War of Wills and Weapons Escalates In South Lebanon

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Israel announced Friday that its South Lebanese Army allies had quit a second outpost in the "security zone" this week, as Prime Minister Ehud Barak insisted that Israel was not fleeing Lebanon under fire.

Hizballah rocket and mortar fire at outposts in southern Lebanon on Friday killed an SLA soldier and moderately wounded another. Israel responded by shelling in the direction of the attack.

According to an Israeli army statement, the mostly Christian Maronite SLA evacuated the outpost on orders from the SLA commander, General Antoine Lahad, and "in coordination" with the Israeli army, because of the SLA's "operational considerations."

Barak said he had foreseen a year ago that "there would be an attempt on the part of the Hizballah at this time to create the impression that we are leaving because of their pressure."

However, he said, since Israel had already set a date for the pullout, this was not the case.

"Israel, which is the strongest country in the Middle East, will know what to do if any source, under any type of disguise, tries to hurt its soldiers or civilians when Israel is behind the international border defending the State of Israel," Barak told reporters on Thursday.

While campaigning for election last year, Barak pledged to pull Israeli troops out of Lebanon within one year of taking office, with or without an agreement.

A deadlock in talks between Israel and Syria - which holds sway over the government in Beirut - put an end to the idea of leaving in the context of a negotiated deal.

The government then backed Barak's proposal to withdraw unilaterally by July 7, a step the United Nations has agreed to monitor.

Foreign Minister David Levy is due to meet U.N. Secretary General Kofi Anan on Friday to discuss the pullout.

Israel and U.S. 'misunderstood' Assad

A year ago, Barak hoped that by announcing the withdrawal plan, Israel would prompt Syrian President Hafez Assad to make a deal with Israel.

Such a deal with Syria would also have required Israel to leave the Golan Heights. It would ostensibly have provided Israel with more protection against cross-border attacks and infiltrations.

Chaim Saperia, founder of the National Coalition of the Golan - an apolitical group opposed to relinquishing the Golan Heights - said talks between Israel and Syria were unsuccessful because neither President Clinton nor Barak had read the Syrians correctly.

"Both Clinton and Barak do not understand who the Syrians are, who the Alawites [the minority Islamic sect to which Assad and ruling class belong] are," Saperia told CNSNews.com.

"That is why [the talks] haven't succeeded."

As an example, he cited Barak's promise to hold a national vote before ceding any territory to Syria - a referendum is now a requirement in Israeli law.

If Assad were to reach an agreement with Barak, which was then voted down by the Israeli public, the Syrian leader would have made a fool of himself.

The Syrian dictator wants a deal with Israel to look like a Syrian victory. Assad, whose name in Arabic means lion, is keen to erase the Arabic saying: "Assad is an assad in Lebanon, but a rabbit in Israel," Saperia said.

"As long as Barak insists on the idea of a referendum, it's an impossibility for Assad to agree with him," he said.

Other analysts have argued that Assad prefers to stay in Lebanon than to get the Golan Heights back.

More than one million Syrians work in Lebanon, and 35,000 are deployed in the country.

Assad regards Lebanon and Israel as part of what he calls "Greater Syria."