A Rocket And A Hard Place

Their mission used to be clear. In the Rotem outpost, a massive hilltop bunker on the outer edge of the strip of South Lebanon occupied by Israel, metal signs painted blue and white—the colors of the Israeli flag—exhort soldiers from almost every wall: "Protect the Northern Border of Israel." But these days, in the twilight of Israel's involvement in this troubled land, another mission has become paramount: stay alive. With just weeks before Israeli troops are set to begin withdrawing from Lebanon, the young soldiers of the Nahal Brigade are hunkered down in their grim cement fortress. Only one sentry stands guard in the dank, cramped observation post. To avoid risking other lives in the exposed bunker, a remote camera tracks the rocky hills down to the Mediterranean. "This is the scariest place," says Kobi Gelnik, a reticent 20-year-old who has been in Rotem for only three days. "Missiles fall here all the time." Two months ago a TOW anti-tank missile, fired with devastating accuracy by Hizbullah guerrillas, slammed into the narrow observation slit here. The lookout died instantly, the first of seven conscripts killed in a deadly three-week spree that pushed the Israeli cabinet to vote in favor of quitting Lebanon by July.

The bloodshed could get worse before it gets better. By pulling out of the war zone, Israel may be inviting an escalation in the fighting that could bring it into direct confrontation with Syria, which has 35,000 troops in Lebanon and calls the shots there. Israel has vowed to quit Lebanon regardless of whether it strikes a peace deal with Syria. And in Geneva last week U.S. President Bill Clinton failed to persuade Syrian leader Hafez Assad to restart peace talks with Israel—making it almost certain that Israel will follow through on its promise. In that case, Syria, which has been using Hizbullah to try to press Israel into returning the Golan Heights, will likely push the guerrillas to attack towns inside Israel. And that's something Israel will not stand for. "Our responses to attacks either on our civilians or on our soldiers will necessarily be quick and harsh," says Ephraim Sneh, Israel's deputy Defense minister, who is in charge of planning the withdrawal.

Hizbullah's goal all along has been to push Israel out of Lebanon. And unlike the Israeli soldiers crouched behind their earthworks, Hizbullah guerrillas are eager to die for their cause. Haydhar Madhloum is one of the men who inspires fear in the Israeli troops of Rotem. A 28-year-old who took up arms at 16, Madhloum was part of the team of Hizbullah guerrillas that killed the seven Israeli soldiers earlier this year. A year ago shrapnel from a shell fired by an Israeli Merkava tank hit Madhloum in the head, a wound he thought would be fatal. "I felt the pleasure of jihad," he tells NEWSWEEK. But even that taste of martyrdom does not make Madhloum want to pursue the Israelis across the border once they have ended their occupation. "When they withdraw, that will be our victory," he says.

Even so, Hizbullah may have no choice but to keep fighting. Syria controls the guerrilla group's supply lines and exerts total control over Lebanon. That means Damascus can force Hizbullah to keep fighting on its behalf at least until its goal—the return of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in 1967—is achieved.

At the end of last year it looked as if peace was near and the fighters on both sides would be able to go home. Then talks broke down over Syria's insistence that the borders be redrawn to give it a foothold on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Even Clinton couldn't get Assad to budge. Now the best hope for the fighters is that the United Nations will recognize Israel's withdrawal as fulfilling long-standing U.N. resolutions prohibiting occupation of foreign territory. In that case, U.N. peacekeepers might be called in to fill the gap left by the retreating Israelis—something that Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy will request this week during a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Israel must also hope that the Syrians will be cowed by the prospect of massive retaliation for any attack across the border by Hizbullah or Palestinian splinter groups.

Meanwhile, at the Rotem outpost, Israeli troops are steeling themselves for the next round of fighting. Guy Elazari will be among the last soldiers to man the fortifications his father helped build in 1979, during the early days of Israel's involvement in Lebanon. "There is a feeling of tension because the withdrawal is near," the 21-year-old soldier says. "We know the escalation is yet to come." Even when Elazari pulls out of Lebanon for his home in the border town of Nahariya, he knows he'll still be on the front line.