Tue, 30 May 2000

Avoid copying Lebanon's mistakes

By Omar Halim

JAKARTA (JP): The end of the Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory will trigger a series of developments and bring new opportunities for Lebanon.

The withdrawal of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) will bring an end their effective support for the South Lebanon Army (SLA), a surrogate military force created, trained, sustained and financed by Israel, which initially mostly comprised of Lebanese Maronite Christians.

These days, one reads that SLA posts and equipment are being abandoned and some of its personnel and their families are fleeing southern Lebanon and seeking asylum from Israel.

The "vacuum" created by the sudden and rapid withdrawal of forces loyal to Israel is apparently being filled by Hizbollah forces, which are rapidly advancing towards the international border or, more properly termed, the Armistice Demarcation Line (ADL).

It is assumed that they are not overrunning the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) positions, which is located in an area about 20 kilometers south of the Litany River (the Western Sector).

The area south of the Western Sector, about 5 kilometers by 7.5 kilometers wide, down to the Armed Demarcation Line with Israel, was once controlled by SLA/IDF forces.

This means that Hizbollah forces would take over control of this area, together with the Eastern Sector of UNIFIL (up to the Lebanese border with Syria), which UNIFIL has never solidly controlled since this sector has never been implicitly recognized by the UN as being formally occupied by Israel.

If this picture were to come true, then it would be very odd indeed, since UN forces would become "encircled" by the Lebanese Army to the north and Hizbollah forces to the east and south. In this case, it would not be clear what would be the future function of the UN forces.

After the first Israeli invasion on March 14, 1978, which was undertaken as a response to a Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) commando attack near Tel Aviv from its bases in Lebanon, the UN Security Council, on March 19 1978, established UNIFIL to (a) confirm the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon; (b) restore international peace and security; and (c) assist the government of Lebanon in restoring its effective authority over the area.

One of the first problems faced by the UNIFIL mission was that its "area of operation" was not negotiated beforehand with the conflicting parties, and defined clearly by the Security Council.

The mission was to define its own area of operation, based on the reasoning that after it was able to confirm the withdrawal of Israeli forces (the first part of the Mandate), it would define, and maintain its own area of operation, based on consultations with the parties concerned.

But there was no commitment made by the Israelis, either to the Security Council or to the United States, that they were going to withdraw from Lebanon.

There was therefore no Israeli withdrawal to be observed and confirmed, something which has persisted until now. At that time, President Jimmy Carter was anxious not to let the Lebanon issue interfere with his mediation involving Egypt and Israel, which afterwards led to the Camp David Agreement.

The Council did not properly work the mandate out with the parties concerned, that is the Israelis, the divided Lebanese and the Palestinians who were in control of most parts of southern Lebanon at the time.

The result was the actual area as defined above, leaving a gaping hole between the Western and Eastern sectors and the continued Israeli occupation in southeast Lebanon, including along the border of Lebanon with Syria.

The "area of operation" should have been a swath of territory which could effectively have been used to prevent Israeli and SLA soldiers on the one hand, and armed elements from the north on the other, from entering the area, thus forming a buffer between the contending forces.

Notwithstanding this handicap, UNIFIL has nevertheless been able, by and large, to prevent large-scale confrontations between the two sides, except during the second Israeli invasion that took place on June 6, 1982.

The situation however has been getting more tenuous as the Hizbollah forces have been using more and more long-range rockets, which can reach Israel, particularly the "finger of galilee" rocket, from locations north of the UN forces.

Why has Lebanon suffered all this? Since 1943, Lebanon has been governed based on a formula for delicately balancing the sectarian interests of its different ethnic and religious groups, which was agreed upon in the National Pact of 1943.

This pact was based on the 1932 census, which showed that the demographic composition of the country's population was 52 percent Christian and 42 percent Muslims, meaning a proportion of 6 to 5 for all government posts.

The pact further stipulated that the president should be a Maronite Christian; the prime minister a Sunni Muslim; the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies a Shi'ite Muslim and his deputy a Greek Orthodox; and the army commander a Maronite Christian.

By the 1970s, however, the demographic composition had shifted in favor of the Muslims and, within the Muslim population, the Sunnis had been outstripped by the Shi'ites.

In addition, the mass influx of Palestinians after the "Black September" incident in Jordan in 1970, tipped the balance further.

By 1975, the inflexibility of the Christians to accommodate change, and the increased militancy of the Muslims supported by the Palestinians, led to civil war.

In October 1976, the Riyadh peace plan was agreed upon and, among other things, it established the predominantly Syrian Arab Deterrent Force (ADF).

When Syrian ADF troops were being deployed toward the south, the Israeli government threatened to take "stern measures" if they were to advance further south beyond an imaginary "red line" extending from the mouth of the Zahrani River straight to the east.

As the Syrians stopped deploying beyond that line, the absence of the official Lebanese authority between that line and the ADL was replaced by the PLO, which was at that time the dominant force in southern Lebanon.

The PLO supported a loose association of Muslim and leftist Lebanese parties -- Sunni, Druze, Shi'a, and a Greek Orthodox Christian party called the Lebanese National Movement.

Opposing these groups were the Lebanese predominantly Maronite Christian militia forces supported by Israel.

The division among Lebanese, exacerbated by the involvement of outsiders, made Lebanon cease being an effective and unified state.

In 1991, at Taif, Saudi Arabia, the Lebanese leaders reached an agreement to establish a national government, but one still based on the 1943 National Pact formula.

By this time, the PLO had relocated its headquarters to Tunisia (although there were still a significant amount of Palestinian fighters remaining in southern Lebanon); the Amal Lebanese Shi'ite militia force in the south had weakened; and the rival Hizbollah Lebanese Shi'ite forces were soon to return to the south from the Bekaa Valley which was controlled by the Syrian forces.

Therefore, the Hizbollah effectively became the Lebanese force that fought the continued Israeli occupation in the south, something which is happening to this day.

The national government of Lebanon had, however, almost 10 years to consolidate its authority north of UNIFIL's area of operation.

The Lebanese army was reorganized based on intersectarian principles by Gen. Emile Lahoud, who is now the Lebanese president.

It is hoped that the Lebanese have gone a long way toward establishing a national and effective government by now. The present complete withdrawal of the Israelis from southern Lebanon should provide the present Lebanese government with the first opportunity to assert its authority over the now vacated occupied territory.

The UN could perhaps still play a role in fulfilling the third part of its mandate, that is to assist the government of Lebanon in restoring its effective authority in southern Lebanon.

But this is not going to be so simple, since, unlike the Jordanians, the Lebanese have allowed themselves to become part of the Middle East political chess match. As Indonesians, and for the sake of our future, let us not make the same mistakes!

The writer, a former senior staff member at the UN, is based in Jakarta.