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Israel's Mothers Cry: 'Bring 'Em Home'

A long and costly war in south Lebanon leads to new calls for troops to withdraw.

The Javors have their dream house - a beautiful ranch with mountain views, two kids, and a dog.

And, as is required, a bomb shelter. Because, in place of a white picket fence, their property is a few hundred feet from a fence separating Israel from Lebanon.

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More precisely, their backyard is south Lebanon, where Israel occupies a "security zone" to prevent attacks on communities along its northern border. But the zone, the battleground on which Israel has been fighting a war of attrition with Lebanese guerrillas for 12 years, is growing increasingly unpopular with Israelis fed up with the high toll it is taking in soldiers' lives.

Now, several prominent politicians (including the architect of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords), former army officials, and grass-roots activists have come together to make a powerful new call for Israel to get out of Lebanon.

The concept of leaving Lebanon without first brokering a peace treaty has so captivated public debate that one prominent Jerusalem think tank, the Van Leer Institute, staged a day of "war games" Monday to simulate what might happen if Israel did withdraw.

But the debate has many of the 300,000 Israelis who live within firing range of Lebanon fearing for their future and trying to convince the rest of the country that a pullout will only lead to more bloodshed.

"Nobody wants their sons to serve in the army and be killed," says Judith Javor, the mother of two sons nearing the age of the army draft. "I fear that the same people who want to withdraw will find their sons being killed in greater numbers because the terrorists will be sitting on our border. In Tel Aviv, they think the problem will go away if the army withdraws, but really the problem will come closer to them."

In the past, it has been assumed that a withdrawal could take place only within the framework of a comprehensive peace agreement with Syria, which has de facto control of Lebanon. But Syrian President Hafez el-Assad has no interest in talking peace without first gaining a commitment from Israel to withdraw from the strategic Golan Heights, which Israeli seized in 1967.

Peace talks with Syria made some progress under Israel's previous Labor government, then evaporated when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to power 18 months ago.

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Now that expectations for a Syrian-Israeli peace have dissipated, Israelis have grown more interested in divorcing the two issues and finding a way to end their battle in Lebanon against the Iranian-backed Hizbullah - with or without Syria on board.

While polls have shown that most Israelis are against giving up the Golan Heights - where 15,000 Israelis have settled on land annexed in 1981 - a growing number of Israelis are prepared to try a withdrawal from the nine-mile-deep zone in Lebanon that saw more Israeli army casualties in 1997 than any year since the civil war ended in 1990.

A 'realistic' withdrawal

"What we're doing is part of a realistic effort to get out of Lebanon," says Yossi Beilin, a parliament member and head of the new Movement for a Peaceful Departure From Lebanon. Unlike Israel's acute divide over the Oslo peace accords, which he helped design as a key member of the Labor government, the debate over Lebanon transcends the traditional right versus left split in Israeli politics, Dr. Beilin says.

"It's not an ideological issue. It's not a political issue," he says. Others who have expressed support for considering unilateral withdrawal include current and former army generals and ministers in Mr. Netanyahu's Cabinet.

Beilin suggests making a staged withdrawal to the Israeli-Lebanon border and enforcing it with an electronic fence, minefields, patrols, and military outposts to prevent infiltration.

Underlying the argument for withdrawal is a belief that Hizbullah is fighting only for its stated purpose: to eject an occupying army from its land. Once Israel leaves Lebanon, the reasoning goes, the Hizbullah would have no reason to continue Katyusha rocket attacks on northern Israel.

The pro-withdrawal camp also says that Syria, which has maintained a relatively quiet border with Israel despite an official state of war, will have no interest encouraging Hizbullah to keep fighting Israel and risk spreading the war into Syria itself.

Though withdrawal movement has gained some 3,000 volunteers in just a few months, it is opposed by many Israelis who first want guarantees from the other side of the border. There is no reason to believe Lebanese won't advance south and take fresh aim at towns like Metulla, which has been barraged by Katyusha rockets in the past, they say.

"This is a misconceived idea," says Uri Lubrani, the Israeli government coordinator on Lebanese affairs. "We don't consider this particular restive front with Lebanon as an area for experiments."

In Mr. Lubrani's analysis, the try-and-see approach might lead to a retaliation that would be bloodier than the daily volleys of ammunition that characterize the war now.

"At the end of the day," Lubrani says, "it might lead to a necessity to reenter Lebanon in much larger fashion.... We have to stick to our guns, costly and complicated and painful as it is."

The media aggressively report each Israeli injury and death in the zone, which has led to more than 110 related deaths this year, including a helicopter crash that killed 73 soldiers. Some liken the situation to America's war in Vietnam. Even though this conflict is being fought on Israel's own border, many young Israelis feel unmotivated to risk their lives and wonder why they're fighting.

"The status quo is not bearable," says Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist at the Hebrew University and a former director of the Israeli foreign ministry. "The Israeli presence in south Lebanon was intended as a provisional way of securing the northern border," he says. "No one thought Israel would still be there at the end of the millennium."

Among other arguments Israelis give for the need to stay in Lebanon is the need to protect members of its client militia there, the South Lebanese Army (SLA). Worries that other Lebanese will take revenge on SLA members for "collaborating" with Israel have generated talk of helping them find a haven.

But Beilin says that he is not advocating abandoning Israel's allies. Once the decision to withdraw is taken, Israel could within six months beef up its defense along the border and find "proper solutions" for the SLA members seeking protection.

Her son's friends killed

Almost all leaders in the border communities are against any withdrawal without a peace treaty with Syria. If Israel pulls out of Lebanon, they fear the war will move to their backyards.

Metulla Mayor Yossi Goldberg, whose office is adorned with a crumpled Katyusha rocket - the missile fell on the community center last year - says a withdrawal will turn this village of 2,000 into a battlefield.

If Israel withdraws, "We will face the problems here that we have in the security zone today," says Mr. Goldberg, whose small municipality is surrounded by Lebanon on three sides.

He does not speak for all residents of northern Israel, however.

Rachel Ben-Dor, whose home is also within shooting range from Lebanon, helped found the Four Mothers group that is calling for a withdrawal.

Her son is in a commando unit, and she usually isn't allowed to know where he is. "He's 20 years old, and so many of his friends are dead already," Mrs. Ben-Dor says. "We can't wait for the optimum situation. At least half of the Israeli people think that it's no use to stay in Lebanon under these conditions. The problem is not all of them are sure we can find the solution."

* Second of two parts. "Israel's 'Vietnam' Tarnishes a Once-Sacred Military" ran yesterday.

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