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Israelis Torn Over Costly Lebanon Occupation

February 17, 1997

KIBBUTZ MISGAV AM, Israel (AP) _ When Israelis consider ending their army’s costly presence in southern Lebanon, they think of communities along the windswept mountain border like this one, which suffered a deadly terrorist attack in 1980.

For people who live here, the nightmare is that guerrillas would again cross the border a few yards from their nurseries and homes.

But the mounting cost of maintaining Israel’s security zone in Lebanon _ 73 Lebanon-bound soldiers were killed this month in a helicopter crash _ has prompted a reassessment.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far rejected a unilateral withdrawal from 440-square-mile swath of south Lebanon it has occupied since 1985 to protect northern Israeli towns. But even in Kibbutz Misgav Am, where support for the zone has been the strongest, there are signs of growing discomfort at the national sacrifice.

``I’m tired of hearing about how soldiers are dying so I can live in safety,″ said Suzie Abas, 53. ``I’m prepared to defend myself.″

Her husband Yosef disagreed, saying there was no alternative to the troop presence. ``They give us the possibility of living a normal life, outside the bomb shelters,″ he said. ``I think it’s worth it.″

Still, in the subtle shades of Mideast politics, the 55-year-old Abas emerges as something less than a hawk.

He only opposes a one-sided Israeli pullout. He would support a withdrawal as part of a peace treaty with Syria, the power broker in Lebanon that is seen as the key to stamping out the anti-Israel attacks led by the Iran-backed Hezbollah guerrillas.

To that end, Yosef Abas is willing to meet Syria’s demand of a return of the Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied since the 1967 Mideast war.

Peace talks with Syria stalled last February, but there were signs that former premier Shimon Peres was nearing a Golan-for-peace deal. Netanyahu, who was elected in May, wants to restart talks but has pledged to keep the Golan Heights.

Meanwhile, the carnage in Lebanon _ which many Israelis see as a Syrian pressure tactic _ continues.

Nervous Israeli troops patrol the border. At hilltop bases bristling with antennas, soldiers await their turn in what many call the ``Russian roulette″ of active duty in Lebanon.

``Of course, there is fear whenever we go in,″ said Cpl. Ofer Levy, who recently returned from Lebanon. ``We all know the numbers.″

Not including accidents, 181 Israelis have died and 724 have been wounded since Israel carved out the border zone in 1985.

Israel’s Lebanon imbroglio, which some Israelis bitterly refer to as their Vietnam, began after 1970, when Jordan’s King Hussein expelled thousands of Palestinian guerrillas to Lebanon, where they helped spark civil war in 1975.

Palestinian guerrillas turned south Lebanon into a staging ground for infiltrations and rocket attacks that forced nearly half the population to flee Israel’s northern border on several occasions.

Yosef Abas recalls the April night 17 years ago when guerrillas took several children hostage. Guerrillas opened fire on Abas and ``just missed.″ A kibbutz member, a child and a soldier were killed before Israeli commandos killed the five guerrillas.

Such incidents prompted two Israeli invasions of Lebanon, one in 1978 and a second in 1982 that succeeded in expelling Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization to Tunisia.

But Israel continued to occupy half of Lebanon even after the Palestinians left, then found itself fighting Shiite Muslim groups. It relinquished most of the territory in 1985, keeping only the border strip as a buffer.

Because the issue is security-related _ few in Israel have territorial claims on Lebanon _ the debate cuts across the usual dove-hawk divide.

One of Netanyahu’s Cabinet ministers, Avigdor Kahalani, supports unilateral withdrawal. A former general and a hero of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war on the Golan Heights, he called Israeli soldiers in Lebanon ``sitting ducks at a shooting gallery.″

But most Israelis _ even the dovish ones _ oppose a unilateral pullout, and 10 prominent lawmakers from Israel’s coalition government and the opposition met last weekend to discuss alternatives.

Some noted that Hezbollah leaders have suggested their anti-Israel campaign would end if Israel got out of Lebanon.

But Col. Shuki Shichrur, operations chief of the northern area command, said the Hezbollah’s goal was ``to make Jerusalem the capital for all Muslims″ and predicted it would continue to strike Israel.

The Labor Party’s Yossi Beilin recommended Israeli troops withdraw from Lebanon and be replaced by a multinational force.

Gideon Ezra of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, a former Shin Bet secret service official, said Israel should withdraw after building up border defenses.

The issue degenerated into shouting matches in Israel’s parliament, with some attacking Ezra and others for undermining the morale of soldiers at the front.

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