JERUSALEM (Apr. 7)
In the wake of Monday’s ambush attack on Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon, Israel is being forced once again to re-evaluate its role in the region.
But as in the past, security experts and policy-makers can find no easy solutions.
The attack left two Israel Defense Force soldiers dead and five wounded. Two soldiers of the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army also were wounded. The three gunmen who carried out the attack, identified as members of the radical Islamic Jihad, were killed.
The incident was the latest in an increasingly bloody guerrilla war being waged against Israel by Moslem fundamentalists linked to Iran.
The passive complicity of the Lebanese army, which the Beirut government sent to re-establish its authority in the south, is partly to blame for the situation, Israeli sources say.
Terrorists use villages ostensibly controlled by the Lebanese army as bases, leaving and returning at will, the IDF reports.
But Israel is well aware that the Beirut regime and its army are dominated by Syria, whose forces have a free hand in Lebanon.
If Lebanon and the Syrian army, which actually runs the country, wanted to prevent terrorist activity, they would have done so, said Brig. Gen. Micha Tamir, commander of the Israeli liaison unit in Lebanon.
Syria has a special relationship with Iran, which controls Hezbollah, probably the most dangerous of the fanatical Shi’ite fundamentalist militias confronting Israel.
ORDERS FROM TEHERAN
Israel estimates there are at least 600 Hezbollah guerrillas active in southern Lebanon. They are held responsible for nine major attacks so far this year and at least 99 in the last 18 months.
The Islamic Jihad, which claimed credit for the latest attack, is also identified as pro-Iran.
Uri Lubrani, coordinator of Israeli affairs in southern Lebanon, observed Tuesday that “some one in Teheran gives an order and things start happening in the security zone,” a 9-mile wide, 50-mile long area in southern Lebanon controlled by Israel.
Yossi Olmert, director of the Government Press Office, who is an expert on Syria and Lebanon, suggested that Iran uses its relationship with Damascus to assist Hezbollah’s operations against Israel with impunity.
And the Syrians, given the choice of confronting Iran or angering Israel, will always choose the latter option, Olmert said.
The latest IDF fatalities were buried Tuesday. They were identified as Sgt. Sharon Ben Arye, 22, of Kibbutz Ein Gedi and Cpl. Salah Tafesh, 21, from the Druse village of Beit Jann.
The wounded are Col. Muniv Bader, Maj. Seri Amar, and Nissim Hazan, Ilan Weizmann and Aviel Jirafi. Bader, Amar and Hazan had serious wounds but were reported out of danger Tuesday.
The two wounded SLA soldiers are Mohammad Amar and Abed el-Rahman. Neither was seriously hurt and both were expected to be released from the hospital Tuesday.
The incident began shortly after noon Monday, when an eight-car IDF-SLA convoy approached Huleh village in the security zone, less than two miles from the Israeli border near Kibbutz Manera in the Upper Galilee panhandle.
Details of the encounter were not released to the news media for nearly 12 hours.
According to the official account, the convoy came under a hail of LAW anti-tank missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons fired from gunmen hidden on the roof of a three-story building. Ben-Arye was killed and another soldier wounded in this first round.
One of the gunmen was killed by return fire but his companions continued to rain bullets on the convoy.
IDF COMMANDER WAS THE TARGET
According to the IDF account, the return fire was suspended to allow a group of women and children to leave the house where they may have been used as shields by the gunmen.
Tafesh, a medic, died in the second assault as he went to the aid of a wounded soldier.
Meanwhile, heavy reinforcements from the Golani Brigade arrived on the scene, backed by tanks, armored personnel carriers and helicopter gunships. They quickly dispatched the two remaining guerrillas.
The Islamic Jihad said IDF Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Mordechai, commander of the northern region, was its specific target.
The group said the purpose was to avenge the death of Sheik Abbas Musawi, the local Hezbollah leader killed along with his family and retinue by Israeli attack helicopters in southern Lebanon on Feb. 16.
Mordechai had indeed been in a convoy Monday carrying senior IDF and SLA officers on a goodwill visit to Shi’ite villages in the security zone on the occasion of Id el-Fitr, the feast marking the end of the Moslem holy month of Ramadan.
He was accompanied by the SLA commander, Gen. Antoine Lehad, and by Gen. Tamir. But Mordechai left the convoy before the ambush occurred for a helicopter tour of other parts of the security zone.
The general later dismissed the claim that he had been the target of Monday’s attack. “They couldn’t have known I’d be there. In fact, I was far away from Huleh village when the convoy got there,” he said Tuesday.
But military observers believe the IDF must reconsider the wisdom of having top brass make non-operational visits to combat areas that could be anticipated by the enemy.
SHARON URGES EXPANSION OF ZONE
Israel is now grappling with the question of whether and to what extent it should maintain its involvement in the area.
Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, who was defense minister when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, suggested it was time to expand the security zone, which Israel established when it withdrew the bulk of its forces from Lebanon 10 years ago.
But Lubrani and reserve Maj. Gen Ori Orr, former commander of the northern sector, disagree. If such a move were made “there would be no end to it,” Lubrani said Tuesday.
Orr said enlarging the security zone would only expand the area of anti-Israel hostilities.
Lubrani also ruled out an Israeli punitive strike at Iran, which it considers to be the source of the trouble. Asked if Iran is too far to send a “message,” Lubrani replied, “At present, yes.”