TEL AVIV (May. 3)
The Israel Defense Force continued its large-scale search and destroy operation in the southern Lebanon Tuesday. It is aimed against terrorist bases in the border security zone and an area just north of it, where infiltration attempts have been launched in recent weeks.
The operation, which began Monday night, involves infantry and tank forces estimated at between 500 and 2,000 troops.
The IDF is supported by units of the Israel backed South Lebanon Army, At the same time, Israeli air force planes have been flying low-level surveillance missions over Palestinian refugee camps in the Tyre and Sidon areas of southern Lebanon, and Israeli naval craft are patrolling off the southern Lebanon coast.
IDF artillery was reported to be shelling several points within the security zone and beyond it.
According to unofficial reports, the operation was expected to last from 24 to 48 hours. The first official announcement by the IDF at midnight Monday said that “the IDF action will end when the searches are concluded.”
The area under search, called the Arkoub, is hilly, sparsely populated ground south of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and near the Syrian border. The area, which has been used as a training ground for terrorist and guerrilla forces, extends from the security zone to the western slopes of Mount Hermon.
KNOWN AS ‘FATAHLAND’
It was once known as “Fatahland” because of the massive presence in the early 1980s of fighters from the A1 Fatah wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Now the terrorists appear to be returning. According to the Israeli authorities, 16 terrorist attacks have been launched from the area in recent months.
The IDF announcement on the maneuvers, considered unusual while an operation of this kind was still under way, came after NBC News reported Monday evening that 2,000 Israeli troops had entered southern Lebanon. It was not immediately known whether NBC had violated censor ship rules.
Although military sources admitted the operation was large scale, they stressed it was not as massive as foreign news reports suggested. Reports from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, which patrols a zone in southern Lebanon north of the security zone, seemed to confirm this.
A Norwegian UNIFIL officer was quoted as saying, “It appears to be a local operation and anticipated in view of recent infiltration attempts.”
The IDF communique stated: “In the frame work of ongoing security activity, the IDF is searching the security zone and its periphery following the recent increase in the number of attempts at infiltrating into Israel in order to kill and carry out bargaining for hostage operations.”
A communique issued Tuesday morning said: “IDF forces are searching for terrorist squads and their accomplices on the western slopes of the Hermon in south Lebanon.”
A ‘USUAL OPERATION’
Premier Yitzhak Shamir said Tuesday it was a “usual operation” and did not signal any new Israeli policy. Maj. Gen. Yossi Peled, commander of the northern region, said he did not anticipate any reaction from the Syrians.
According to some reports, the IDF forces were less than eight miles from Syrian positions in Lebanon at certain points. The Syrian army was said to have been placed on full alert.
Lebanese and UNIFIL sources said the operation included house-to-house searches in several villages on the lower western slopes of Mount Hermon.
These included the villages of Shouba, Shaya, Hasbaya and Kaukaba, the sources said. They said the IDF distributed leaflets warning the villagers not to support or lend aid to terrorists on their way to attack Israel.
As of Tuesday evening, the IDF was reported to have encountered no resistance in the villages or elsewhere in the search area.
RESPONSE TO INFILTRATION
The operation followed a significant increase in terrorist attacks and infiltration attempts along the northern border.
The most daring and successful, from the terrorists’ point of view, occurred last November, when a lone terrorist scaled the Israel-Lebanon border on a motorized hang glider and managed to kill six IDF soldiers and wound seven before he was killed.
More recent attempts have failed, but the IDF has sustained casualties. Two Israeli soldiers were killed in clashes with terrorist gangs last week. About 20 terrorists have been killed or captured in infiltration attempts in recent weeks.
But the aim of the current operation appears to be less to rout out terrorists than to demonstrate an IDF response and to warn villagers who may have sheltered terrorists. Most of the terrorists are believed to have fled the region in anticipation of an IDF move.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin told Israel Radio Tuesday that the purpose was not to wipe out “nests of terrorists,” but to search for arms caches and warn local residents against cooperating with the PLO.
He said there have been no casualties and no prisoners taken. Rabin declined to say if any weapons were seized.