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The Clearing of South Lebanon

The Lebanese Nakba and Israeli Ambitions


Why did Israel remain in southern Lebanon after the departure of the PLO in 1982? The publicly stated reason was to assure the security of its northern border by neutralizing the resistance forces and by maintaining a "buffer" zone. However, it is clear that the most secure period for northern Israel since 1978 and perhaps earlier has been the period from 2000 to the present, when it had no occupation forces in Lebanon except for the Shebaa farms.

Many Lebanese and international observers suspect that the real purpose of Israel’s leadership (as distinct from that of its population) was to seize and ultimately annex southern Lebanon up to the Litani river. If so, it is plausible to speculate that this may not have been the original intention, but rather evolved from the initial successes of Ariel Sharon, then commander of Israeli forces in Lebanon, in occupying the territory in question. The historical record seems to show that the Israeli leadership was divided about the wisdom of this action at the time, indicating that any possible thoughts of annexation would have to have been a later development.

Given Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, it may appear that such ideas were abandoned. However, it is prudent to recall that Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, always argued that Israel’s "natural" northern frontier should be the Litani river, and that Moshe Dayan drew up the first plans for its conquest as early as 1956.

Is the current invasion another attempt to make this portion of the early Zionist dream come true? The Israeli military has already acknowledged that it has had a plan in place for Lebanon, which it is now implementing. In itself, this is not surprising; any competent military organization will keep a variety of contingency plans on the shelf. However, a closer look at the way the plan is unfolding provides clues to its (possibly unstated) intentions.

First, this invasion differs from all others in terms of the numbers of refugees. More than any other, it has successfully cleared south Lebanon of its inhabitants, and that process is continuing. The ostensible reason is to humanely continue its war against Hezbollah without harming the civilian population. However, if the absurdity of creating 750,000 refugees for humanitarian reasons is not self-evident, the civilian death toll belies the contention. How would Israel respond to an argument that it should remove 750,000 of its inhabitants in the north so that Hezbollah rockets could safely strike targets without harming civilians?

Second, some of the earliest targets of the invasion were the bridges, roads and sea access connecting the south with the rest of Lebanon and the outside world. The stated purpose was to deny Hezbollah the chance to bring in more rockets and munitions. However, military and paramilitary forces are usually much better equipped to cope with terrain challenges than are civilian traffic and commerce. An equally or more compelling reason would be to create the initial stages of a new border.

In these respects, Israel’s current invasion resembles previous ones in Lebanon less than it does Plan Dalet of 1948, which cleared 78 per cent of the British mandate of Palestine of most of its Palestinian Arab population in order to create the state of Israel. Palestinians know this as al-nakba ("the catastrophe"), and the Palestinians thus evicted were never permitted to return to their homes.

A Lebanese nakba is taking shape in much the same way; even the numbers of refugees are roughly the same. The only other comparable Israeli action was in the Golan Heights in 1967, where nearly the entire population of 130,000 was put to flight. In both of the previous cases, the territories thus emptied of most of their indigenous populations were then incorporated into the state of Israel.

A similar process is happening in the occupied Palestinian West Bank, where native Palestinians are being driven from their lands by onerous restrictions, demolitions and land confiscations to make way for Jewish settlements so that the land may be annexed in the proposed "convergence" plan.

Will the newly created Lebanese refugees be permitted to return to their homes?

It can of course be argued that Israel’s acceptance in principle of an eventual multinational force to take over the policing of south Lebanon shows its lack of territorial aspirations. However, it initially spurned such a suggestion and then acceded only under advice from the U.S., and even then only in return for U.S. assurances that there would be no ceasefire until Israel had been given time to accomplish its objectives. Furthermore, there is evidence that Israel is counting on such a force to fail. No international force would accept to go without an invitation from the Lebanese government, of which Hezbollah is a part, and Israel was counting on Hezbollah to veto the idea.

When Hezbollah accepted, Israel immediately accused it of insincerity and disregarded its acceptance.

Chances are that Hezbollah will not accept disarmament as part of the arrangement until its demands are satisfied, and that Israel will not accept to evacuate the Shebaa farms and release all Lebanese prisoners until Hezbollah disarms and the multinational force satisfies Israel’s requirements, leaving a stalemate that Israel can try to use as justification to stay indefinitely.

Of course, Israel also recognizes that things do not always go as planned and that strategic retreats are sometimes necessary. The entire history of Israeli actions in Lebanon provides such lessons, as does the unanticipated tenacity and effectiveness of Hezbollah ground combat fighters in the current engagement. Furthermore, the Israeli public may be less than patient with such a plan, and might not tolerate it unless it achieves early successes with a minimum of casualties.

Israel may therefore find its ambitions frustrated once again. However, we should not underestimate the patience and persistence of the Israeli leadership in pursuing its long- term objectives, even if they may be at odds with those of the Israeli public. It therefore behooves the U.S. to recognize that Israel’s interests are not the same as its own, and to inform its policies accordingly. Such recognition necessarily requires consideration of the legitimate rights and grievances of the peoples and states directly affected by Israel’s territorial ambitions and military actions.

PAUL LARUDEE is the former supervisor of a Ford Foundation project in Lebanon, a Fulbright-Hays lecturer to Lebanon and a contract U.S. government advisor to Saudi Arabia. He is one of seven volunteers of the International Solidarity Movement wounded by Israeli gunfire on April 1,2002. He can be reached at