Why the "L" Word — Lebanon — Now Haunts the West Bank

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A Palestinian gunman runs to take position in the West Bank town of Beit Jalah

Occupying the West Bank and Gaza may once have seemed a natural investment in Israel's security, but today that occupation is fast becoming the Jewish state's security nightmare. The recent images tell the story: Palestinian guerrillas infiltrating a military outpost in Gaza and killing three soldiers. Israel responding with air power and tank artillery, then assassinating a key radical Palestinian leader a day later. Intense Palestinian small arms and mortar fire across a wide front, and then Israel sending in armored columns to quell that fire.

These images suggest nothing more than a burgeoning, long-term guerrilla war. And that has prompted some commentators in the Israeli media to invoke the dreaded "L" word — Lebanon. Israel's 18-year occupation of its northern neighbor is remembered in the Israeli collective psyche as its very own Vietnam-style quagmire, an unwinnable war that cost thousands of Israeli lives and ended in ignominious defeat. And for that same reason, over in the West Bank and Gaza, Lebanon carries considerable mythic significance, too. Only there, it's not op-ed columnists but young men with guns and bombs who draw the link with Hezbollah's two-decade guerrilla campaign that shattered the aura of invincibility of the Middle East's strongest, best-equipped and most technologically superior army.

Both sides in the West Bank and Gaza are beginning to adopt, in a limited way, the tactics of the Lebanon war, as Oslo appears to slip further and further into history. Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon appears to believe that Israel can tough it out, systematically raising the ante of military pressure and exhausting the Palestinians' will to sustain their intifada. He has repeatedly stressed that a political deal of the type discussed at Camp David is out of the question, and speaks instead of some kind of long-term cease-fire. And while Sharon allows his foreign minister, Shimon Peres, to hold talks with Arafat, he stresses at the same time that Arafat is no longer Israel's peace partner.

Arafat confused, militants clear

On the Palestinian side, Arafat looks panicky, scurrying from Berlin to Beijing in search of diplomatic progress, but politically paralyzed to take the actions against the Islamists and other militants that such progress would require. Unlike Arafat, many of those militants appear to have a clear strategy — the one perfected by Hezbollah in Lebanon, of inflicting a slow but steady stream of casualties on the Israelis through guerrilla warfare and terror strikes in the hope of turning Israeli public opinion against the occupation. And today that strategy, rather than Arafat's diplomacy, tends to hold sway on the Palestinian street.

Today it is the grassroots of Arafat's own political and security apparatus working side by side with the Islamists and other radicals in "Popular Resistance Committees," sometimes in defiance of the Palestinian leader's periodic cease-fire calls. Thus the sorry pantomime of the Palestinian leader's efforts to appear in step, such as his self-conscious toting of a Kalashnikov for the cameras while assessing Israeli bomb damage Monday. And for Arafat the ruse is self-defeating, since the further down that road he goes the more difficult becomes the return to negotiations he so desperately seeks, while his erstwhile rivals in the Islamist camp are quite happy to embrace his gun-toting alter ego.

How did we get here?

Israel's current security crisis originates in 1967, when it occupied the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights in order to expand its own defensive perimeter after having vanquished the armies of Jordan, Egypt and Syria in six days. Such expansion of Israel's defense perimeter was considered essential in that era of tank warfare, but it also meant subjecting some 3 million Palestinians, many of them already refugees, to direct Israeli military rule. From the outset the occupation created a dilemma for Israeli democracy. Annexing the West Bank and Gaza would force Israel to grant the Palestinian population the rights of citizenship, putting the future of Israel's Jewish majority in doubt. "Ethnic cleansing" was ruled out too, despite being favored by more extremist Israeli groups. Instead, Israel's policy became to maintain a long-term occupation but begin settling tens of thousands of Israelis on swathes of territory seized from Palestinians in order to create "facts on the ground" — and, indeed, despite viewing these as entirely illegal, the Palestinians were nonetheless forced by Oslo to bargain over the fate of those settlements. And, in a situation much lamented by Israeli liberals, a state that prided itself on being the region's only democracy was forced into the Dr. Hyde role inevitably thrust onto any occupier.

It was the occupation that paradoxically saved the PLO. While Israeli military actions had driven the leadership from Lebanon to Tunisia and roundly defeated its terrorism and guerrilla campaigns launched abroad, the Palestinians under occupation were a fount of renewal for the nationalist movement. The four-year intifada waged in the West Bank and Gaza ultimately forced Israel to a political reckoning with Arafat, and the Oslo accords. And despite its near-total collapse, the Oslo peace process has profoundly altered the terms of battle over the West Bank and Gaza.

Lebanizing the conflict?

Even if the 63 non-contiguous enclaves controlled by Arafat today don't form much of a state, they're a perfect base for insurgency. Oslo has given the Palestinians guns, plenty of them, and zones of control in which their enemy enters only for short periods in heavily-armed contingents. That, together with a civilian population overwhelmingly supportive of the anti-occupation cause has created perfect conditions for guerrilla warfare — something the PLO never had in exile. In the 70s and 80s, there were isolated terrorist attacks and the occasional kamikaze guerrilla sent across the border on a hang-glider; while in the West Bank and Gaza militant youths were confined to stones and gasoline bombs and the occasional handgun. Oslo has brought the different dimensions into physical proximity, meaning the stone-throwing youth can be turned into a sniper or recruited as a suicide bomber. And that's created a security nightmare for Israel.

Of course, the West Bank and Gaza are not Lebanon. The Palestinian territories are entirely surrounded by Israeli forces, meaning that unlike Hezbollah, the Palestinians have no easy access to heavy weaponry. And the Israelis had no emotional attachments to Lebanon, whereas the West Bank is home to a politically powerful settler constituency and includes East Jerusalem — it's harder to imagine Israel leaving (although perhaps marginally easier in Gaza, which is nobody's idea of a promised land). On the other hand, there have already been signs that Syria is attempting to send rockets and other heavy weapons by sea to Gaza, and that Saddam Hussein has active cells on the West Bank. Moreover, unlike in Lebanon, the Israelis have no local proxy forces to undertake garrison duties — it was Arafat's PA that was to have policed the territories, and had indeed been certified by the CIA to have been reining in the Islamists before the current intifada, which has buried many of the differences between the rival Palestinian factions. The network of settlements and army positions may make a fine Maginot Line against a conventional invasion from the east, but they leave Israeli forces far more vulnerable to close quarters attack than they had been in Lebanon

In the end, the extent to which the West Bank and Gaza are objectively similar or dissimilar from Lebanon is less important than the extent to which Palestinian militants believe they are. Because it's the belief that time and the laws of attrition are on their side that prompts them to try to replicate the Hezbollah strategy. And the danger for Israel is that in the absence of a political solution, the Hezbollah option becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.