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Mothers of Israeli soldiers rally against war in Lebanon End to occupation urged before more sons die

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MACHANAYIM JUNCTION, Israel -- The Israeli soldiers who stop in at the restaurant at this northern crossroads are often on their way to the deadly terrain of South Lebanon.

Miri Sela works the cash register at the restaurant, and she watches the young soldiers with a mother's eyes. Like them, her 21-year-old son is serving in Lebanon.

Many of the soldiers don't notice the button pinned to Sela's shirt -- "To Leave Lebanon in Peace." But those who do often have something to say. The soldiers who argue with Sela find her opposition to the war to be unpatriotic when their comrades are dying to protect Israel's northern towns from attack by Lebanese guerrillas and rockets.

But others quietly confide to the 45-year-old mother: "Only the mothers can get us out of Lebanon."

The country's 17-year occupation of south Lebanon has become Israel's Vietnam, a seemingly intractable conflict in which about 1,200 Israeli soldiers have died -- 22 this year. Israelis have fought in five wars since the creation of their country 50 years ago. But only the war in Lebanon has provoked street demonstrations in Israel. Protesters marched against the war in 1982 as they do today. It is a war that has increasingly divided the Israeli public. The more soldiers who die in the zone, the wider the divide.

The deaths last month of seven soldiers in just two weeks set Israel's government scrambling to find a solution to the south Lebanon problem. The calls for Israel to withdraw from the security zone it occupies there grew louder.

Among the loudest voices were those of Sela and three other women, organizers of Israel's grass-roots movement against the Israeli occupation in south Lebanon. They gather under the banner of the Four Mothers, a name chosen as much for its simple description of its founders as for its Biblical reference to the four matriarchs of the Jewish people.

The women have demonstrated outside Israel's parliament with mud on their faces to protest the Lebanon quagmire. They have trucked an ostrich to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's house and told him to get his head out of the sand. They have painted a green line across Israel's northern border to protest the occupation.

Their message is deadly serious: Get out of Lebanon before more of Israel's sons die.

Bereaved parents, as well as retired soldiers, have supported their cause. Since they began demonstrating on street corners in 1997, the mothers have seen popular support for a unilateral withdrawal climb from 16 percent to 40 percent, according to a Gallup Poll conducted for the Israeli newspaper Maariv.

"We are saying to the government, 'We want you to leave Lebanon as quickly as possible. We don't care how; just go out from there,' " said Rachel Ben-Dor, one of the group's founding members. "Time equals life in Lebanon."

But the Israeli government has conditioned withdrawal on security guarantees for Israel's northern border and towns by Lebanon and its military backer, Syria. Syria has its own conditions: It wants the return of the Golan Heights, a mountainous region occupied by Israel since the 1967 war, where some 15,000 Israeli settlers now live.

Because Israeli hard-liners say the Golan offers Israel a strategic vantage point on its northeast flank, the idea of vacating the Golan has presented a thorny political problem for Netanyahu and his predecessors.

Some Israelis believe that groups such as the Four Mothers are playing into the hands of Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas. Their protests will make it more difficult for Israel to extricate itself from the security zone and protect its northern border from rocket attacks, the critics say.

"I can't blame a mother who is concerned while her son is serving in a dangerous area. But this concern cannot guide a national security policy," said Ephraim Sneh, a retired general and member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament. "The national security policy should consider only one thing: how the Israelis who live in northern Israel are best protected."

Sneh contends that Hezbollah guerrilla leaders "declare time and again that they will kick Israel out of Lebanon through the protest of the Israeli mothers."

"When a group of Israeli citizens, in this case those mothers, says, 'We don't care how you defend the northern border, but pull our kids out,' it's a symptom of eroded national solidarity and an erosion of the Israeli will to stand for our national existence," said Sneh. "A nation which is not ready to fight and sacrifice can't survive in the Middle East."

Still, the withdrawal movement has gained momentum and some unlikely supporters. These include Israeli Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, who as defense minister orchestrated the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, in which Israeli forces marched as far north as Beirut. He was forced to resign from that Cabinet post after the massacre of Palestinian refugees by Lebanese militiamen aligned with the Israelis.

Sharon suggests a gradual withdrawal because he believes the present strategy has run its course. But he promises swift retaliation if Lebanese guerrillas attack northern Israel.

Yossi Beilin, a member of the Knesset who has championed a unilateral withdrawal, said the mothers' group has humanized the cause and made it acceptable to voice opposition.

"They are the pioneers," said Beilin. "The organization was not known; the name was not known. And those who knew about it thought they were just worried mothers who didn't want their sons to serve in Lebanon instead of a political group that was suggesting a solution to the war in Lebanon."

But politics isn't what drove Ben-Dor, Sela, Ronit Nachmias and Yaffa Arbel.

Each has a son in the elite units fighting Hezbollah guerrillas. Their husbands fought in the early days of the war as Israel drove Palestinian guerrillas from their base in Lebanon.

The four women had also served in the Israeli army, as is mandatory here. They spent the following years raising their children and working on their kibbutzim. They saw their sons inducted into the army, a rite of passage for Israeli youth, and began counting the days until their discharge.

But when two helicopters ferrying soldiers to south Lebanon collided within several miles of the women's Upper Galilee homes in February 1997, they felt they could no longer sit at home and wait.

Seventy-three soldiers died in that helicopter crash. "Until my son called at 4 a.m., all us mothers were in a panic thinking our sons were in the helicopters," said Sela, who manages the restaurant at the Machanayim Junction. "That's when we decided to do something."

Sela, Ben-Dor and Arbel met at the home of Nachmias on Kibbutz Gadot, a farming community within earshot of security zone artillery fire and about six miles from the Syrian border. They talked for three hours, exchanging stories about their sons.

"I hear him talking to his friends that death is getting closer and closer to him," recalled Sela. " 'First friends, then a close classmate, and then it's our turn to give our souls to God.' And that's when I said, 'No.' It shouldn't be that every generation of young men has to give a quota of their lives."

XTC "We wanted to do something before we have to cry," added Nachmias, whose only son is serving in the army.

Since the Four Mothers began speaking out, other groups have formed, one as recently as last week. This group, calling itself Fire Pillar, is composed of bereaved mothers who have lost sons in the war. A handful of them have held a daily vigil outside the Jerusalem residence of President Ezer Weizman. They sit on folding chairs under the shade of a beach umbrella holding signs that read "Lebanon Is Killing Us."

Many people driving by honk or give a thumbs-up in solidarity. Weizman and his wife, Rula, have invited them into their home for coffee.

"Our demonstrations keep the pressure on the politicians to talk about Lebanon. We want them to make withdrawal a primary goal of this government," said Orna Shimoni, 57, whose son, Eyal, died in Lebanon on Sept. 18, 1997.

Last week, Netanyahu took his Cabinet on a secret tour of the security zone in Lebanon. "We are here to defend the children and the villages and the citizens in northern Israel, and that is the major goal," Netanyahu said. "If we can find a way to defend northern Israel without [the army] being here, we'll take them out."

The Four Mothers never imagined that their protests would galvanize public support. But their efforts to change Israel's Lebanon policy may be paying off.

After repeated requests to speak to Netanyahu, the mothers are scheduled to meet with him today.

"Do you know a mother whose strength for her son ends?" asked Sela. "We have endless energy."

Pub Date: 12/06/98

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