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Lebanese guerrillas grow brasher in confronting Israel

November 14, 1997

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ Training and high-tech weaponry aren’t giving Israel the advantage it once seemed to enjoy in battling south Lebanon’s Shiite Muslim militants.

While the militants are growing bolder and more crafty, Israel has looked more ineffectual in attempting to strike _ or strike back _ at its foes in the territory just beyond its northern border.

When Lebanese guerrillas killed two Israeli-backed militiamen last month in a roadside bombing, Israel’s air force retaliated with an attack on a nearby valley. The only casualties: 11 wild hogs.

The air strike failed because electronic surveillance apparently mistook the boars for the bombers.

In September, Israel suffered its biggest loss in 20 years of commando raids in Lebanon, when an elite squadron of Israeli Navy Seals was ambushed after creeping ashore in a predawn raid.

A band of Hezbollah guerrillas caught the squadron by surprise and set off a fierce fight that left 12 Israelis dead.

Israel put its loss down to bad luck, saying the team had randomly stumbled into the ambush. But Hezbollah claimed it had managed to track the squadron _ and used the victory to support the conviction that it is denting the myth of Israel’s military invincibility.

Guerrilla ambushers have become so confident that they stick around on the battlefield to videotape their attacks for broadcast on Hezbollah television.

``The south has become Israel’s Vietnam,″ Lebanese Foreign Minister Faris Bweiz said in a recent interview.

``After years of occupation it has become clear that neither (Israel’s allied) militia, nor the electrified fence and minefields have brought to Israel the security it seeks,″ he said, referring to the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army. ``The only advice is for them to withdraw.″

So far this year, more than 35 Israeli soldiers have been killed and about 80 wounded in south Lebanon. That’s the worst annual toll for Israel since it occupied a border strip in the south in 1985 to guard against guerrilla strikes on northern Israel.

The Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia, the main force in the battle against Israel, has also taken a beating. The guerrillas have lost 56 fighters this year, compared to 43 last year, but shows no signs of giving up.

In Israel, calls for a withdrawal from Lebanon increase with each spate of casualties.

A poll in September showed 52 percent of Israelis favoring withdrawal, with 35 percent opposed. A lobby group has grown up just to campaign for pulling out. Hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself acknowledged that he wants out of Lebanon.

``I would leave Lebanon not today, but two days ago, if only I could,″ the Israeli leader said recently.

But without agreement to secure Israel’s northern border, Netanyahu added, withdrawal was not possible. New methods were being considered in the battle against Hezbollah.

So far, the Israelis’ air and commando raids, roadside bombs, artillery bombardment, assassinations and kidnappings have not stopped attacks on the 1,500 Israeli soldiers in Lebanon and 2,500 allied militiamen in the South Lebanon Army, which is armed and paid by Israel.

Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, spiritual guide of Shiite fundamentalists in Lebanon, said Israel has found a Catch-22 in south Lebanon.

``Israel cannot stay in Lebanon and it cannot withdraw,″ he said in an interview.

Israel invaded south Lebanon in 1978 and 1982 to drive out Palestinian guerrillas. Many Shiites hated the Palestinians’ presence and welcomed the ’82 invasion. But then the Israelis stayed, and became the enemy of the Shiites.

Hezbollah, which gained popular support by running schools and clinics, is now trying to expand its power base. This month, it started recruiting volunteers from other religious and political movements.

The Shiite guerrillas have also used newly acquired armor-piercing T-4 Faggot rockets to destroy at least three Merkavas, the mammoth battle tanks which are the pride of Israel’s military.

Hezbollah recently was able to strike directly at fortified Israeli positions. Guerrillas have ambushed Israelis on roads deep in the occupied zone and, most significantly, about 100 yards from the international border.

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