APRIL 12, 1996
As fighting escalates on both sides of the Israel-Lebanon border, so does the intensity of the political rhetoric. Two reports from Independent Television News, proceed a discussion with Charlayne Hunter-Gault and two journalists - Akiva Eldar, Washington Bureau Chief of the Israeli daily "Ha'aretz", and Hisham Melhem the diplomatic correspondent for the Lebanese daily "As-Safir."
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: As the fighting escalated on both sides of the Israel-Lebanon border today, so did the intensity of the political rhetoric. We have two reports from Independent Television News. The first is from Alex Thompson in Beirut.
ALEX THOMPSON, ITN: Midafternoon over Beirut. Israeli assault helicopters quartering the city, assessing targets. Out of range from Lebanese Army grenade launchers but taking no chances, throwing out deflection to heat-seeking missiles. Moments later, several rockets hit a Syrian Army base, part of their 35,000 strong presence in Lebanon. It's believed 12 soldiers from Syria were injured. They were treated at a nearby hospital run by Hezbollah. The Lebanese prime minister says only an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories can end this situation. Nabatir, the largest town in Southern Lebanon, partially evacuated and under sustained Israeli shelling this morning. Israel gave four hours' notice that 44 towns and villages in Southern Lebanon would be attacked at some 2:30 this afternoon local time, and several of them were. Across towns like Tablin, civilians fled into buildings with deep shelters. With neither side calling a halt, the people's fear is well justified. In hospitals here, the casualty figures grow for Shiite civilians, just as they are among Israelis suffering Hezbollah's attacks, and just as the Israelis flee, so these Lebanese civilians move North away from the killing zone. "We have to run away," said this man. "We've got children. What else can we do?". Said Mizrallah, the Hezbollah leader, said, "The day will come when Peres will regret the attack on Beirut. The Israelis will pay dearly. They must withdraw from our land. This is the only solution." He said, "Further military escalation means more attacks on Israeli settlements. No one can change this equation."
JANE BENNETT POWELL, ITN: Ordinary Israelis paid the price for its army's attacks on Hezbollah targets, Israeli border towns hit by Katyusha rockets from inside Southern Lebanon. Four people were injured in Kiryat Shmona in Northern Israel. It was an attack here by Hezbollah earlier this week which helped trigger the Israeli assault. Towns across Northern Israel look deserted. Indeed half Kiryat Shmona's population followed official advice to evacuate their homes in the face of likely further attacks from Hezbollah. The prime minister, Shimon Peres, made a surprise visit to the town. His government is up for reelection on May the 29th, and he's under pressure to act against Hezbollah with resolve. That was the impression he sought to give in response to questioning.
SHIMON PERES, Prime Minister Israel: If they thought that Katyusha is a superior weapon, well, we have had to remind them that we have missiles that are better than Katyusha.
JANE BENNETT POWELL: A second day of Israeli Army operations against Hezbollah has so far not brought a response on how much damage was sustained by its leadership or its operational capacity. Tonight, as the Americans warn Hezbollah against escalating the conflict, Israelis felt confident in U.S. support for the action they'd taken.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: We get two perspectives now. Akiva Eldar is the Washington Bureau Chief of the Israeli daily "Ha'aretz." Hisham Melhem is diplomatic correspondent for the Lebanese daily "As-Safir." And Hisham, tell us from your perspective, how did all this get started?
HISHAM MELHEM, As-Safir Newspaper: As usual, the Israelis are reneging on the understanding between them and Hezbollah back in 1993, attacking the area of the so-called security zone, which is in occupied Lebanese territory, and Hezbollah resorting to attacking the Israelis. I think this cycle of violence, if you want to call it that way, will continue, and it's likely to continue as long as the Israelis are in South Lebanon. The only way for the Israelis is Southward, is to leave the country. If they leave, there's no occupation. Then you will have stability and security returning to South Lebanon.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How do you see it, how it got started?
AKIVA ELDAR, Ha'aretz Newspaper: Well, I think it's not very important who started because while the Israelis argue that the Hezbollah were provoking them by breaking just a few days ago the truce agreement cut by the United States, they made the Israelis a casualty of youngster, a teenager, who stepped on a mine, and, uh, nobody can prove that the Israelis were the one who put this mine there. I believe that this is linked to the previous Hamas attacks on Israelis, and I think that the common things between those two are the Iranians, and in light of the upcoming elections, their mutual interest of both the Hamas and the Hezbollah, led by the Iranians, is to not only to cause damage to Israel but to stop the peace process. And the best way to stop this peace process is they believe to bring the Likud into power, and the soft point, soft of Shimon Peres, is definitely security. We all know that Mr. Rabin was seen as Mr. Defense and Shimon Peres as Mr. Peace or Mr. Vision. So they actually trapped him between doomed if you do react, doomed if you don't. The Likud is already using their campaign advertising, quotes from people in Kiryat Shmona saying, well, how come the Hezbollah is now our prime minister, telling us how long we have to stay under--in those bomb shelters.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How do you react to that analysis, that this is really aimed at destroying the peace process?
MR. MELHEM: The Hezbollah is not taking orders from Iran or from the Syrians. Hezbollah activists are fighting to defend occupied villages and towns. If the Israelis leave South Lebanon, you would have a different situation. Now we are analyz--psychoanalyzing Mr. Peres's psyche. He has to prove his manhood to Lebanon. He has to prove that he's not a patsy, that he's tough as Mr. Rabin, and he's going to do what Mr. Rabin did in 1993, in which he drove more than 1/2 million Lebanese civilians from the South to put pressure on the Lebanese government in Beirut, carpet bombing, slash and burn tactics. This is not going to work. The bottom line for Lebanese, average Lebanese, or Lebanese officials is the following: What can the Israelis do to us in 1996 that they haven't done to us in 1982, when they invaded the whole country and occupied Beirut? They did not solve the problem. They are not going to solve the problem. There isn't anything that the Israelis haven't fired militarily in Lebanon and it didn't work, and nothing will work, except a political settlement when the Israelis accept Resolution 425, pack up, leave South Lebanon, and then, then you will have a situation of normalcy, at least on that.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But, Akiva Eldar, that's not in the cards right now, is it?
MR. ELDAR: No, it's not in the cards, because as Hisham knows, that the Israelis will not be willing to do that unless the Syrians or the Lebanese, or both of them, will remove the Hezbollah because the Hezbollah are not partners in this peace process, and they will--nothing less than the destruction of Israel will satisfy them. And it's not a government slogan. You know that. And you know, it's ironic that the Israelis have evacuated people from the Galilee to the Golan Heights to settlements in the Golan Heights to Syrian soil since we believe that if the Syrians want to have full control, they can exercise it.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But what, what is the position of the Syrians now? Because in the past, the Syrians have been able to exercise some control over Hezbollah, is that not right? I mean, but today a Syrian soldier, when this taped piece came in, they had merely been wounded but one Syrian soldier has been killed.
MR. ELDAR: Right.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What are the prospects of Syria entering this equation?
MR. ELDAR: They have to have some interest in it, and I don't see any interest on the Syrians now to stop it, and like Hisham said, maybe the resumption of the peace talks--and this is where the Americans come in.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, this--is the, is the killing of the Syrian soldier going to involve Syria in a way other than restraining or encouraging Hezbollah?
MR. MELHEM: I think if the Syrians were entertaining any ideas of restraining Hezbollah, it's going to be very difficult for them after the killing of, of a Syrian soldier, and the wounding of many. And I think the Syrians were extremely upset because the Israelis are attacking Beirut. People talk about the resumption of peace talks. Who suspended the peace talks in Maryland between the Syrians and the Israelis? It was the Israelis, not the Syrians. It was not Hezbollah who suspended the Maryland talks. Hezbollah said repeatedly if they leave Lebanon--
MR. ELDAR: It was the Hamas.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Well, we can't solve that one. But do you see an escalation now of the conflict, or how is this--I mean, what do you think is going to happen?
MR. MELHEM: I see escalation only because the United States is not doing its share. In fact, what the United States is doing is fanning the flames.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How?
MR. MELHEM: Because the American government is refusing to even urge the Israelis to exercise restraint as they do all the time. The United States has not even consulted the Syrians and the Lebanese to contain the situation today, and if you read the American statements carefully, there is a green light being given to the Israelis because the Americans--today--is to make life easy for Mr. Peres so that he will win the elections.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How do you see it?
MR. ELDAR: Well, Hisham is in the long run, it's in the Syrians' interest as well as the Americans' interest that Shimon Peres will stay in power, and we both agree that better chances to resume the peace talks and to get somewhere, the Labor Party will be in control, and perhaps this is the reason that the Americans even justified the Israeli attack for the first time, actually they justified an Israeli attack on a capital of a sovereign Arab neighbor.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And haven't the Americans also been trying to get Syria to restrain Lebanon?
MR. ELDAR: Well, I think that they didn't actually try very hard this time. For the first time yesterday, the Israelis before attacking those camps did not ask the Americans to interfere because they lost hope. They believe that the Syrians either are not interested or are not capable of doing that.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, how is all of this playing in Israel, which you've just alluded to a few moments ago, is in the process of a political campaign, Hisham--well, you heard what he said--how is it playing in Israel?
MR. ELDAR: Umm, I believe that the bottom line is that the Israelis are losing their patience and their trust in the peace process because instead of facing the fruits of peace, what they get is either attacks on commuter buses in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and they hardly started the healing process from that, and they're getting Katyushas on the--so now it covers almost the entire country, so of course, it will affect emotionally the Israelis and, uh, I believe that this is one of the considerations of the Hezbollah and the Hamas and the Iranians. We know that they had some mortar attacks, and we know about the shift of ammunition from Europe and I would not be surprised if there will be attempts to attack Jewish and Israelis to nations outside the region.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, we'll have to leave it there. Thank you both.