by Eytan Bentsur
Director-General, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs
May 25, 2000
Today, Israel is in the midst of a major change in direction.
Until just recently, the continued maintenance of a ‘security zone’ within Lebanon was an integral element of Israeli policy. This zone, extending a few kilometers north of the Israel-Lebanon border and patrolled by Israeli soldiers together with the allied South Lebanon Army (SLA), was established about 15 years ago in order to protect northern Israel from terrorist incursion and bombardment. While Israel hads no territorial claims in Lebanon, it was then deemed necessary to deploy forces within Lebanon itself in order to address the security threats emanating from Lebanese territory. Israelis still remember with horror the scenes of carnage and destruction left in the wake of repeated terrorist attacks launched against us from Lebanon in the late 70’s and early ’80’s.
Yet, over time, the ‘Lebanese equation’ has slowly changed. So much so, that a few months ago, the Israeli government decided to unilaterally withdraw from Lebanon, as a means of better promoting Israel’s security, in light of the new realities. And indeed, a full Israeli pull-out from Lebanon was completed Thursday, May 25th.
The Israeli withdrawal has been conducted in full coordination with the UN, and constitutes an Israeli fulfillment of its obligations under Security Council Resolution 425 (1978) which is designed to restore "international peace and security" to both sides of the border. With this in mind, Israel has worked closely with the UN in coordinating the withdrawal, marking the border, and defining the character of the future role of the UN Interim Force which is active in the area. Israel has also briefed and coordinated its actions with world leaders, in order to make clear its intentions regarding the withdrawal and its future security options. In discussions held with the highest political echelons in the United States, Europe, Russia and Asia, our positions were well received, understood and supported.
The withdrawal was the result of our recognition that the ‘security zone’ concept was no longer effective or necessary, and that other means may now be available to secure Israel’s northern border.
We would have preferred to carry out the withdrawal in agreement with Lebanon. However, this option was not available, due to pressure brought to bear against Lebanon by external parties. We therefore chose to carry out the withdrawal unilaterally.
By withdrawing from Lebanon, Israel removes any alleged "legitimacy" for continued terrorist attacks against the "occupier’s" soldiers and civilians, strengthening Israel’s position in its efforts to bring peace to its northern border. Israel is in essence regaining the initiative and redefining the parameters of its actions. No longer can terrorists wreak havoc and spread violence under the doubtful banner of ‘Lebanese liberation’.
Israel also expects that the withdrawal will bring an end to the unacceptable proxy war fought against Israel by groups such as the Hizbullah, in which the ‘rules of the game’ were actually determined in Damascus and Teheran. Iran has constantly provided arms, ammunition, logistical support, financing and training to terrorist groups in Lebanon, while Syria has allowed and even encouraged these groups to operate freely against Israel in the vast Lebanese areas under Syrian military control.
Israelis breathed a collective sigh of relief upon learning Wednesday morning that we have finally left Lebanon, with its complex quagmire of terrorism and violence. The tragedies and bloodshed of our ongoing involvement in Lebanon have left deep scars on our nation, and we all look forward to the promise of calm and normalcy along the northern border.
Yet, we know that hopes must be strengthened by realism and deterrence. To this end, we have made it clear that if, after the withdrawal, Israel faces attack from Lebanese territory, the response will be forceful. It will be based upon the pure, simple and compelling right to self-defense, the cornerstone of international law and legitimacy. This response will be directed not only toward those terrorists who carry out the attack, but also toward those parties who aid, support and enable terrorist organizations to operate against Israel from Lebanon. I am sure that any other nation would act similarly to protect its citizens from external attack.
Beyond the Israeli withdrawal, Resolution 425 also obligates the Lebanese government to take up "effective authority" throughout its territory. Having kept its part of the resolution, Israel now fully expects Beirut to fill the vacuum created in the south and to check the growing terrorist hegemony in the border zone.
Together with its responsibility to prevent terrorism against Israel, the Lebanese government must also act to prevent wanton acts of revenge and reprisal against those of its citizens in the south who worked together with Israel throughout the years to prevent terrorist encroachment into their villages and homes. For its part, Israel has opened its doors, and offered refuge to all SLA soldiers and civilian officials who would prefer to relocate.
Israelis would truly like to see calm and tranquility on their northern border. We would welcome a Lebanese government which is fully responsible for its sovereign territory, and accountable for events taking place within its realm. It is our belief that our withdrawal from Lebanon can create the impetus for such a change.
Although we have taken an historic decision, and have pulled our forces out of Lebanon, we must remember that we are still in the midst of the process of calming a border — taking place within the context of an even greater process, that of achieving a comprehensive Middle East peace. All parties who are interested in promoting Arab-Israeli reconciliation must remember that a stable Lebanon is an indispensable element of comprehensive Middle East Peace. We are convinced that both Lebanon and Israel desire this peace and that the people of the entire region deserve it.
I have invested most of my diplomatic career in cultivating and helping build this process, from its very beginning at the Madrid Conference of 1991, through the bold decisions taken by the Barak government this very day. I am proud to be part of this endeavor. Having witnessed first hand the efforts made by Israel’s leadership to keep the process moving forward, I have confidence in our ability and our perseverance to reach the peace that we have worked so hard to achieve, both on the northern border, and throughout the region as a whole.
||The Israeli Withdrawal from Southern Lebanon: Special Update|