Saturday, July 22, 2006

History Repeating Itself?

From the Washington Post:

The 1978 Operation Litani provided a clear lesson in the rules of unintended consequences. It was a swift success militarily; Israeli forces pushed across the border and moved about 20 miles north to the Litani River without serious opposition from primarily ragtag Palestinian defenders. They weren't native to the area or fully familiar with it -- they'd moved to it in the early 1970s to escape a crackdown in Jordan.

Under U.S. and other international pressure, the Israeli forces soon withdrew. But the Israeli defense minister at the time, Ezer Weizman, who later became president, ordered relentless bombing of the Lebanese border hills to drive out the civilian population. U.S. officials complained of civilian casualties, but the attacks continued.

The idea, Israeli officials explained, was to create a free-fire zone where it could be assumed that anybody moving around was a Palestinian guerrilla and a fair target for Israeli warplanes or artillery fire. The result over the next year, however, was a long list of civilian deaths -- farmers carrying tobacco crops to market, families picnicking on jagged hillsides and villagers caught in their homes when stray bombs landed.

Eventually, increasing numbers gave up and fled to Beirut. These families, most of them Shiite Muslims, took up residence in what was then undeveloped land between southern Beirut and the international airport -- and now is the teeming Shiite suburb known as the Dahiya.

Its exploding young population, sons of those chased from southern homes, became the base of a new radical organization born several years later. Inspired by the 1979 Iranian revolution, it eventually took the name Hezbollah, or Party of God.

..............More than two decades later, Hezbollah has grown into an extensive political force in Lebanon, backed by Shiite Muslims who have become the largest religious community in the country. Hezbollah candidates run for elections. Hezbollah social service agencies provide health care and schooling for poor farmers. Hezbollah television, al-Manar, broadcasts technically slick and virulently anti-Israeli programs into Lebanese homes.

Not least, a Hezbollah military wing, not the national army, fought year after year against Israeli troops who remained after 1982 to occupy a border enclave. Politically worn out, the Israeli occupation forces finally pulled out of Lebanon in 2000, a departure that has gone down in local historical narrative as a Hezbollah victory.

...............Driving Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon, Israel's declared goal in its current campaign, may prove more difficult than the Israelis expect. Hezbollah is at home in the rough-hewn hills that overlook Israel's Galilee region. "When I hear the Israelis talk about getting Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon, I have to laugh," said a veteran Middle East official and analyst who requested anonymity because of his sensitive position. "They live there."

In addition, he pointed out, clearing the border would not remove the danger of attacks on northern Israel. During Operation Litani and the 1982 invasion, he said, a secure border zone was enough to prevent attacks by the short-range rockets of the time. But today that kind of safety is no longer guaranteed. "There are missiles now with a range of 20, 30, 40 kilometers," he added.

....................Suggestions that the Lebanese army take command of anti-Hezbollah operations in the border hills seem unrealistic, they said. At best, the Lebanese army could take to the field once a settlement was reached, so as to symbolize national authority and to police arrangements agreed to by Hezbollah and other Lebanese political forces, they explained.

But the largest obstacle to removing Hezbollah may be its place in Lebanese society. As a political force, it represents the country's largest religious community. As a military force, it has stood up for Lebanese under attack while the army stood aside.

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