Correction to This Article
A July 22 article incorrectly said that Fawaz Trabulsi teaches at the American University of Beirut. He is a professor at the Lebanese American University.

History Revisited in Lebanon Fighting

2006: A Lebanese man walks among destroyed buildings in a south Beirut suburb hit by Israeli airstrikes.
2006: A Lebanese man walks among destroyed buildings in a south Beirut suburb hit by Israeli airstrikes. (By Majid -- Getty Images)

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By Edward Cody and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 22, 2006

BEIRUT, July 21 -- In this achingly beautiful but often tortured country, history is repeating itself, logging another chapter tragically similar to ones before it.

As they did during Operation Litani in 1978, Israeli jets are raining bombs and missiles on what the government in Jerusalem describes as terrorist infrastructure planted among Lebanese civilians. As they did again in 1982, Israeli leaders talk of dismantling a terrorist organization to remove a threat to northern Israel.

Panicked Lebanese again are fleeing north. And the United States, true to its role in the earlier confrontations, is urging restraint but also backing Israel's demand that the Lebanese army rid the border region of terrorists by enforcing state authority.

Yet a look back over the past three decades suggests that the foe Israel is taking on today -- the Lebanese-based Hezbollah militia -- may be far harder to expel than the transplanted Palestinians it fought in southern Lebanon in the 1970s and '80s.

The history also suggests that Israel's previous military campaigns and occupations of Lebanon played a decisive role in creating this new enemy. Some analysts in Lebanon believe that the new bloodshed and a renewed attempt to fashion Lebanese society to Israel's advantage could generate yet another permutation, one that is perhaps even more irreconcilably hostile to the Jewish state.

"Now you risk producing something worse than Hezbollah, maybe al-Qaeda number two," said Fawaz Trabulsi, a Lebanese professor at the American University of Beirut who helped lead a leftist organization that fought Israeli troops alongside Palestinian guerrillas during the 1982 invasion.

"It's '82 all over again," Trabulsi said. "What's similar is the idea of destroying the infrastructure, of the PLO then, and now of Hezbollah. The difference is Hezbollah is Lebanese and you can't expel them."

The 1978 Operation Litani provided a clear lesson in the rules of unintended consequences. It was a swift success militarily; Israeli forces pushed across the border and moved about 20 miles north to the Litani River without serious opposition from primarily ragtag Palestinian defenders. They weren't native to the area or fully familiar with it -- they'd moved to it in the early 1970s to escape a crackdown in Jordan.

Under U.S. and other international pressure, the Israeli forces soon withdrew. But the Israeli defense minister at the time, Ezer Weizman, who later became president, ordered relentless bombing of the Lebanese border hills to drive out the civilian population. U.S. officials complained of civilian casualties, but the attacks continued.

The idea, Israeli officials explained, was to create a free-fire zone where it could be assumed that anybody moving around was a Palestinian guerrilla and a fair target for Israeli warplanes or artillery fire. The result over the next year, however, was a long list of civilian deaths -- farmers carrying tobacco crops to market, families picnicking on jagged hillsides and villagers caught in their homes when stray bombs landed.

Eventually, increasing numbers gave up and fled to Beirut. These families, most of them Shiite Muslims, took up residence in what was then undeveloped land between southern Beirut and the international airport -- and now is the teeming Shiite suburb known as the Dahiya.

Its exploding young population, sons of those chased from southern homes, became the base of a new radical organization born several years later. Inspired by the 1979 Iranian revolution, it eventually took the name Hezbollah, or Party of God.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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