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Israelis Want Out of Lebanon

March 2, 1999

PETAH TIKVA, Israel (AP) _ When Baruch Axelrod thinks about his 21-year-old son, an Israeli army officer serving in south Lebanon, fear takes over and tears well in his eyes.

As the 901st Israeli soldier killed in Lebanon was laid to rest today, Axelrod made an emotional public plea to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to end 17 years of Israeli occupation there. ``I don’t want my son to be a hero. I want him home for the Sabbath,″ he said.

Sensing the growing public frustration with the government’s Lebanon policy, both Netanyahu and his challenger made campaign promises Tuesday to leave Lebanon within a year, placing the increasingly heated debate at the center of the election campaign.

That’s exactly where Axelrod wants to see it.

In an ad Tuesday in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the 47-year-old president of an Israeli high-tech firm called on Netanyahu to ``get out of Lebanon.″

``The politicians should know there are people who want to live long lives and be with their children,″ he said in an interview.

In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon to drive out PLO guerrillas attacking Jewish border communities. Three years later, the army pulled back to a strip it has patrolled ever since in an effort to prevent cross-border attacks.

Since then, troops have been engaged in a costly battle with Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas who aim to oust Israel from Lebanese soil. Hezbollah refuses to end its campaign against Israel, even if the Jewish state were to withdraw from Lebanon. Polls show the majority of Israelis still oppose a withdrawal.

Over 17 years, 901 Israelis have died inside Lebanon, including Brig. Gen. Erez Gerstein, killed Sunday along with two other soldiers and a journalist when Hezbollah detonated a roadside bomb.

Gerstein, the highest-ranking officer killed in Lebanon since the invasion, was buried Tuesday at his family’s kibbutz in central Israel.

``We’re truly afraid. Sometimes, I’ll think about my son in the middle of the day and tears will just well up in my eyes. The times I know when he’s there are impossible,″ Axelrod said.

Parents of other soldiers began calling him Tuesday after the newspaper hit the stands.

``One woman just cried and cried for half an hour,″ Axelrod said. ``She said she had five sons, two serving in Lebanon, and she is so frightened she doesn’t know what to do.″

With casualties mounting, Ehud Barak, who faces Netanyahu in May 17 elections, promised Tuesday he would get Israeli soldiers out of Lebanon by June 2000. As part of the plan, he said he would resume peace talks with Syria _ the main power-broker in Lebanon _ which insists any agreement be conditioned on the return of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war.

Netanyahu pledged to ``find a solution ... to withdraw the army within a year,″ but added that he could not make an ironclad commitment that the deadline would be met.

Israeli commentator Ron Ben-Ishai suggested the fighting in Lebanon was really a tug-of-war between Israel and Syria over the future of the Golan. Netanyahu has been unable to get to the negotiating table with Syria because he is unwilling to return the strategic plateau.

Netanyahu faces pressure not only from the opposition, but also from within his Cabinet to find solutions on Lebanon.

One minister has suggested bombing the Lebanese government into taking action against Hezbollah. Another proposed reducing the size of the security zone, which currently runs from two to 10 miles deep into Lebanese territory.

But for some parents with children on the front line, such proposals may take too long.

``Tomorrow morning, I want to see the army get up, on the orders of the government, and walk away. I don’t want to wait any longer,″ Axelrod said.

Gabi Kfir, a 52-year-old father of an infantry soldier inside Lebanon, submitted a request to the army this week to replace his 21-year-old son and serve out his tour in Lebanon. He has so far not received a response.

Kfir, who says the government endangers soldiers’ lives by restricting their operations against Hezbollah hideouts in civilian areas of Lebanon, needs sleeping pills to get through the night.

``Enough is enough, we don’t have the strength for this any more,″ his wife, Sarah, said.

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