Middle East: No escape without humiliation

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WE HAVE been here before - many times. Twenty-five years ago Israelis used to joke that whichever was the first Arab state to make peace with Israel, Lebanon would certainly be the second. The point was that the Lebanese were likely to prove accommodating because they were politically and militarily weak.

Nothing could have been more wrong. Despite successive incursions into Lebanon, Israel's position in the country is probably weaker than it has ever been. The self-declared Israeli security zone in southern Lebanon has become a lobster pot from which Israel cannot escape without humiliation.

In 1978, when the first Israeli invasion took place, this was less obvious. The aim was to attack the Palestinian guerrillas, then the most powerful military force in the south of the country. Forced to retreat under pressure from the US, Israel returned in 1982 in a full-scale invasion that ended with the siege and capture of West Beirut.

Israel's position looked strong. It was allied with the Christian militias of central and northern Lebanon. It was friends with Bashir Gemayel, the Christian leader. It had annihilated part of the Syrian airforce - and it had the support of the US.

Within a year all this was to ebb away. Lebanon is the back door to Damascus. No Syrian government would allow Israel to achieve hegemony over its near neighbour without a fight. Within a few months Bashir Gemayel was dead, blown apart as he addressed a party meeting in East Beirut. In retaliation, the Christian militias massacred Palestinians in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps.

Israel discovered that Lebanon was easy to invade but hard to hold. Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, and his men were gone but they were replaced by the Shia Muslim militias of West Beirut and south Lebanon, which ultimately produced Hizbollah. The US departed after 240 of its marines were blown up by a suicide truck packed with explosives.

Israel cut its losses and retreated south. It set up a security zone in 1985 in southern Lebanon. It relied on its own troops and a local force, armed and paid for by Israel, known as the South Lebanon Army.

There were repeated skirmishes. Syria's control of Lebanon was strengthened when it moved against the Lebanese army in 1990.

There were punishment raids by Israel. The most notorious was operation "Grapes of Wrath", which came in retaliation to successful Hizbollah ambushes and just before an Israeli election. Its aim was to use Israel's unchallenged sea and air dominance to punish the inhabitants of southern Lebanon.

Most fled north. Hizbollah continued to fire Katyusha rockets across the border into northern Israel. Israeli artillery killed over 100 Lebanese refugees who had taken shelter in a UN base.

"Grapes of Wrath" produced a diplomatic solution that laid down elaborate ground rules for the war. Hizbollah could not fire out of Israel into populated areas. The guerrillas could not fire into Israel. An international monitoring team overlooked the new agreement.

It did not work badly for two years. But Hizbollah has become increasingly skilful. One observer pointed out that it now has guerrillas who have fought for 10 years and have intimate knowledge of the hills and wadis of south Lebanon.

One solution would be for Israel to stage a unilateral withdrawal. This is advocated by a vocal minority of Israelis. The majority look first to security guarantees from Syria. This is unlikely to happen until Israel leaves south Lebanon and gives up Syria's Golan Heights.

It could also, as it was doing last night, expand the war, but the experience of Israel in Lebanon since 1978 is that this is a very dangerous option.