Israelis along border oppose Lebanon withdrawal

KIRYAT SHMONA, Israel — David Azoulay is proud to have served shwarma sandwiches from his shop here — even when Katyusha rockets periodically rained down from Lebanon, forcing residents underground or out of town.

As a public debate over Israel's continued presence in southern Lebanon rages — spurred by the deaths of seven Israeli soldiers last month — Azoulay's opinions, and those of his neighbors in this northern border town, are very different from what might be heard in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.

Increasing support for a unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon is clearly not coming from here.

"They don't live here. They don't know what it's like to raise kids under the fear of Katyushas," says Azoulay. "The debate has gone on for years, and all the politicians have made the same mistakes.

"The only way to get things quiet here is with a comprehensive agreement with [Syrian President Hafez] Assad. He runs the show up here."

Israeli leaders have defended their policy in Lebanon, saying the presence of Israeli troops is necessary to protect Israel's northern communities until comprehensive agreements are reached with Syria and Lebanon. Among the border communities at risk is Kiryat Shmona, the S.F.-Jewish Community Federation's partner city.

But many Israelis are growing weary of watching as about 25 soldiers pay with their lives each year to keep Hezbollah gunmen from firing rockets at Israel or infiltrating the border.

Hezbollah's stated goal is to oust Israeli troops from the 9-mile wide security zone that Israel established after the 1982 war in Lebanon. After ousting the troops, the Shi'ite movement, which is backed by Iran and Syria, says it wants to continue on to Jerusalem.

But more Israelis than in the past apparently believe that Hezbollah — which is gaining political power in Lebanon — may lay down its arms after getting the Israel Defense Force out of Lebanon.

Even if that does not happen, many Israelis believe that the Jewish state will be able to defend itself just as well from the international boundary, even without agreements with Syria and Lebanon — and with fewer casualties.

A recent Gallup poll in the Israeli daily Ma'ariv showed that support for unilateral withdrawal has doubled, from 20 percent in September 1997 to 40 percent today. Not long ago, this view was considered taboo in Israel.

The shift has been accompanied by the establishment of several movements aimed at getting Israel to withdraw from Lebanon.

Knesset member Yossi Beilin, a minister in the former Labor government, has become one of the most ardent advocates of a unilateral withdrawal.

A grassroots group called the Four Mothers — launched by parents of soldiers — has been protesting nearly every week, and its views have become increasingly popular.

On Sunday, the group was granted its first audience with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. While Netanyahu could hardly have been expected to stray from the familiar government line supporting the status quo in Lebanon, his willingness to speak to the group's members shows just how mainstream their position has become.

Even in defense circles, cracks in the Israeli policy are starting to appear. The Israeli daily Yediot Achronot has reported that the heads of the Mossad and Shin Bet secret security services are now backing unconditional, unilateral withdrawal.

Officially, the military opposes unilateral withdrawal. And while top officials insist that they are not involved in the public debate, last week the army invited foreign journalists to hear its opinions.

Brig. Gen. Shuki Shichrur, of the army's northern command, said Israel's presence in southern Lebanon has accomplished its goal of protecting northern Israel, even though Hezbollah has become increasingly daring, launching 1,100 attacks against Israeli forces there in 1998 — nearly twice as many as during the previous year.

"Since the establishment of the security zone, no attempts of penetration against civilian targets have succeeded," he told the group of reporters last week.

Shichrur said Israeli intelligence had no reason to believe that Hezbollah would lay down its arms if and when the IDF withdrew from Lebanon.

But many of the journalists were astounded by his assessment that "99.9 percent of the residents of south Lebanon" prefer the Israeli presence to any other alternative, because Israel has paved roads and hooked up towns to electricity.

Such a reading of sentiment in southern Lebanon would baffle most Middle East experts, who say support for Hezbollah has only grown during the years of Israel's presence.

Hatred of Israel among the residents of southern Lebanon peaked during Israel's April 1996 Operation Grapes of Wrath, when the accidental shelling of a U.N. camp in southern Lebanon resulted in the deaths of at least 91 Lebanese refugees who had taken shelter there.

Even the army admits that increasing numbers of Hezbollah fighters operate from within towns in southern Lebanon — a sign that the group enjoys growing popularity among the Lebanese people.