Memories of 1982 cloud Israel's Lebanon dilemma

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The Independent Online
A measure of Israeli divisions over what to do about Lebanon is a furious row between right-wing leaders over Israel's disastrous invasion of it northern neighbour in 1982, which left 650 Israelis and 13,000 Lebanese dead.

General Ariel Sharon, a member of the present government who was minister of defence 15 years ago, is suing the Israeli daily Haaretz for saying that Menachim Begin, then the Israeli prime minister, had believed General Sharon had lied to him about advancing all the way to Beirut.

Giving evidence against General Sharon is Ze'ev Begin, son of the former prime minister, who told the court that his father, who died in 1992, had given his assent to a more limited operation. Mr Begin, who resigned from Israeli cabinet over the Hebron withdrawal last month, said his father denied General Sharon's claim to have told him that Beirut was the initial objective. He said his father "was very angry", and said: "These things are baseless."

General Sharon has always been held responsible by the Begin family for the invasion which led to Menachim Begin's resignation. It is also true, however, that the prime minister gave his defence minister full backing in his bombardment of Beirut and the capture of the city. The massacre of more than 700 Palestinians at Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps by Christian militiamen allied to Israel discredited the invasion internationally.

Israel has never wholly recovered in Lebanon from the debacle. It failed to achieve any of its aims of marginalising the Palestine Liberation Organisation, reducing Syrian influence in Lebanon and establishing a Christian Lebanese government allied to Israel. In the face of guerrilla attacks, Israeli forces pulled back to a nine-mile wide security zone in south Lebanon in 1985.

Last week's collision of two helicopters, in which 73 soldiers and airmen were killed on their way to outposts in Lebanon, has given impetus to the debate about whether Israel should withdraw. Yossi Beilin, the architect of the Oslo accord, suggested that control of the security zone be handed over to a third party. The problem with this is that Syria will not let Israel off the hook in south Lebanon without an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, captured in 1967.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Pprime Minister, and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, the chief of staff, oppose a pullout but do not have any alternative strategy to propose. A senior officer was quoted as saying: "The public debate now being carried out that concerns an IDF [Israeli army] withdrawal from Lebanon negatively affects the morale of the officers and soldiers serving in the south Lebanon sector."

The prolonged bombardment of Lebanon by Israeli artillery and planes in operation Grapes of Wrath last year failed to inflict significant damage on Hizbollah guerrillas. The US-brokered ceasefire stopped Katyushas being fired at northern Israel, but also stopped Israel freely using its advantage in firepower against Hizbollah. No civilians have been killed on either side for six months. Expansion of the security zone or attacks on Syrian positions in Lebanon would lead to renewed Katyusha attacks.

The several hundred Hizbollah guerrillas Israel faces in Lebanon have proved highly effective. Even in a skirmish at the weekend, in which a three to five man Hizbollah squad was intercepted by Israeli troops, the result was seven Israeli wounded, one seriously, and no evidence of any Hizbollah casualties. The trickle of Israeli casualties, totalling 68 dead in the last three years, makes it difficult for the government to persuade the public that it has no option but to soldier on.