Israeli Brig. Gen. Ammon Lipkin is taking increased casualties to hold ground his country is anxious to give up.
Caught in the web of diplomatic paradox, the young commander of Israeli forces for the Beirut sector said that the number of attacks on his troops has doubled in recent weeks, that the method of assault by hit-and-run guerrillas from several groups is constantly changing and that Israeli forces have been unable to stop them.
"Look, you should know that we have quite a long experience in this kind of thing," Lipkin said in an interview today. "On the other hand, we have no complete answer for these things. And that's why from time to time we are losing people, and we are paying."
Lipkin said the ambushes and car bomb attacks, which last weekend increased the toll of Israeli casualties in Lebanon to 500 killed and 2,777 wounded, have not created problems of morale among his soldiers.
But he acknowledged that the rising dissent and debate in Israel over the war reverberates in the ranks of his troops.
"It's the same people who are arguing in Israel who are coming here to the reserves," he said. "And in the regular Army they are thinking. They are reading newspapers. They are listening to the radio. They are watching TV. . . . For sure, we didn't come here to stay."
For the moment, Israel is pinned down in Lebanon, unable to implement the agreement with Lebanon to withdraw, unable to pull back into more secure positions because of the vacuum that would leave and because of U.S. concern that a partial withdrawal might be viewed by some Lebanese as the first step toward an Israeli partition of southern Lebanon--further complicating the tense, deteriorating situation here.
The wiry, intense commander, a one-star general at 39, spoke to a reporter at a rented hilltop villa overlooking Lebanon's Defense Ministry that serves as the headquarters of Israeli military and diplomatic spokesmen in Lebanon.
In a 45-minute interview, Lipkin argued the merits and drawbacks to a partial Israeli withdrawal from the outskirts of Beirut and hills overlooking the capital to the Awwali River in southern Lebanon. He also spoke of his hopes and doubts about the will of the Lebanese to build a strong army and nation.
Lipkin said he thinks a partial pullback would enable Israeli forces to build strong defenses against guerrilla routes of infiltration, but he agrees with Defense Minister Moshe Arens that the vacuum must be filled by the Lebanese Army and multinational forces.
Like others here, he said he believes the attacks are being carried out by the Palestine Liberation Organization in coordination with their Lebanese leftist allies. But he can foresee further trouble from the deployment of yet more Israeli forces.
He mentioned the Iranian troops behind Syrian lines in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. There have not been any clashes with them, he said.
"But they are in the area," he said. "What for? There is a Libyan battalion not far from here. What's the reason for it?"
Lipkin said his intelligence information indicates that the attacks are coming from Syrian-held territory, but he does not believe the Syrians are supporting them from front-line positions. Nevertheless, he said, "I'm sure they are not crying about what is going on here."
Observers here have begun to refer to the sustained guerrilla assault as Syria's "arm's-length war of attrition" against Israel, but Lipkin rejects the notion that the situation is comparable to the grinding wars of attrition Israel fought in the Suez Canal in the late 1960s and in the Jordan Valley in 1970.
Since he has been in Lebanon, the strongest common feeling he has observed, Lipkin said, is opposition to allowing the PLO to establish bases here again.
But when asked whether he believed the Lebanese would become strong enough to defend themselves against that, Lipkin responded, "I cannot judge. I really cannot judge."
"I know from talking to Lebanese people they believe they can do it, and will do it. I can only hope they are right."
His experiences in the Israeli-held Chouf mountains overlooking Beirut, scene of sectarian murders, revenge kidnapings and artillery duels targeting warring villages and East Beirut, have not given him much comfort, however.
"In their daily relations, it's unbelievable," he said. "I think that it's far away from being a united nation."
"You speak with the people who are doing the things, and they have no explanation, just hatred--sometimes not even hatred. That is one of the things it is hard to understand."
Both the rising sectarian violence in the hills and the increased attacks on Israeli soldiers in Beirut and in southern Lebanon, however, can be handled, he said.
Pausing and measuring each word, he added, "And if it's needed, we can live with it for a long period of time."