Jerusalem — The sun is beginning to set, and Efrat Spiegel, who has traveled to the capital from her home near Tel Aviv, feels a chill.
“It was warm in Tel Aviv and it didn’t occur to me to bring a sweater,” says the 65-year-old telephone operator, shivering outside the Prime Minister’s Office.
Despite the cold wind that has begun to blow, Spiegel, one of about 100 demonstrators demanding an immediate Israeli troop withdrawal from Lebanon, continues her vigil. While others in the crowd shout “Lebanon is Like Saigon” and “Get Our Sons Out of Lebanon,” she remains silent.
As the mother of a soldier killed in Lebanon, Spiegel doesn’t have to say anything to convey her message. The strained line of her jaw and the dull look in her eyes speak for themselves.
Spiegel’s son Yoav died in 1983, during the Peace for Galilee campaign to halt guerrilla attacks on Israel’s northern communities. She says she is demonstrating so that another generation of parents doesn’t have to experience her heartache.
“Yoav died 15 years ago, in Peace for Galilee, but today that’s just something written on a tombstone. No one remembers what it was all for,” she says. “We need to protect our children’s lives and get out of Lebanon.”
Spiegel is among a growing number of Israelis demanding that the government leave Lebanon, with or without a peace treaty with Lebanon or its protectorate, Syria. According to a Gallup poll published in the daily newspaper Maariv, 40 percent of Israelis support a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, up from 16 percent a year and a half ago. The same poll revealed that 50 percent are not prepared for a one-sided redeployment. Ten percent did not voice an opinion.
The grassroots campaign, which was launched in March 1997 by four mothers whose sons were serving in Lebanon, has struck a chord with thousands of people from every walk of life. It has taken on new urgency since pro-Syrian Lebanese guerrillas began stepping up attacks against Israeli troops in early November.
During an 11-day period last month, seven soldiers were killed and several were critically injured. On Tuesday, roadside bombs killed an Israeli-backed Lebanese militiaman and wounded another.
Israelis were particularly moved by the plight of one young immigrant soldier who last week lost both legs in an attack. His parents, both physicians, rushed to Israel from Ukraine to be by his side and decided on the spot to make aliyah. In all, 22 Israeli soldiers have been killed in southern Lebanon this year.
Israel made a deep incursion into its northern neighbor in 1982 but withdrew most of its troops three years later. Since then, it has maintained a force of elite paratroopers in the eight-mile-wide buffer zone.
Syria supports the guerrilla attacks as a means of pressuring Israel to relinquish the Golan Heights, which it captured during the 1967 Six-Day War. It is believed that the latest escalation in tensions is being spurred from Damascus.
Finding a solution to the war of attrition being waged by Hezbollah guerrillas has monopolized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government for much of the week. Netanyahu cut short a European visit Sunday to personally inspect the Lebanese border. Later that day, the 12-member inner security cabinet debated the government’s options.
While Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon called for a phased redeployment, Israel’s defense establishment warned that any withdrawal without written security guarantees from Syria would result in even more bloodshed.
In a heated exchanged Monday during a meeting of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Defense Minister Yitzchak Mordechai charged Yossi Beilin of the Labor party with “selling illusions” about a unilateral withdrawal. An emotional Beilin, who is leading the movement for a withdrawal, responded that the army “was gambling” with the lives of Israeli soldiers.
“You know that soldiers can be killed in Lebanon any day,” he said. “Get out of there!”
Mordechai angrily countered that Beilin was “gambling by thinking that you have a solution, when this is not a solution.”
Netanyahu said Sunday that he rejects Syrian demands for an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders as a condition for negotiations, and indicated that he plans to shore up — not scale back — Israel’s military presence.
“As long as we cannot withdraw from Lebanon in a way that will secure the inhabitants in the north of Israel we will stay,” he said after the briefing. “Today we must do everything we can to protect our soldiers and increase attacks on Hezbollah.”
Netanyahu also called on the Lebanese army to redeploy southward to rein in Hezbollah. He has repeatedly conditioned any evacuation on security guarantees from the Lebanese government.
Such guarantees do not seem to be forthcoming, however. Gen. Emile Lahoud, Lebanon’s new president, said Friday that Syria and Lebanon are together “in the foxhole” against “Israel’s extortionist tricks.”
Netanyahu said he had received no “feelers” from Syria to start negotiations, despite press reports that Syria is prepared to start a dialogue. He said Monday that Israel is willing to resume talks with Syria as long as there are no preconditions.
Syria continues to demand a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for a halt to Hezbollah attacks.
In the United States, meanwhile, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright instructed U.S. ambassadors to Lebanon, Syria and Israel to ask their host countries to “act with restraint.”
As the situation remained in flux at week’s end, the majority of Israelis seemed to favor a cautious approach. For example, an editorial in the usually dovish newspaper Haaretz said that “every effort should be made to start a new chapter in the Israeli-Syrian relationship before any decision is made to carry out a unilateral withdrawal or to expand the war in South Lebanon.”
But those manning the barricades around the country insist that Israel can’t wait for diplomatic solutions.
Like others at the Jerusalem demonstration, Noa Peck, 20, a recently demobilized army social worker, believes that the price Israel is paying in Lebanon is much too high.
“The goal is to protect citizens in the north, but when I was serving on the border, soldiers were getting killed at the same time the Katyushas [Russian-made rockets] were hitting Israel. An army presence in Lebanon didn’t keep people out of their bomb shelters,” she said.
Jerusalemite Yael Aviv, 50, a member of the Four Mothers Movement to Leave Lebanon group, agrees. “I think we’ve done all we can. During the past 16 years, 1,200 boys have died in Lebanon and Hezbollah is still attacking.”
“I have a son who was in Lebanon twice, and it wasn’t justified,” says Shoshanna Mandl, 52, also from Jerusalem. “It’s bankrupt to say that the only way to defend our country is by occupying another country.”
And though Mandl dreams of a day when Israel won’t need to draft its teenagers, she is a realist.
“Given the situation, our children have no choice but to serve, and that’s a fact,” she says. “But we must keep our sons here, in Israel.”