Lebanon occupation takes center stage in Israel
Web posted at: 10:09 p.m. EST (0309 GMT)
JERUSALEM (CNN) -- The past week's clashes appear to have brought Israel closer than ever to pulling out of southern Lebanon and made the Hezbollah guerrillas increasingly optimistic that their struggle to eject the Israeli forces from the country will succeed.
The violence, which killed the top commander of the Israeli forces and six other Israelis, has rekindled public calls for a withdrawal. The issue dominated the Israeli election campaign Tuesday, with both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and top opposition candidate Ehud Barak promising to get out of Lebanon in more specific terms than ever before.
The mood among the Hezbollah, meanwhile, was buoyant.
"Israeli soldiers are terrified of Hezbollah ... and they are feeling more bitterness and embarrassment because of our operations," the group's deputy secretary-general, Sheik Naim Kassem, said in Iqlim Al-Toufah, Lebanon, at the funeral of one of the two guerrilla fighters killed in Israeli attacks.
The skirmishes, the latest in a long series of Hezbollah attempts to push Israel out of Lebanon, began Sunday when the guerrillas ambushed vehicles accompanying Brig. Gen. Erez Gerstein.
Gerstein, who died in the attack, was the commander in Israel's security zone, which runs the length of the border and about nine miles (15 kilometers) deep into Lebanon. Israel set up the zone in 1985 with the aim of preventing attacks across its northern border.
Calls for withdrawal intensify
Israeli calls to end the occupation of southern Lebanon have bubbled up periodically, usually after Israeli soldiers have been injured or killed in the security zone. While polls show that a majority of Israelis still favor the security zone, the calls for withdrawal have been increasingly insistent in the last year.
On Tuesday, opposition to the occupation surfaced again as Israel buried the 901st soldier to die in Lebanon since its troops first invaded in 1982.
Baruch Axelrod, the father of a paratrooper serving in Lebanon, made an emotional public appeal to Netanyahu to pull out the troops. "I don't want to be the father of a hero. I want my son next to me at the Sabbath table," he said in an ad run Tuesday in the Haaretz daily.
The ad touched a chord with the Israeli public and helped place the issue at center stage. Axelrod, the 47-year-old president of an Israeli high-tech firm, said parents of other soldiers began calling him Tuesday after the newspaper hit the stands.
"One woman just cried and cried for half an hour," Axelrod said. "She said she had five sons, two serving in Lebanon, and she is so frightened she doesn't know what to do."
Barak vows pullout within a year
With casualties mounting, Barak, who faces Netanyahu in May 17 elections, promised Tuesday he would get Israeli soldiers out of Lebanon by June 2000. As part of the plan, he said he would resume peace talks with Syria -- the main power broker in Lebanon -- which insists any agreement be conditioned on the return of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967.
Netanyahu, whose Lebanon initiatives have foundered in nearly three years in power, said a year would be enough for him to leave Lebanon, either through a deal with Syria or by pulling out unilaterally -- an idea he has resisted so far.
"I estimate that we will find a way, by one of these two possibilities, to get the army out in the coming year. I will of course not commit to an iron date," Netanyahu told Army Radio.
He said he would not pay an "exaggerated price" for a deal with Syria, charging Barak's Labor Party would give away too much on the Golan.
The debate comes at a crucial time for Netanyahu, facing a tough re-election campaign and being criticized from both the left and right for his Lebanon policy.
On Sunday, Israeli warplanes retaliated against Hezbollah targets in what Netanyahu described as part of a new, tougher policy against the guerrillas.
Analyst: Hezbollah 'setting the agenda'
However, critics said Netanyahu was only trying to appear tough without risking a full-fledged confrontation with Hezbollah so close to the Israeli elections.
"Lebanon is a graveyard not only for Israeli soldiers but also for Israeli politicians," Israeli political analyst Daniel Ben-Simon said. "It has killed (former Prime Minister) Menachem Begin. It has killed, politically, (former Prime Minister) Shimon Peres in '96. It might kill Benjamin Netanyahu if things get worse.
"After 20 years of quagmire in Lebanon, the Hezbollah is setting the agenda," Ben-Simon said.
At the same time, the sophistication of Sunday's ambush, which occurred in an area where Hezbollah doesn't have a strong network of support, indicates that the guerrillas remain a force to be reckoned with.
"Militarily, they have become much more professional, no doubt about it," said Timor Goksel, a spokesman for the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon. "But what sets them apart is the planning, the collection of intelligence, the analysis of that information; and they are putting it in practice."
Israel's policy has inched steadily toward withdrawal as its military casualties have mounted.
On April 1, 1998, Israel adopted 20-year-old U.N. Security Council Resolution 425, which calls for an Israeli pullout.
But it demanded the Beirut government first guarantee security against cross-border guerrilla attacks.
Lebanon rejected the offer, saying Resolution 425 called for an immediate and unconditional withdrawal, not negotiations.
Syria, which has some 35,000 troops in Lebanon, has held sporadic peace talks with Israel since 1991. But negotiations broke off in early 1996 without tangible results.
Beirut Bureau Chief Brent Sadler, Jerusalem Bureau Chief Walter Rodgers and Reuters contributed to this report.
Lebanon, Israel on alert for attacks after deadly weekend ambush
Israel/Lebanon - Background
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