Giving voice to the fury and futility in Lebanon

Israel promises havoc to foes, but 2 soldiers call the war 'too much'

February 10, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Israelis heard two messages on Lebanon yesterday, reflecting the angry, painful experience the Jewish state has had in the land to the north for almost two decades.

Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy warned of the direst consequences for Lebanon if Hezbollah guerrillas launch a single Katyusha rocket into Israel in retaliation for the damage Israeli warplanes have been wreaking on Lebanon since Monday night.

"If Katyushas fall on our settlements, the soil of Lebanon will burn," Levy told Western diplomats in Israel. "Let everyone hear: Vital interests of Lebanon will go up in flames, and it will take many years to restore them."

Then there were the voices of a couple of Israeli soldiers serving in Lebanon, speaking about the hopelessness of their mission in that country in a broadcast that was extraordinary by Israeli standards.

Israel Radio said the two soldiers sought out its reporters to air their complaints. The army was unhappy about the broadcast, but did nothing to prevent it.

"One must know to give up when we've exhausted ourselves and see it's too much -- there are too many casualties," one of the soldiers said. The tension from sitting in fixed positions threatened with guerrilla mortar fire "wears us down," the soldier said. `We are waiting to get out of there."

"I think the faster we get out of there the better," said the other. "You have to be there to understand. We will never win this war -- we who are so big and heavy and they [who] are small and stinging. We shall also hit them but it will hurt us more. The bottom line is, we've got nothing to look for there."

Israel Radio did not say where the soldiers were interviewed or give their names.

"Soldiers and officers are not supposed to take a political stand," an Israeli army spokeswoman said last night. But she also said, "The IDF [army] spokesperson does not operate in any way to prevent stories being published."

Israel Radio routinely submits military stories to the government censor, but the censor cannot suppress material that does not bear on national security.

The soldiers spoke against a backdrop of mounting violence in recent weeks that has brought a number of calls from the right and left for a quick pullout, but it is unusual for soldiers in the field to speak out so publicly.

Their comments were aired two days after Prime Minister Ehud Barak launched heavy airstrikes against three electrical sites and a Hezbollah guerrilla bunker headquarters in Lebanon to avenge the deaths of five Israeli soldiers since the beginning of the year.

The attacks didn't prevent a sixth Israeli soldier from being killed by a Hezbollah rocket attack Tuesday, but guerrillas have refrained from a feared Katyusha rocket attack into Israel.

Israel mounted more air attacks yesterday but confined them to guerrilla targets and not infrastructure, which could harm the general population.

Israeli planes mounted raids on Lebanon for a third night yesterday, attacking guerrilla targets in the south of the country, an Israeli army statement said. Air Force jets fired 18 missiles in three daytime and three nighttime raids along a 12-mile stretch of southern Lebanon, wire services reported from Lebanon.

Despite his threatening tone, Barak's security Cabinet agreed yesterday to give diplomacy a chance to resolve the crisis. Members of an international monitoring group for southern Lebanon have called for a meeting today.

The use of Israel's formidable air power in a guerrilla war has its own frustrations, as two Israeli F-16 fighter pilots described in an interview with The Sun yesterday.

Monday's airstrikes were unusual in that the targets were substantial electrical transformers and a building in the Bekaa Valley with a guerrilla headquarters bunker below.

More often, the targets are individual mortars, sometimes hand-carried, that threaten Israeli soldiers on the ground. If the mortars move into a village or populated area, pilots must abandon the search for fear of striking civilians.

The F-16s "are not built to destroy these things," an air squadron commander said, referring to the targets they commonly pursue in southern Lebanon. They are easier to hit from the ground, but at the risk of more Israeli casualties.

While trying to pinpoint these small targets, the F-16 pilots must fly high enough to avoid being struck by surface-to-air missiles. And the adaptable guerrillas have shifted tactics so as not to fire from a single position for long, making them harder to track.

Barak has vowed to withdraw Israeli forces from southern Lebanon by July. Whether that should happen only with an agreement by Lebanon and by Syria, which controls Lebanon, appears to be hotly debated in Barak's Cabinet. An agreement would ensure a peaceful exit, and unilateral withdrawal could encourage more Hezbollah violence and Israeli retaliation.

The chance of an agreement has diminished in recent weeks with a freeze in the Israeli-Syrian peace process.

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