U.N. camp shelling creates fears among U.S. Jews

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NEW YORK — The American Jewish community thus far is standing firmly behind Israel's massive retaliatory raids against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

But last week's inadvertent shelling of a U.N. refugee camp has created strain and some fear of wider political fallout.

Jewish and Israeli leaders found themselves on the defensive this week in the face of criticism from influential quarters, such as The New York Times, which called the campaign a "painful failure and a diplomatic disaster."

The Times analysis also said the United States was retreating from its firm pro-Israel posture to a "more even-handed position."

In fact, Jewish officials said their worst fears that the tragic and grisly refugee deaths would cause grave political damage to Israel were assuaged by the U.S. administration's unwavering support and its vigorous pursuit of a diplomatic resolution to the conflict.

They also predicted that public focus would shift away from Israel's 2-week-old operation to Syria's cynical exploitation of its assignment as the architect of stability in the region.

They also rejected any analogy between Israel's current campaign, intended to protect Israel's northern citizens from Katyusha rockets fired by the fundamentalist Hezbollah movement, and the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

That invasion began as an effort to rout out Palestine Liberation Organization bases and ended in a quagmire that carved deep political rifts among Jews here and in Israel.

Jewish officials said they believe that Israel's investment in the peace process and its search for a political solution to the Lebanon border conflict prior to the raids would help it withstand any negative repercussions that might result.

After last week's attack, the Jewish organizational establishment issued statements uniformly lamenting the loss of innocent Lebanese lives and saying that it was paramount for Israel to minimize the risks to civilians.

But Jewish groups, in consultation with Israeli officials, also aimed to put the military operation into context. They emphasized Israel's right to respond to Hezbollah's sustained rocket attacks and deplored the militant group's use of Lebanese civilian cover from which to launch its attacks.

They also said Israel long had sought a diplomatic resolution to the problem and responded militarily only as a last resort and after warning the Lebanese civilians to evacuate.

"Israel has no territorial ambitions," said Gary Rubin, executive director of Americans for Peace Now and a critic of the Israeli government during the 1982 Lebanon campaign.

"It is different from 1982," he said. "There is no secret plan to invade Lebanon up to Beirut."

Rubin said his office received many calls from people "extremely concerned" about the loss of life in the refugee camp, but that "in every case, they recognized the dilemma, that Israel could not simply stand by."

But, he added, "Israel still has a moral obligation to take every precaution to make sure that civilians are not harmed."

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, echoed Rubin's sense of broad Jewish solidarity.

"I don't find any weakening in the ranks," he said. "People understand" the reasons behind Israel's campaign.

"It has certainly been nothing like '82, when Israel was portrayed as the aggressor, using extreme measures and engaged in brutal acts," said Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chairman of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.

Jewish community relations councils across the nation reported that "things were relatively quiet," at least until the accidental attack on the U.N. compound and the deaths of some 100 refugees, Raffel said.

Until that point, "the media were not playing up the operation," and "Syria was projected as the heavy."

Since the attack, public concern has mounted and "the line seems to be emerging that `it's enough now. Israel has made its point,'" Raffel said.

Nonetheless, Raffel said, it is clear that "the overall context has changed" since the early 1980s as a result of the peace process, especially on the Palestinian front.

At the same time, there is residual sympathy from this year's series of suicide terrorist attacks against Israelis, he said.

For Raffel and others, the unwavering support of the U.S. government inspires confidence.

This is "a rock-solid relationship," he said. "I see nothing to suggest it's being eroded."

Hoenlein also said the unequivocal U.S. support has helped to contain the questions being raised since the refugee deaths about what he termed the "proportionality" of Israel's operation.

Still, the situation is undeniably fluid and volatile.

Charges that the offensive went too far were being heard from the left wing in the Israeli Knesset, while some observers said a backlash against Israel was emerging on the opinion pages of some major U.S. newspapers.

Of grave concern here was a special session of the U.N. General Assembly slated for this week to discuss the conflict. The session was expected to result in a resolution harshly critical of Israel.

And public protest from Arab, Christian and local left-wing Jewish groups seemed to be mounting.

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, was en route to the White House this week to carry the message that the Israeli assault has caused "damage, major damage" to the peace process.

It is "massive, disproportionate and devastating to the people and country of Lebanon," he said.

He said faith in the peace process by Arab Americans, who have launched a few protests in front of the White House, has been severely undermined.

"I'm one of the few hanging by a thread to the peace process, hoping against hope it can be salvaged," he said.

Zogby said he planned to tell the White House that its policy must be more balanced.

In the Christian community, the Washington, D.C.-based Churches for Middle East Peace, representing a broad denominational spectrum, issued a harsh statement after the U.N. compound accident and called on the United States to defend "humanitarian norms of conduct" for the protection of civilians in times of conflict.

"Self-defense is not a legitimate justification for so massive and calculated an effort to drive up to 400,000 civilians from their homes," the statement said.