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The Killing Zone

In Southern Lebanon, A 22-year War Is Ending

You couldn't really avoid the Middle East this week. The pope was in Israel, Jordan and Palestine. President Clinton was talking to Syrian President Assad.

What you didn't see on your screens was the war going on in southern Lebanon. It's been going on for more than 20 years. Bob Simon reports for 60 Minutes II.

It began in 1978, when the Israelis occupied a chunk of Lebanon on the other side of its border to protect Israel's northern towns from Arab rockets.

They call it their security zone, but it has become a killing zone, where Israel's own boys get trapped and bloodied in a place which was designed to be a buffer.

All that is about to change. The Israeli government has decided to withdraw its soldiers by July.

Peace? A happy ending? Not words often associated with Lebanon, or with the area that lies along its border with Israel.

Keeping that border safe is the reason for Israel's 22-year occupation of the strip. Brigadier General Benny Gantz is the Israeli commander in charge of governing the zone. One way or another, he will be the last commander here.

When you take a ride into southern Lebanon, you see why the Israelis are so anxious to leave this place behind. Hezbollah, the Islamic guerillas largely controlled by Syria, are watching every convoy and attacking as many as they can.

That's not all that hard for them, because they live in the zone. They hide high-tech bombs in fake rocks by the roadside. Sometimes, their propaganda teams manage to film as the bombs are detonated by remote control.

These booby traps are the main threat to the Israeli soldiers. Powerful and sophisticated, they can cause a lot of damage.

An Israeli cameraman was shooting video of a convoy bringing fresh troops into the zone when Hezbollah detonated one roadside bomb. The camera's lens was cracked, but the tape kept rolling. The cameraman lost a foot.

Another recorded incident captured a deadly Hezbolla one-two punch. One bomb was detonated; they then waited for rescuers to arrive before setting off a second.

At the top of Hezbollah's hit list is General Gantz himself. In fact, he got this job when his predecessor, General Erez Gerstein, was ambushed. General Gerstein, two of his soldiers and a journalist riding with him all were killed.

"Unfortunately, we lost Erez with another three guys," General Gantz says. "All four of them got killed immediately. And it wasn't easy to replace him. I mean, the job is not easy, and the circumstances didn't make it any easier."

Hezbollah got a big propaganda victory by killing his predecessor. Gantz admits they'd get another by killing him. "They could probably gain points for that as well," he says.

He's been described as the most wanted man in Lebanon. How does that feel? "Well, I take it in consideration, and I know what I'm doing," he says. "And I think I can do my job, even though they ant to kill me."

The general is determined not to make it easy for them. The Mercedes in his convoy may look battered, but they're heavily armored and jammed with high-tech electronics. They barrel down roads that have been swept by bomb squads.

But Hezbollah keeps trying. While we were traveling with Gantz, our convoy changed routes to avoid bombs, and made a tense stop while the bomb squad exploded some weapons discovered nearby. And the Israeli bases that are at the end of the road are hardly safe havens. They're regularly under attack.

When asked when the last time was that the base was hit, Gantz answers matter-of-factly: "A few weeks ago. This place always gets hit."

The Israeli army came into this part of southern Lebanon to protect Israel's northern towns and villages, and by and large it has worked. There have been fewer attacks on Northern Israel, and fewer casualties among Israeli civilians.

But that has meant that a whole generation of Israeli soldiers has been hunkered down in Lebanon, prisoners in their own bases, inviting targets for Hezbollah guerrillas. It has been a tradeoff at best.

A steady stream of dead and wounded Israeli soldiers has been flowing out of Lebanon for years now, a situation all too familiar to anyone who remembers America's final days in Vietnam. The impact on Israeli public opinion has not been all that different.

Israeli parents have taken to the streets demanding that their sons be brought home. And this month the government finally agreed, announcing a withdrawal by July with or without a peace accord.

It's a bitter victory for families who recently lost their sons in Lebanon.

Aaron Barnea's son Noam was one of Israel's best and brightest. "We called him our sunny son. He was always pleasant, always smiling. He was a beautiful person," Aaron recalls.

At 21, Noam was a member of an elite Army bomb squad. He had only five days left in his final tour of duty when he volunteered to defuse one last bomb.

"He asked to be first, to lead the unit. At that moment he was more experienced than the other one," his father says.

But the guerrillas who had planted the device were hiding nearby. One had his finger on the detonator. The other one held a video camera. The tape was broadcast by Hezbollah's TV station.

The Barneas have saved one of Noam's possessions: a peace button given him by his mother. It says, "Leave Lebanon in Peace." He was carrying it on the day he was killed.

Asked if he thinks Israel is leaving Lebanon in peace, Barnea says, "Let's hope. Let's hope."

And if there is no peace, Israel has shown just how bad that will be for the Lebanese. When Hezbollah stepped up its campaign earlier this year, Israel bombed Beirut, knocking out its power plant and turning the lights off all over the city.

The message: Israeli troopers may be pulling out of the zone, but Israeli warplanes will still be in the skies, ready tpunish Lebanon instantly and massively.

And if this is sounding more and more like Vietnam, meet the people who are playing the role of the South Vietnamese, the South Lebanese Army, Israel's loyal allies in the zone, afraid they're about to get sold out by their powerful friends.

The SLA, Israel's very own militia here, was founded by Major Saad Haddad in the late '70s. Haddad died in 1984, but his statue is still here, as is his daughter, Dolly. She runs a hospital funded by Israel. "And everything is for free, hospitalization, surgery, medication, everything," she says.

Some 90,000 people in the zone have remained loyal to Israel, and have benefited from its occupation. That makes them traitors in the eyes of other Lebanese. They've been paying a high price for that, and are terrified that once their protectors are gone they will pay the highest price of all.

"It's like growing up on an island, alone," says Dolly Haddad. "Alone. All alone. We had no one with us, and we couldn't go anywhere. We had to grow up with what we had, and it wasn't much. And - now that they are opening to the world, we find that everyone hates us, and we don't know why."

Asked if she feels as if her island is about to disappear, she says, "Yes. I do. I think it's just about to end. We're going under."

The toughest job these days for General Gantz is to convince these islanders that they will not be abandoned to the mercy of the people they have been fighting all these years.

"I think that even if we won't have an agreement, those people who are bitter about us going will understand that we are going and doing it...while taking care of them. So no matter how you look at it, at the end, they won't be hurt," says Gantz.

Asked if he is confident that the Israeli government is going to take care of the southern Lebanese who have sided with them all these years, Gantz responds, "Absolutely."

But Haddad says: "We feel pain for each Israeli soldier, the same way as we feel pain for each SLA soldier. And it's true that they came in to help us. But the situation changed and the rules changed. And we stayed with them. They didn't stay with us. And they understand this. And they should know that for 23 years, we have been taking most of the load for them. They should know this."

And now, the Israelis are leaving. "So many dead soldiers, so many dead civilians. For nothing, finally," she says.

What will happen to the SLA, and to the Lebanese who've been friendly with Israel, once their Israeli allies are gone? We asked Sheik Hassan Nasserallah, the spiritual leader of the Hezbollah guerillas, who granted 60 Minutes II a rare interview.

Through a translator, Naserrallah said: "They killed many people and committed massacres killing women and children...Therefore, we are faced by a bunch of murderers and traitors; the normal solution for these people is they turn themselvs in to the Lebanese authorities to be tried."

As for Israel, Nasserallah promised a victory parade the day Israel withdraws. But he did not promise to end the war. "If the question is whether we will continue our fight beyond Israel's borders, this is something we won't answer," he says.

Hezbollah has one clear advantage over Israel. It doesn't have any morale problems at home. The streets of south Beirut are full of Hezbollah fundraisers, not anti-war protesters.

Pictures of dead Hezbollah fighters are everywhere. Their families wouldn't dream of complaining. These men are not thought of as casualties. They are martyrs.

Israel will keep its big guns by the border, and has every intention of using its firepower if there is no peace deal. But it's no longer willing to put its own boys in the line of fire because, when it comes to taking casualties, the Israelis are becoming more and more like Americans.

Lebanon was high on the agenda when President Clinton met Syrian President Assad in Geneva this week. The question: how to prevent the war from exploding beyond control. The answer: a peace deal between Israel and Syria. Can it be concluded before the Israeli pullout in July? Ask anyone in the region; it better be.