By Edward Cody and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 22, 2006; A10
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.
Underground Hezbollah operatives were widely believed to be responsible for the 1983 bombing of U.S. Marines and French soldiers who had come to Lebanon to protect Palestinians. The U.S. Embassy here was blown up shortly afterward, and Hezbollah was also blamed for that.
More than two decades later, Hezbollah has grown into an extensive political force in Lebanon, backed by Shiite Muslims who have become the largest religious community in the country. Hezbollah candidates run for elections. Hezbollah social service agencies provide health care and schooling for poor farmers. Hezbollah television, al-Manar, broadcasts technically slick and virulently anti-Israeli programs into Lebanese homes.
Not least, a Hezbollah military wing, not the national army, fought year after year against Israeli troops who remained after 1982 to occupy a border enclave. Politically worn out, the Israeli occupation forces finally pulled out of Lebanon in 2000, a departure that has gone down in local historical narrative as a Hezbollah victory.
Yitzhak Bailey was teaching Middle East history at Tel Aviv University in 1982 when Israel's Defense Ministry called him with a job offer.
Israel's military had pushed deep into Lebanon to expel the Palestine Liberation Organization from the hilly southern border region and beyond. Although fighting was still fierce, some Israeli officials had begun focusing on the next phase: How to turn south Lebanon into a stable region friendly to Israel. "They weren't sure even what to call it," said Bailey, 70. "Was it going to be an occupation or something else?"
A native of Buffalo, N.Y., who arrived in Israel in the early 1950s, Bailey has made a specialty of Arab affairs, the culture of the nomadic Bedouin people in particular. But his task in the fall of 1982 was to evaluate the Shiite political landscape in south Lebanon and find Israel some friends there.
At the time, Israel had made common cause with Lebanon's Maronite Christians, who opposed the PLO's presence in Lebanon and feared for their place in a country with a growing Muslim majority. The Christian leadership was also willing to work openly with Israel.
Operating from an Israeli military base in Tyre, Bailey began traveling the region. He spent nights in family homes when he could, and tried to determine the most important political players in the Shiite south. Almost at once, he said, he began proposing in his reports a different approach to win allies in the crucial southern Lebanese region.
"All of Israel's eggs were in the Christian basket," Bailey said. "While the Shiites at the time were willing to be quite cooperative, they were not willing to say so openly." As members of a minority, many Shiites felt they needed protection from other factions in Lebanese society.
At the time, a Shiite Lebanese party called Amal was the most important party in the south. Once Israeli tanks and troops had dislodged PLO gunmen, Amal's influence increased dramatically. Amal was aligned in that period with more-liberal elements of the leadership of Shiite-dominated Iran, and the group tacitly accepted the Israeli role in the south. But once that cooperation became known, Bailey said, the movement broke apart.
Islamic Amal, as the radical splinter was called, began carrying out attacks on Israeli and Western targets. The group's popularity rose as Israel, responding to rising militancy, began tightening its hold with checkpoints, mass arrests and military operations that hit the civilian population hard.
The splinter group soon renamed itself Hezbollah.
Driving Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon, Israel's declared goal in its current campaign, may prove more difficult than the Israelis expect. Hezbollah is at home in the rough-hewn hills that overlook Israel's Galilee region. "When I hear the Israelis talk about getting Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon, I have to laugh," said a veteran Middle East official and analyst who requested anonymity because of his sensitive position. "They live there."
In addition, he pointed out, clearing the border would not remove the danger of attacks on northern Israel. During Operation Litani and the 1982 invasion, he said, a secure border zone was enough to prevent attacks by the short-range rockets of the time. But today that kind of safety is no longer guaranteed. "There are missiles now with a range of 20, 30, 40 kilometers," between 12 and 25 miles, he added.
The Lebanese army, which split into rival sectarian units during the country's 1975-90 civil war, has come a long way toward unity and genuine national representation, Lebanese analysts said. But by legal requirement, the commander remains a Maronite Christian, and the analysts acknowledged that the unity of these forces would be strained if troops tried to force Hezbollah units to disarm or leave the border region.
Suggestions that the Lebanese army take command of anti-Hezbollah operations in the border hills seem unrealistic, they said. At best, the Lebanese army could take to the field once a settlement was reached, so as to symbolize national authority and to police arrangements agreed to by Hezbollah and other Lebanese political forces, they explained.
But the largest obstacle to removing Hezbollah may be its place in Lebanese society. As a political force, it represents the country's largest religious community. As a military force, it has stood up for Lebanese under attack while the army stood aside.
Nevertheless, many Lebanese, particularly Maronite Christians, resent the power that it wields, just as they resent the growing demographic power of Shiite Muslims and the idea that religiously diverse Lebanon, or even a significant part of it, would adhere to the strict Muslim code that Hezbollah espouses.
"We are not like that," said Lina Marji, who was doing a brisk business selling cellphone cards in downtown Beirut. "Not in our traditions, not in our education."
Marji, who was in primary school during the 1982 invasion, said she came to Beirut from southern Lebanon. Asked how her family was doing under the Israeli air assaults, she pinched her face and became subdued. "As well as can be expected," she replied.