Israel should beware Hezbollah's trap

July 25, 2006|By TRUDY RUBIN

PHILADELPHIA -- On my office bulletin board hangs a yellowing Newsweek cover from Oct. 3, 1983, with the headline "Lebanon - Is There a Way Out?"

The headline refers to getting U.S. troops out of Lebanon, where they were sent by President Ronald Reagan on a humanitarian mission that soon soured. I came to The Inquirer that fall from Beirut, where I had been covering Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and its aftermath.

Scenes of U.S. Marines wading ashore last week to help evacuate Americans made me flash back to the destruction of a Marine barracks by a Hezbollah truck bomber 20 days after that Newsweek cover appeared. U.S. troops pulled out of Lebanon in 1984. Israeli troops got mired there for 18 years until they left in 2000, an exit for which Hezbollah took credit.

With Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice just beginning to seek a diplomatic way out of the new Lebanon war, my tattered Newsweek cover is a reminder of lessons from that conflict. Those lessons need to be heeded if U.S. and Israeli leaders are to avoid a new Hezbollah trap.

Back in 1982, the Israelis sought to drive the Palestine Liberation Organization from southern Lebanon, from which it launched bloody terrorist attacks. At the time, Israel also bombed Lebanon and laid siege to Beirut, which caused enormous suffering to civilians. Israeli officials told journalists bluntly that they were trying to pressure the Lebanese government to expel the PLO.

The pressure worked, in part because the Lebanese government and people were sick of paying a price for PLO operations - and also because Arab states refused to aid the Palestinians.

Facilitated by intense U.S. mediation, the PLO sailed out of Beirut to exile. But, worried that the border area would again become unsafe, Israel stayed on to occupy the south. Hezbollah was born - with Iranian help - as a resistance group to fight Israeli troops.

Flash forward to 2006. This time, Hezbollah provoked the confrontation with Israel. Having morphed into a political party, Hezbollah has refused to disband its militia, which controls the south of Lebanon. It attacked across the Israeli border - a border recognized by the United Nations. Israel had every right to respond.

But here comes Lesson One. Hezbollah is not the PLO. Unlike 1982, Hezbollah is not a foreign group that can be driven out of Lebanon. Hezbollah fighters are Lebanese citizens who run all manner of charitable services in the south, where they have substantial support.

Lebanon's democratically elected but weak government failed to rein in Hezbollah's militia because it feared a new civil war.

Lesson Two: Hezbollah (unlike the PLO in 1982) does have foreign backers - Syria and Iran - with whom U.S. officials have little influence. Those countries will continue to funnel money, and try to funnel more arms, to their Hezbollah proxy.

Much has been made of the fact that Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt openly criticized Hezbollah for provoking Israel to attack Lebanon. But those three Sunni Arab countries have little leverage on Shiite Hezbollah.

Which leads to Lesson Three. The best hope of isolating Hezbollah is to strengthen (not weaken or destroy) the government of Lebanon. Israel is trying to cut Hezbollah off from resupply by its Syrian and Iranian supporters. But the bombing of roads, bridges, airports and ports is wrecking Lebanon's economic present and future. Moreover, the only way Prime Minister Fouad Siniora can risk confronting Hezbollah, or invite a strong international force to police the border, is if he has the broad support of Lebanon's leaders and public.

Many Lebanese are indeed angry at Hezbollah. But the massive numbers of refugees and the bombing of civilian convoys fleeing the fighting are turning Lebanese against Israel rather than Hezbollah. This will make it very hard for Mr. Siniora to act.

Hezbollah is eager for more bombing, indeed for an Israeli ground invasion, which it hopes will mire Israel in another occupation so that its soldiers can be picked off in bunches. Hezbollah also expects that scenes of the massive suffering of Lebanese civilians will turn the international community against Israel.

So it is essential to outsmart Hezbollah, which revels in martyrdom and is willing to see Lebanon martyred alongside it. The organization can't be wiped out or kicked out, but every effort must be exerted to isolate it inside Lebanon and in the international arena.

Weeks more of bombing or a lengthy invasion will play into Hezbollah's hands. The time for intense U.S. diplomacy is now.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.

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