Lebanon Remains Caught in Tug of War
Battle for influence between Syria and Israel haunts nation for decade
IN February, when Katyusha rockets were raining down into northern Galilee from southern Lebanon, it must have seemed to many Israelis that nothing had been changed by their invasion of Lebanon 10 years ago.
And the latest escalation of violence in the area, with Israeli warplanes carrying out almost daily bombing runs in support of heavy artillery and tank bombardments, leaves the impression that everything has come full cycle. In many ways, the picture looks very similar to the period before Israel's 1982 invasion, which was launched 10 years ago Saturday. There are even concerns in Lebanon that the Israelis may be planning another invasion against their enemies in south Lebanon.
But for the Lebanese, the 1982 invasion marked a major turning point in their seemingly interminable crisis, triggering a series of upheavals and changes that are still being felt today.
For one thing, Israel's main enemies in south Lebanon are no longer the Palestine Liberation Organization guerrillas, whose power in the country was largely broken by the invasion. Israel now is having to deal with Lebanese resistance groups that did not exist before, and whose existence and activities were stimulated by the invasion and by Israel's occupation of the border "security zone" that it established after withdrawing from the rest of the country in 1985.
"Up until 1982, you had the Palestinians ruling south Lebanon, but not any more, now you have the Lebanese ruling their own land," says Timur Goksel, who has been spokesman for the United Nations peacekeeping force in the south since its inception in 1978.
"Because there is an Israeli occupation, and there's a militia totally dependent on Israel, their presence is a magnet for Lebanese resistance groups," Mr. Goksel adds. "In terms of resistance and military activities, Hizbullah has become the major force in south Lebanon, because they are the most organized."
Lebanese government officials, who have their own problems with the militant, Iranian-backed Hizbullah, also believe Israel's actions provided the radical faction with its raison dtre.
"The phenomenon of Hizbullah is a byproduct of the Israeli occupation," says Suheil Shammas, director-general of the Lebanese Foreign Ministry and head of the Lebanese team in fruitless bilateral talks with Israel last year. "The Israelis throw into our faces ... security concerns which arose because of the mere fact of their occupation."
Lebanon's leading historian, Kamal Salibi of the American University of Beirut, agrees that the invasion changed the nature of the struggle in the south, and had a profound impact on the broader Lebanese political equation.
"In a way, it made the conflict a Lebanese-Israeli one rather than a Palestinian-Israeli conflict in Lebanon," he says. "It broke the back of the Palestinian movement here. From that time, the Palestinians have been an ancillary factor to the situation, rather than in the heart of it."
Analysts say the invasion had a massively radicalizing effect on Lebanon's large and disadvantaged Shiite community. Shiites lived cheek by jowl with the Palestinians both in the south and in Beirut, and they suffered heavily from Israeli actions, with hundreds of thousands displaced. Because the Shiites predominate in the rural south, they bore the brunt of the Israeli occupation until 1985, and continue to be affected by Israeli control of dozens of Shiite villages in the border "security zone."
Shiite radicalism, channeled into the Iranian-organized Hizbullah, provided an instrument which Syria and its ally Iran were able to use in redressing the Lebanese balance of power, disturbed by Israel's arrival in Beirut. It became a painful process.
Suicide car bombs, assassinations, and kidnapping all were deployed as weapons in the drive to oust both Israel and the United States-led multinational force from the country.
Successive upheavals finally tilted the balance of power back toward the Syrians. Their troops, forced to evacuate Beirut in 1982, returned to the city in 1987 and are still there now.
If the invasion may be accounted a failure by many Israelis, it turned out to be a disaster for the Lebanese Christians, whose hard-line leaders had encouraged the Israeli intervention in the hope of riding to power in the Lebanese internal struggle.
As the Israelis withdrew step by step, Christians were displaced en masse from scores of villages in the mountains and the south when their militia fled attacks by Druze and Muslim fighters.
"As a result of the invasion, the Christians had to leave one part of Lebanon after another, until they found themselves restricted to the purely Christian enclave [east and north of Beirut]," says Dr. Salibi.
"But in a way, it was the beginning of the end of the Lebanese civil war," he adds. "The Christians paid a very high price for their mistake, and finally the only course left open for them was to accept the Arab mediation that led to the 1979 Taif accord, in which they had to yield a little of their traditional political privileges."
Not all Lebanese agree that their civil war is over. The warlords may have put away their guns for now. But the peace, such as it is, is heavily dependent on the Syrians, who are supposed to withdraw to the eastern Bekaa Valley in the autumn.
Nobody imagines the Syrians will complete their withdrawal while the Israelis remain embedded in the south. Unless that vicious circle can somehow be broken, the Lebanese seem destined to remain caught up in a tug of war and influence between its two powerful neighbors. Some of the actors may have changed, but Lebanon's basic dilemma remains the same.