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Israel's humiliating flight from Lebanon

There is no putting a pretty face on Israel's humiliating rout in southern Lebanon last week, but that didn't stop Prime Minister Ehud Barak from trying.

"Israel's presence in Lebanon tied its hands to some extent," he declared on Thursday. "But from now on, there are no limits on a tough Israeli response to all aggression against it." The day before, he boasted that the troops had departed Lebanon "without a scratch." This, he said, "is a happy day."

A happy day?

Pursued by a few hundred Hezbollah guerrillas, Israeli soldiers flee Lebanon in a panic. In their haste to get out, they leave behind armored vehicles, rocket launchers, and ammunition, which the Shi'ite militiamen chasing them promptly seize. "As they giddily rode abandoned Israeli tanks through village after village," The New York Times reports on Page 1 the next morning alongside a photo of triumphant Islamist fighters, "they laid waste to Israel's plan for an orderly, scheduled withdrawal." Meanwhile mortars are fired at the towns of the Upper Galilee; residents are forced to sleep in bomb shelters. Vowing to "continue fighting as if there had been no withdrawal at all," Hezbollah sweeps down to the Israeli border.

"This," gloats Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, "is the first victory in 50 years of Arab-Israeli conflict!" If he means that it is the first time that Israel has been forced to retreat, with no peace agreement or security guarantee, from territory it had occupied in self-defense, he is entirely correct.

But that is not the worst of it.

With Israel out, Syria's hegemony over Lebanon is complete. The tens of thousands of Syrian troops who for 25 years have occupied the northern two-thirds of the country are now free to extend their control over all of it.

Syria's deployment of surface-to-air missile batteries in Lebanon was one of the events that triggered Israel's invasion in 1982. With Hezbollah - protected by Syria, financed by Iran - once more at Israel's door, how long will it be before such threatening moves resume? As Israel cut and ran last week, Lebanese radio hinted at the bloodshed to come. "Yarun is now liberated," one broadcaster said, "and I'm looking over into occupied Palestine." That is, into northern Israel.

Even that is not the worst of it.

The worst - the very worst - is that in its rush to leave Lebanon, Israel left its Christian and moderate Muslim allies in the South Lebanon Army to the tender mercies of Hezbollah and Damascus. Within hours the "ethnic cleansing" had reportedly begun. In Qolaia, two Christian men were said to have been kidnapped and executed by the militiamen. In Marjayoun, homes were torched; in Burj el-Mluk and Kawkaba, churches. The Orthodox bishop of Marjayoun and the Maronite bishop of Sidon pleaded publicly for help in stopping the "acts of persecution and aggression taking place."

For 25 years, at great risk to themselves, the men of the SLA helped keep Israel's northern towns safe from terrorism. The enclave they patrolled was the closest thing Lebanon had to a free zone, a small swath of territory not dominated by Syria or Shi'ite extremists. Israelis are famous for never leaving a man behind. But they left these men behind, and it is a betrayal many will not survive.

"If I stay in the village, the Hezbollah will slaughter me," an SLA veteran-turned-refugee, one of 6,000 southern Lebanese who sought safe haven in Israel, told a reporter. "If I flee to Beirut, they'll slaughter me in Beirut."

Another refugee, an officer in the SLA for 24 years who had been compelled to escape without his family, was frightened, too - but not for himself. "I can't stop thinking about what Hezbollah men will do to our daughters and wives. They know who I am, and they're certain to search for me."

The message to Israel's supporters last week was that the Jewish state cannot be trusted to stand by those who stand by it. That is not a good reputation to have anywhere - especially not in a neighborhood as dangerous as Israel's. If the Israelis were determined to withdraw from Lebanon unilaterally, they had a moral obligation to make sure their friends in the SLA knew what was coming and could defend themselves - not to scurry out pell-mell, with barely a word of warning to the courageous Lebanese Christians and Muslims whose steadfastness through the years had saved so many Jewish lives.

The Israeli flight from Lebanon took place nearly 60 years to the day after the desperate Allied escape from the beaches of Dunkirk. Unlike Barak, Winston Churchill did not proclaim that frantic retreat before the Nazis a "happy day" or boast of having gotten the troops out "without a scratch."

"Wars are not won by evacuations," he told the Commons. "Our thankfulness at the escape of our Army . . . must not blind us to the fact that what has happened . . . is a colossal military disaster."

Ehud Barak is no Churchill. More is the pity for Israel.