Lingering conflict in Lebanon teaches lesson in value of peace


MARJAYOUN, Occupied Lebanon -- The hills here are barren and still, but their creases hide a belly-crawling war that can bloom in an instant of gunfire and death.

This is Israel's last battlefront, a place where casualties on both sides remind of the purpose of the Middle East peace negotiations.

Yesterday, two more Israeli soldiers were killed and five were wounded, adding to the toll in a war of endurance. Neither side expects to vanquish the other, only to surpass the enemy's tolerance for this monotony of death.

"Nobody forgets about southern Lebanon. Everybody has a son or husband who was there or is there now," said Uri Dromi, the Israeli government spokesman.

The prospect of ending the guerrilla war in southern Lebanon might be the biggest selling point of a peace accord with Syria if Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin presents one for approval to his public.

Syria controls Lebanon, and Israel argues that Syria can put a halt to attacks by the Lebanese Hezbollah (Party of God) guerrillas.

"The Syrians let the Hezbollah play in their back yard for their own interests," said Brig. Gen. Giora Inbar, commander of the Israeli forces in South Lebanon. "If Syria wants to, it can stop them."

There is no sign that Syria is doing so. The number of attacks by Hezbollah has increased from 132 in 1991 to a total that will exceed 500 this year, according to General Inbar.

On a calm day last week, he stood on the roof of his heavily guarded headquarters in Marjayoun, surveying the brown Lebanese hills. Two hours later, Israeli artillery boomed over the slopes, killing one Hezbollah fighter, according to a statement from Hezbollah in Beirut.

Israel moved into these posts in 1985, retreating from a bloody and disastrous invasion of Lebanon aimed at eliminating Palestinian guerrillas. Israel set up what it calls a "security zone," a buffer north of the border that extends two to nine miles into Lebanon.

Lebanese Shiite Muslims have replaced Palestinians as the chief opponent. Israel calls them "terrorists." Hezbollah says it is fighting to evict the Israeli occupying army from Lebanese soil.

The conflict is one waged mostly in the shadows and stony crags of the South Lebanon hills. Hezbollah guerrillas sneak along dry creek beds to plant roadside bombs or launch attacks with Katyusha rockets. Israel responds with heavy artillery, tanks and machine guns, and conducts night raids of its own.

By mutual agreement brokered through the United States, the fighting is supposed to be confined to the security zone. But Israel regularly shells Lebanese villages north of the zone, and Hezbollah sometimes lobs mortar rounds into northern Israel.

Yesterday, Israeli commandos raided Brachit, a village north of the zone. Israel Radio said they blew up buildings; the army said it did not find the guerrillas they sought; Hezbollah claimed that the commandos were repulsed.

Later in the morning a Hezbollah mortar shell hit an Israeli tank, wounding three soldiers. At noon, a roadside bomb killed two soldiers and wounded two.

General Inbar said he believes the fighting has been accelerated to increase the stakes of peace negotiations with Syria.

"The peace process gives the Hezbollah motivation to raise the number of attacks," he said.

Israel has about 500 soldiers in the security zone, he said. It also relies on about 2,000 Arab soldiers in the South Lebanese Army (SLA), each of whom is paid $350 to $550 a month to fight on Israel's side.

General Inbar estimated Hezbollah strength at "not more than 1,000 fighters."

Despite its overwhelming advantage in weapons -- Israel has the latest in equipment and patrols the skies with U.S.-made helicopter gunships and fighter planes -- Hezbollah inflicted the greater number of casualties last year. About 38 guerrillas were killed, according to Hezbollah announcements, while Israel lost 21 soldiers and the SLA, 34.

Privately, Israeli officials worry about the dependability of the SLA militia. The SLA has taken heavy casualties, and SLA soldiers wonder what would happen to them if Israel were to withdraw from Lebanon. This reportedly has led to desertions and low morale. Mr. Rabin suggested recently that the SLA has broken ranks with Israeli commanders to strike back at Hezbollah, and Israeli troops have taken over some forward positions from the SLA.

The reports are denied by Gen. Antoine Lahad, the Christian Arab commander of the SLA.

"We have accepted the casualties. This has not affected the morale of our troops," he said last week at the Israeli border. But he acknowledged that the peace negotiations have made for "some uncertainties."

"America does not care that much about continued Syria presence in Lebanon," he said. "They have much more interest in the peace [process] than in the future of Lebanon."

To enlist Syria's help in the 1991 Persian Gulf war, the United States backed away from its long effort to keep Lebanon from being taken over by Syria. There are now an estimated 40,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon, and the Lebanese government largely takes its orders from Damascus.

Some Israelis argue that accepting that situation in a peace treaty is a mistake.

"If there's a peace agreement that leaves Syrian forces in Lebanon, Syria will have the possibility to attack Israel on two fronts. I think it's strategic folly," said Efraim Inbar, director of the Besa Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv.

"In order to solve a small problem [in southern Lebanon], we will create a huge strategic problem," he said.

Mr. Rabin argues that the only way to stop the bloodshed in Lebanon is to come to an agreement with Syria. He will have to make that argument persuasively if he is to convince the Israeli public of the value of a treaty that gives the Golan Heights back to Syria. Polls show that most Israelis oppose such a move.

"If the government starts to deal with Syria, it's not only about the Golan Heights," said Mr. Dromi, the government spokesman. "The public will consider all the aspects: southern Lebanon, the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the end of the Arab boycott, the opening of relations with gulf states."

"Everybody accepts that we will get out of Lebanon sooner or later," said Yossi Olmert, an Israeli expert on Syria and Lebanon. "It's not an ideological issue. There's no 'right' or 'left' on this issue. It's only an issue of security."

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