As Israel continues its drive to stop Palestinian resistance, James Prittie finds a justification for its government's action.
ISRAEL'S friends generally have little difficulty in justifying her actions, but there are occasions when no more can be done than seek to explain them. Such an occasion is furnished by the savage conflict in Lebanon. For war is always bitter and brutal. History may indeed justify it, but hardly while it is still raging.
The Lebanese conflict, however, is not hard to explain. There were half a dozen good reasons why Israeli patience over what was going on in the country had become exhausted. Israel's attack, indeed, did not come as a surprise at all — it had been predicted in the press of Britain and much of the rest of the outside world for many months past. What was surprising was its scale and speed.
The most operative reason for the attack was not the attempt on the life of Israel's Ambassador in London, Mr Shlomo Argov, on June 3, but the knowledge that the PLO's military forces were being built up to a strength which could never have been envisioned little more than a year ago. In their retreat from places like Tyre and Sidon, the PLO made little attempt to destroy arms-dumps, or to salvage tanks, artillery and rocket-launchers. According to the Israeli authorities what was captured before the Israeli army reached the outskirts of Beirut was sufficient to equip well over 20,000 men, or three full divisions.
With some PLO forces withdrawing northwards and many PLO weapons stored in central and northern Lebanon, their tank force has been estimated at 200 in all. The Israelis captured over 600 heavy weapons, including "Stalin Organ" rockets-launchers, field
guns, anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons, 18,000 light weapons and 4,000 tons of ammunition. Long past are the days when the PLO carried nothing heavier than machine-guns and rifles.
The leadervs of the PLO made no secret of the fact that their weapons were destined to be used against Israel — nor of their shame over the organisation's virtually nonexistent military role in the fullscale wars of 1967 and 1973. The Palestine National Covenant lays down explicitly that the State of Israel is to be destroyed by armed force; even so-called "moderates" like Yassir Arafat have stated repeatedly that there is no possibility of the Convenant being modified. This could only be done at an Arab "Summit" convened for that express purpose. No such Summit has ever been envisaged.
With 30,000 Syrian troops also quartered upon the unfortunate but helpless Lebanese people, Israel was aware of the growing danger of yet another "hot" war breaking out, provoked by an increasingly well-armed PLO. But Israel's northern frontier was already the reverse of the peaceful one which it had been until the PLO moved in force into Lebanon, after being flung out of Jordan by King Hussein in 1970.
The PLO openly flouted the spirit of the July 24, 1981 ceasefire, while claiming that they were within their rights in doing so. Israel maintains that in a period of ten months the PLO carried out 270 terrorist actions
in Israel, on Israel's borders and in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. In addition, there were 20 PLO terrorist strikes in foreign countries, including France, Holland, Belgium, Italy and Britain. More than 300 people in all were killed and wounded.
The Israeli understanding always was that the ceasefire was "total" between the two sides; this meant that all acts of terrorism should be suspended. The PLO maintained that the ceasefire was localised (this did not exclude continuing PLO incursions into the areas occupied by Unifil — the UN peacekeeping force — and by the "Haddad militia" in the buffer-zone along Israel's northern border). The view of the United States, in recent efforts at pacification, was that the ceasefire should have been in the nature of an armistice,' precluding all armed action.
But an armistice is normally designed to pave the way to peace. All PLO leaders rejected the idea of a real peace with Israel as well as UN Resolution 242, the one constructive international effort to make an Arab-Israeli peace possible. The PLO rejected the very existence of the State of Israel and made it crystal-clear that the erection of a Palestinian State in the West Bank and Gaza would only be a first step towards realising the ideal of a united, Arabdominated Palestine.
Here was yet another reason why Israel could not meekly accept the conversion of the PLO into an effective military
power. Such a power could not possibly defeat Israel in battle by itself; but it was additional to the potential strength of an almost uniformly hostile Arab world. Five Arab states, at least, could contribute to a new offensive against Israel. Between them, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Libya and Saudi Arabia can muster over 11,000 tanks, 1,860 combat aircraft, and 6,700 artillery weapons. Their current armsprogrammes envisage figures of 12,300 tanks, 2,370 aircraft and 8,050 artillery weapons by 1986. They will, on the whole, be more lethal and much more expensive as time goes on. And then there is the question-mark over the fanatical Ayatollah's resurgent Iran. It could emerge as the biggest threat of all to a small,
isolated Israel, whose total population is well under half that of London.
The Israelis have captured literally tons of PLO documents, which will reveal much about the links with those international terrorist groups which have perpetrated countless outrages in European cities. The Israelis have captured huge quantities of Soviet Weaponry too and, as always, relevant information will be passed on to the Western Alliance. It tends to be forgotten that, in the East-West "Third World War", Israel is solidly on the side of the West. Again, Israel's armed forces have proved the superiority of Western over Soviet Equipment. The excellence of Israel's fighting men cannot be the sole explanation of the tally in aerial 'combat — 80 Syrian planes downed without 'a single Israeli plane lost — or in the taking-out of all 19 SAM missile-systems for the loss of just one Israeli plane.
So much for the explanation, from the Israeli point of view, of the attack into Lebanon. For Israel, security is a paramount consideration — a glance at the map shows why. Including the "war of attrition" on the Suez Canal in 1969-70, and the continuing wars against terrorism and economic boycott, this is Israel's eighth war in just 34 years. The bitter losses of life in Lebanon can only be lamented. But Israelis believe they must fight when they have to, and they know that just one lost war would mean the extinction of their independence and indeed of their very being.