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 help - or make a bad situation worse? Consider Israel's similar retreat from southern Lebanon just two years ago this week, for which 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 Hezbollah. Hezbollah killed an average of 25 Israelis per year, making the army's continued operations there deeply unpopular in Israel. On May 23, 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak responded to this discontent by unilaterally pulling back to an internationally recognized border.
Barak was convinced the violence would 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 Hezbollah, have a lot to lose now."
They were hardly alone in their optimism. Martin Indyk, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, termed the withdrawal "a golden opportunity." "This is a happy day for Lebanon but also for Israel," chirped U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.
The fly in the ointment: Hezbollah decided that the "Zionist entity" still occupied four areas of Lebanese territory.
And kept on fighting.
In the two years since Israel's retreat, Hezbollah has initiated more than 40 unprovoked strikes against Israeli targets, including army outposts in an area known as Shebaa Farms and civilian villages along Israel's northern border. It also kidnapped (and presumably murdered) three soldiers and a reserve officer.
In early April, things further heated up, with almost one Hezbollah attack per day. These involved 1,160 mortar rounds, 205 anti-tank missiles, and several surface-to-air missiles. The worst shelling came April 10, when Katyusha rockets rained on civilian targets and six military outposts. In the past month, Hezbollah has launched at least nine more attacks on Israeli targets, causing at least five casualties.
The future threatens yet greater dangers. Hezbollah could prompt the Israeli government to retaliate against Syria (which controls Lebanon). The Syrians might respond with chemical or biological weapons, or successfully appeal for Egyptian, Iraqi and other Arab reinforcements. Strategist Gal Luft thus correctly notes that Hezbollah "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 Hezbollah is doing."
Actually, it's easy to understand. Israel's retreat backfired because Jerusalem underestimated its enemy. Like the Palestinian Authority, Hezbollah seeks not just to push Israeli soldiers out of some disputed land. It seeks nothing less than to destroy the state of Israel.
The episode illustrates three main points relevant to the West Bank and Gaza:
- When Israel retreats before an enemy that seeks its destruction, it is perceived as weak. This in turn emboldens that enemy to step up its attacks. The lesson: Israel should consider pulling out of disputed territories only after having achieved true and permanent acceptance of its existence by its enemies.
- Grit and determination impress Israel's enemies, not the size of its arsenal. Hezbollah's leader, Hasan Nasrallah, explained days after Israel's May 2000 withdrawal: "Israel may own nuclear weapons and heavy weaponry but, by God, it is weaker than a spider web."
- Even when Israel exactly complies with United Nations demands, it gains no lasting benefits. Thus, 4,000 U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon have done virtually nothing to prevent Hezbollah's recent campaign of violence.
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.