on its departure.