News Analysis: Israel faces own Vietnam battle against Hezbollah in Lebanon

JERUSALEM — The bitter and tragic truth emerging from the most recent fatal attacks in Lebanon is that both were strokes of statistical bad luck.

Given the scope of Israel's military presence in southern Lebanon, the volume of Hezbollah activities, the terms of military engagement, the scale of violence — and that this reality has existed since 1985 — two attacks within three days are a bad turn of events.

Three Israel Defense Force soldiers of the elite Golani Brigade were killed when their armored patrol car was attacked by Hezbollah guerillas on Thursday of last week, while six soldiers were killed near the same spot in a similar ambush this past Sunday.

So far this year 24 Israeli soldiers out of some 1,200 who patrol the security zone have been killed, while there were 21 fatalities in all of 1994.

Of the many people who have commented on the attacks, the most concise and accurate depiction ironically came from Naeem Qassem, one of Hezbollah's senior officials.

"There is no escalation. Our successes were a combination of circumstances," he said.

Commented Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Amnon Shahak, "This is a war."

It is indeed a war, but not the type of conflict the IDF is experienced fighting. The various changes in force deployment there are merely tactical — the IDF has made more incursions into Lebanon and stationed fewer static observation posts; made frequent changes in military traffic routines; launched more small-scale operations and fewer artillery barrages.

These measures have proved successful, but Hezbollah's ability to adjust to Israel's change of tactics has proven more impressive.

The war in Lebanon is a guerrilla war. In such a war, especially if protracted, the smaller and more flexible force, which enjoys the support of the population, can inflict heavy losses on the larger force — and almost inevitably wins. Vietnam offered such a lesson.

It is true that the IDF has exacted a heavy price from Hezbollah over the last few months. But in military terms, the erosion ratio — the number of casualties each side sustains and is willing to continue sustaining — favors Hezbollah, even if it suffers more casualties.

Israel has both military and political options. Militarily, to borrow Cold War concepts, the options are massive retaliation or flexible response.

The first — a large-scale invasion or armored incursion deep into Lebanon — was tried rather unsuccessfully in 1978 and 1982. These yielded far more complicated problems, militarily and politically, than those the policy sought to solve — to protect Israel's northern settlements.

Such an option also almost inevitably means a retaliatory barrage of Katyusha rockets falling on the north of Israel, attacks the security zone was designed to prevent, not encourage.

The second option depends on the IDF compiling constant top-rate intelligence information and surgically striking Hezbollah, either with small infantry units or accurate aerial attacks.

This tactic has been successful in preventing cross-border infiltration, but it also created the current status quo in which Hezbollah occasionally scores successes.

Then there are political options. Perhaps the entire security zone concept should be critically reviewed, something that has not occurred in the decade since its establishment.

Israel is trapped in a kind of Vietnam dilemma. Withdraw, on the basis of Hezbollah's policy that it is only resisting Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon, and the Jewish state is seen as being beaten, in addition to paying a heavy price in the future if proven wrong. Deepen the involvement, and Israel may still lose, yet never know whether withdrawal would have worked.

The one option seems to be a combination: increased offensive military pressure on Hezbollah, on a limited scale and on selected targets, while bringing U.S. and international pressure on Syria to force it to stop backing Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin toured the sites of the attacks Monday and said Israel will likely refrain from a large-scale reply, while helicopters strafed Hezbollah sites. But Tuesday, Rabin ratcheted up his rhetoric.

Israel will "strike in every place in Lebanon," if necessary, to retaliate for the attacks, Rabin said after a special Cabinet session. "If Syria thinks that through Hezbollah attacks in Lebanon or by harboring Hamas and Islamic Jihad officials and offices in Damascus it will exact a diplomatic price from Israel, they cannot be more wrong," he told Israel Radio.