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banner Sunday, 5 March, 2000, 17:06 GMT
Analysis: Obstacles to withdrawal
Israel in action in south Lebanon, June 1993
Israel's imbroglio in Lebanon could soon end

Israel has voted to end its long occupation of southern Lebanon by July, but what will the impact be for regional stability if Mr Barak's promised withdrawal is not effected with Syria's blessing?

Israel carved out a buffer zone in south Lebanon saying it was needed to stop Arab guerrillas attacking civilians living its northernmost towns over the Israeli-Lebanese border.

Mr Barak hopes to achieve his popular pledge to pull out in the context of an agreement with Syria, the main power broker and guarantor of security in Lebanon.

The Syrian track is still proving hard to unblock, after years of stagnation and present differences over tying Israel's withdrawal from Syrian land to Syria's acceptance of normalisation with Israel.

In the meantime, problems on the Syrian track could, at any time, result in south Lebanon's instability spiralling out of control.

Moral victory

More clashes mean more painful events like this
In the rugged mountains of the south the mighty Israeli army (IDF) is pinned down by several thousand highly motivated, disciplined and well-trained Lebanese guerrillas.

The IDF has been in Lebanon continuously since 1978, the area it currently occupies being a strip about 15 km (9 miles) wide from the coast up to the strategic ridge of the Lebanon mountains.

In the latest upsurge of violence, in early February, it was the guerrillas - from the Shi'a fundamentalist group Hezbollah - who appeared to have the upper hand.

The Israelis were driven to wildly lashing out, issuing threats to "burn" Lebanon and striking civilian infrastructure targets deep inside Lebanon.

Hezbollah, by contrast, restricted its operations to what hurt its opponents most, picking off young Israelis manning the heavy-fortified IDF bunkers in the occupied zone.

Opposition to occupation unites multi-faith Lebanon
The guerrillas did not fire Katyusha rockets over the Israeli border this time, although northern Israel was paralysed for days as civilians took to their bomb shelters.

Therefore, while the Israeli actions were a blatant contravention of the unwritten rules of engagement established after the bloody Israeli bombardment of Lebanon in 1996, the guerrillas were able to keep largely - possibly wholly - within the rules.

So the IDF finds itself in an unfortunate paradox - it is in Lebanon to protect civilians over the border, but all it does is put its own soldiers in harm's way.

Barak's choices

It is certain that Mr Barak, a former chief of staff, has drawn up plans for his July evacuation.

He would no doubt prefer it to be a dignified affair, with Syria's blessing, followed quickly by peace with Lebanon.

Barak's promise could return to haunt him
A withdrawal under fire would, on the other hand, create severe instability in Lebanon, whose inter-religious tensions have never quite died away after the 1975-91 civil war.

It would also probably mean the use of pre-emptive attacks against guerrillas over the border and threats of massive retaliation to deter Hezbollah from launching rocket attacks against civilians south of the border.

Or the prime minister could postpone the withdrawal on the grounds that it would be too dangerous for civilians in northern Israel.

But that would cause a massive dent in Mr Barak's political standing in a year where it has already taken a battering on the domestic and international fronts.

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