Did Israel Swap One Lebanon for Another?

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Israeli soldiers inspect the wreckage of a shot-down Lebanese plane

Flying a stolen plane over the Israel-Lebanon border on May 24 was tantamount to committing suicide for a young Lebanese joy-rider. That Israel forces shot down the single-engined Cessna 152 after the pilot refused to respond to attempts by Israeli aircraft to communicate with him is hardly surprising, given that the date is the first anniversary of Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon and that its forces were on high alert against the possibility of attacks by the Hizballah guerrilla army that has continued to attack Israeli positions in the Shebaa Farms area of the border.

While the shoot-down may dominate the day's headlines, for Israelis the anniversary has been an opportunity to reflect on their government's decision to unilaterally end its 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon — a decision forced on Israel by the relentless stream of casualties inflicted on its forces by Hizballah's low-intensity guerrilla campaign. When then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak gave the order to withdraw, in line with a campaign promise to pull out within a year of his election, he was expressing the will of some 70 percent of Israeli voters, who could no longer see any valid purpose in sending their sons and daughters to die in Lebanon in the vain pursuit of security for Israel's northernmost towns. (Despite the occupation, Hizballah had still managed to periodically rain Katyusha rockets on those towns.)

To be sure, Israel's northern towns have been left unmolested despite the withdrawal, although Hizballah has continued to attack Israeli forces in the Shebaa Farms district, which the Lebanese militia claims as part of Lebanon but the United Nations recognizes as part of the Syrian Golan Heights occupied by Israel. Hizballah also claims it is fighting on to press for the release of Lebanese and Palestinian detainees in Israeli prisons. But the fact that Syria is the de facto military power in Lebanon and sets the rules within which Lebanese groups operate, Hizballah's continued campaign has been widely interpreted as an expression by proxy of Syria's desire to maintain pressure on Israel's northern flank in pursuit of its goal of reclaiming the Golan Heights.

But Israel's media has been filled all week with reflective commentaries over the wisdom of the withdrawal, which hinge less on the security situation on its northern flank than on the impact of the retreat on Palestinian thinking. The Israeli withdrawal was celebrated throughout the Arab world as a famous victory — indeed, it was the first time Israel had been compelled, by force of arms, to withdraw from Arab territory. And nowhere was the lesson more ardently embraced than in the West Bank and Gaza, where rank-and-file Palestinian activists had grown increasingly skeptical of the prospects for the peace process to secure an Israeli withdrawal from those territories.

The generation of Palestinians who waged the first intifada from 1987 into the early 1990s had watched with considerable skepticism as Arafat brought the PLO exile apparatus back from Tunis, installed them as the pashas of the West Bank and Gaza towns handed over to him under Oslo, and promised to negotiate away the Israeli occupation and in its place put a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. By last year, the peace process had delivered precious little of what Arafat had promised his people it would bring. And as he approached his moment of truth at Camp David, it was the Palestinian leader who had most reason to be alarmed by Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon. Because for Palestinian militants, both of the Islamist stripe and of his own Fatah organization, the lesson of Lebanon was that Israel could be forced to cede control of occupied territory if it were forced to pay a high enough price. Once Arafat launched a second intifada, it was those militants rather than the aging PLO chairman who claimed the strategic initiative in Palestinian politics.

Today, Israeli leaders remain divided — and not along partisan lines, either — over whether leaving Lebanon to save Israeli lives helped put Israel into its current predicament in the West Bank and Gaza. But for the Palestinian militants, there is no debate. The Hizballah strategy is being pursued by a range of Palestinian militant groups, ranging from Hamas and Islamic Jihad to elements of Arafat's own Fatah organization and even cells created by Hizballah itself, who see firing on Israeli soldiers and settlers with assault rifles and mortars, setting off remote-controlled roadside bombs and sending suicide bombers into Israel itself as the tactics of attrition they believe will eventually turn Israeli public opinion against hanging onto the West Bank and Gaza. Whether or not they're right, they're unlikely to stop trying — and that's a problem not only for Israel, but also for Arafat when and if he tries to implement a cease-fire.

But while the Hizballah victory in Lebanon would have given Palestinian militants a lift and emboldened them in arguments with moderates, it's hard to imagine that the latest intifada would have been avoided if Israel had kept its army in southern Lebanon. If they'd stayed, it's more than possible right now that they'd be facing the Hizballah strategy on two fronts.