Small World

Jewish World Review May 21, 2002 / 10 Sivan, 5762

Should Israel Retreat?

By Daniel Pipes | How to break the Arab-Israeli impasse? Increasingly, one hears, not just from Palestinians, but from the universities and from media commentators, that things would improve markedly if only Israeli forces immediately left the West Bank and Gaza.

Would such a move really help --- or make a bad situation worse? An insight comes from a similar Israeli retreat from southern Lebanon just two years ago this week, for which the Israelis are still paying a heavy price.

Some background: For over two decades, Israeli troops held down a "security belt" in the part of Lebanon adjacent to Israel to protect Israel's north from attacks by the militant Islamic group Hizbullah. Hizbullah killed an average of 25 Israelis per year, making the army's continued operations there deeply unpopular in Israel. Prime Minister Ehud Barak responded to this discontent on May 23, 2000, by unilaterally pulling back to an internationally recognized border.

Barak was convinced the violence would henceforth cease. "The tragedy is over," he said. His colleague Shimon Peres was more specific: "the chances of the north being attacked are slight, because the Syrians, as well as Hizbullah, have a lot to lose now."

They were hardly alone in their optimism. Martin Indyk, the American ambassador to Israel, was nearly euphoric, terming the withdrawal "a golden opportunity." "This is a happy day for Lebanon but also for Israel," chirped U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

But there was a fly in the ointment. Hizbullah determined that Israeli forces had not completely pulled back to what it considered acceptable lines; it held that the "Zionist entity" still occupied four areas of Lebanese territory. This claim provided Hizbullah with justification to continue fighting.

And fight it did. In the two years since Israel's retreat, Hizbullah has initiated over 40 unprovoked strikes against Israeli targets, including army outposts in an area known as the Shebaa Farms and civilian villages along Israel's northern border. It also kidnapped (and presumably murdered) three soldiers and a reserve officer, the former abducted from Israeli territory, the latter from Switzerland.

In early April, things further heated up, with almost one Hizbullah attack per day. These involved 1,160 mortar rounds, 205 anti-tank missiles, and several surface-to-air missiles. The heaviest shelling was on April 10, when Katyusha rockets rained on civilian targets and six military outposts. The attacks then diminished slightly but still continue. In the past month, Hizbullah has launched at least nine more attacks on Israeli targets, causing at least five casualties.

The future threatens yet greater dangers. Hizbullah could prompt the Israeli government to retaliate against Syria (which controls Lebanon) and the Syrians might respond with chemical or biological weapons; or they might successfully appeal for Egyptian, Iraqi, and other Arab reinforcements. Accordingly, strategist Gal Luft correctly notes that Hizbullah "has the capability to drag Israel into a regional war."

So much for Annan's "happy day."

"We thought that when the Israeli army withdrew, we'd finally get peace," lamented the mayor of a northern Israeli village recently. "I cannot understand what Hizbullah is doing."

Actually, it's easy to understand. Israel's retreat backfired because Jerusalem underestimated its enemy. Like the Palestinian Authority, Hizbullah seeks not just to push Israeli soldiers out of some disputed land. It seeks nothing less than to destroy the State of Israel.

The Lebanon episode illustrates three main points relevant to the West Bank and Gaza:

Those who call on Israel unilaterally to retreat from the West Bank and Gaza are again underestimating the ambitions of Israel's foes. Such a step would invite more bloodshed, not less.

JWR contributor Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and the author of several books, most recently Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes from. Jonathan Schanzer is a research fellow at the organization. Comment by clicking here.


© 2002, Daniel Pipes