Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon increases Middle East tensions

The hurried withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon, intended to be the latest move in the US-led initiative for a settlement in the region, has turned into a humiliating rout.

The Lebanese population largely reviled Israel's proxy, the South Lebanon Army (SLA). As soon as the last Israeli troops were withdrawn, SLA troops were forced to either surrender to the Hezbollah forces or the Lebanese authorities, or to flee across the Israeli border.

When local Muslim protesters began to retake their villages, deserted during the 22 years of Israel's occupation, the SLA, who were supposed to be covering the withdrawal of Israeli troops simply dropped their guns. The jail at Khiam where the SLA and Israeli soldiers regularly beat up and tortured captured guerrilla fighters—or local civilians who refused to collaborate—was opened up for the world to see.

The huge border defences planned by Israel could not be completed in the disorganised retreat. Tensions have escalated within days of the withdrawal, as local Lebanese youth cut the border fence and threw stones at Israeli patrols who retaliated by firing back into the crowd.

Israeli occupation of the Lebanon, resulting in the death of hundreds of Israeli soldiers, is now opposed by a clear majority of Israel's people. But although Prime Minister Ehud Barak's withdrawal of troops is a response to this popular pressure, its effect will be to bring greater instability to the region, with the possibility that Israeli bombers and artillery could be used against Lebanon at any time.

Barak's gamble is that the Syrian regime will be forced to fill the vacuum left in southern Lebanon and rein in the Hezbollah militia. The tiny Lebanese state is totally dominated by Syria, which has over 30,000 troops stationed near to Beirut. The Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah militia is supported by both Syria and Iran. Its 2,000 or so fighters have been involved in guerrilla war against the Israeli occupation since 1982. In the wake of the Israeli pullout Iran's foreign minister was immediately dispatched to the Syrian capital, Damascus, and Syria is also under pressure from Western governments to call for restraint.

In order to placate the right-wing opponents of his shaky coalition government, Barak said following the withdrawal that any attacks on Israeli settlers or troops on the border by militia forces in south Lebanon would be regarded as an act of war and face massive retaliation. The Israeli army chief of staff stated that in the event of border incursions, "we will hit all the power-holding elements in Lebanon, including Syrian targets in Lebanon". In February this year, Israel bombed electrical power stations in Lebanon, resulting in a loss of electricity for much of the country, from which it has hardly begun to recover. Even if Hezbollah holds back its supporters, attacks could come from the competing Syrian-backed Amal militia, as well as Palestinian fighters based amongst the 300,000 refugees still living in camps in Lebanon.

The Israeli withdrawal came after peace negotiations between Israel and Syria, begun on US President Clinton's initiative, were blocked by Syria's refusal to make further concessions. A round of talks between the countries collapsed in January this year and the March summit between Clinton and President Assad failed to get the talks restarted. Reports suggest that although the ailing President Assad was keen to make a deal, a power struggle between his possible successors—his son Bashar, his brother Rifat and the present foreign minister Farouk Sharaa—made him take a tougher stance to bolster the support for Bashar.

The Israeli decision to withdraw was endorsed by the US. The immediate response of both the Syrian government and its Lebanese client regime was to step up their rhetorical opposition to the Israeli state. Syria demanded a complete withdrawal from the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967, and Lebanon demanded that Israel withdraw from a tiny area called Shebaa on the Lebanese-Syrian border, which it claims is part of Lebanon. The Hezbollah have also called for the withdrawal from Shebaa, as well as for the release of Lebanese prisoners held in Israel.

Israel's withdrawal is being celebrated as a victory by the mass of the population in Lebanon and in the surrounding Arab countries. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, who recently organised widespread protests against Israeli occupation, were jubilant. Students in Beirut will step up their campaign for Syria to leave Lebanon as well. Last month, despite severe reprisals, they marched against Syrian occupation of their country. The widespread perception that mass pressure drove out the Israeli occupiers has not received a welcome response from Arab regimes or political leaders. The BBC reported that Arab leaders are "uncomfortably aware of the triumphalist mood among many of their people."

Current Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, supposed to produce an agreement by September, are looking increasingly shaky as pressure mounts against Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat making any further accommodation to the Israeli regime. Arafat is reported to have mocked suggestions that the Hezbollah-led movement in Lebanon played any role in Israel's withdrawal. "Do you want to tell me that Barak gave the instruction to withdraw because of Hezbollah?" he asked sarcastically. The withdrawal was a result of international pressure from Western governments, he claimed: "He [Barak] did it to implement UN Resolution 425, as we agreed at the Madrid conference." (Resolution 425 was passed by the UN in 1978, calling on Israel to withdraw from Lebanon.)

Hezbollah's secretary-general Said Hasan Nasrallah also wanted to minimise the risk of a mass popular movement developing. In a victory speech to supporters, he made clear that Hezbollah would collaborate completely with the Lebanese government in the future administration of the area: "The state [Lebanon] is the one responsible. We are absolutely not responsible for the security in this area." Reports suggest that the Hezbollah leaders are restraining their forces, hoping to consolidate their position in Lebanon. As well as having representatives in the Lebanese parliament, they control lucrative smuggling operations.

The US administration's approach, as well as giving support to the Israeli withdrawal, is to back the implementation of a UN peacekeeping force in the Lebanon, whilst giving support to Beirut in retaking control of the southern area. The UN's observers now confirm that all Israeli and SLA forces have withdrawn from the area and the 4,500 UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) troops are expected to move in. Secretary General Kofi Annan is pushing for the force to be expanded to 8,000 in the next period.

A key question to be settled in the next few days is the role of France in this UNIFIL force. It already has some soldiers involved, but there are indications that the former colonial power is considering taking a lead in the Lebanon. French foreign minister Hubert Védrine met with his American counterpart Madeleine Albright on the fringe of the NATO meeting in Florence on Wednesday, May 24. He has said that France "set a number of logical and justifiable conditions before taking a definite decision." This appears to mean guarantees of security from the Israeli, Lebanese and Syrian governments. In language similar to that recently used by the British government in relation to Sierra Leone, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin told the French parliament that provided the security conditions were met, France was ready to "accept its responsibilities" in the UN force.