JERUSALEM (May. 26)
Israel warned Syria last night against further provocative incidents in Lebanon and declared that the Israeli army would “protect its men and also protect the agreement” Israel signed with Lebanon.
The stern but carefully worded warning was reportedly drafted by Premier Menachem Begin and Defense Minister Moshe Arens after Israeli officials seemed yesterday to play down the importance of recent incidents in Lebanon in order to avoid an escalation of the tense situation there.
The statement, issued by a military spokesman, referred specifically to the Syrian air-to-air missile attack on Israeli planes on patrol over Lebanon yesterday. None was hit and the Israelis did not return the fire. But the statement called the incident a “clear violation of the cease-fire ” in Lebanon and expressed concern over mounting incidents caused by “Syrian provocation (which is) not accidental” but an attempt to sabotage the Israel-Lebanon agreement signed May 17.
The statement noted however that Israel “hopes and desires to avoid violent clashes” and was watching developments in that spirit. Military sources reported yesterday that an Israeli helicopter had been fired on Monday from behind Syrian lines, that machinegun fire was exchanged across the Israeli-Syrian lines in central Lebanon Tuesday night and that an Israeli tank hit a land mine near Beirut Wednesday, without injuries to its crew.
The sources suggested however that the first two incidents might have been the work of Palestine Liberation Organization units rather than the Syrian army and that the missile attack on Israeli planes yesterday could have been a sign of Syrian “nervousness ” rather than provocative intent.
U.S. INTELLIGENCE CONFIRMS SYRIAN BUILD-UP
But the official statement issued last night indicated that Israel takes a more serious view of these developments. This was reflected by the media which gave prominence today to U.S. intelligence reports that Syria was building up its own and PLO forces in eastern Lebanon. Israel Radio reported that large scale Syrian military maneuvers, with Soviet advisors, were getting under way on the Golan Heights.
Sources here said today that Israel is in close contact with Washington over events in Lebanon and has been urging the Americans to press the Soviet Union to exercise a restraining influence on the Syrians. Earlier this week, Begin expressed Israel’s anxiety over the tense situation with the Syrians in Lebanon in a letter to President Reagan. The letter thanked the President for Secretary of State George Shultz’s recent mediation efforts which helped bring about the Israel-Lebanon agreement.
The Israeli media meanwhile is stressing reports that the U.S. is confident Syria does not want war with Israel, certainly not all-out war, and that Syria will agree eventually to pull its own forces out of Lebanon. According to informed sources, the U.S. finds significant the fact that President Hafez Assad of Syria has not shut the door on a Syrian pull-out although he continues to blast the Israel-Lebanon agreement in the harshest terms.
The U.S., it is understood here, hopes that inter-Arab influences brought to bear on Damascus will ultimately produce a withdrawal agreement, although the Syrians are expected to demand tough terms. The Americans are said to reason that Syria had nothing to gain militarily from new hostilities with Israel and that its Soviet arms suppliers are loathe to risk a test of strength against Israel’s American-supplied weaponry.