JERUSALEM (May. 26)
Reminding Syria that it is part of the current peace process, Israel has demanded that Damascus restrain Hezbollah and other “warlike” elements in Lebanon from attacking Israeli and allied targets or face a “dangerous situation.”
The warning was sounded Tuesday by Foreign Minister David Levy as the Israeli air force and Israel Defense Force artillery continued to pound Hezbollah targets for the sixth consecutive day.
He said Israel demanded an “unequivocal statement” from Damascus as a first step, to be followed by concrete action.
According to the Israelis, Syria is in de facto control in Lebanon, and the activities of Islamic fundamentalists there, such as the pro-Iranian Hezbollah, could not take place without its “backing and protection.”
Levy spoke to reporters after news agencies reported that Syrian groundfire was aimed at Israeli aircraft strafing Hezbollah positions in southern Lebanon on Tuesday. Israeli military sources quoted by the army radio denied knowledge of such groundfire.
But the Israeli air force reported anti-aircraft fire from Syrian-controlled batteries at planes flying over Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley of eastern Lebanon on Tuesday.
The air force said all planes returned safely to their bases.
U.S. AND U.N. VOICE CONCERN
In Washington, the State Department said Tuesday that it was “deeply concerned about the recurrence of violence in southern Lebanon.”
“We are in touch with the Israeli, the Lebanese and the Syrian governments on this latest escalation of violence, and we have once again reiterated the need to exercise maximum restraint,” said Richard Boucher, the department’s deputy spokesman.
Boucher said that the request for restraint is also being passed through third parties to the Hezbollah.
He urged the parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict to try to achieve peace and security through negotiations rather than “on the battlefield.”
Similarly, at the United Nations, a spokesman for Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said the U.N. chief was “concerned by the recent escalation of violence” and had urged all sides to “exercise maximum restraint.”
“The secretary-general believes that a continuation of hostilities can only heighten tensions in the region, and might even jeopardize the efforts that are presently under way to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict,” the spokesman said.
In Jerusalem, Foreign Minister Levy said Israel had approached Damascus “through international channels, to cease supporting those organizations who have made it their purpose to strike at Israel and to create a conflagration in southern Lebanon. We hope our message will be rightly received,” he added.
Levy stressed that Israel “is not interested in any escalation, but we were the party attacked” and “we are still under attack by hostile elements on Lebanese soil, with Syrian backing and protection.”
The latest clashes in southern Lebanon began with a well-executed Hezbollah attack on a position of the Israeli-allied South Lebanon Army in the southern Lebanon security zone on May 19. Israel has been retaliating with air and artillery attacks ever since.
‘WE ARE WAITING AND WATCHING’
Levy observed that Syria could hardly be a party to the peace process and act aggressively “in parallel” with it. “It is time for sobriety and responsibility. We are waiting and watching,” he said.
Syria has participated in five rounds of bilateral peace talks with Israel since October. Along with Lebanon, however, it boycotted the multilateral phase of the peace process dealing with Middle East regional issues.
Levy said Syria has shown in the past that it could restrain warlike action in Lebanon. “If the situation remains dangerous, it will be dangerous for everyone,” he warned.
He said an “unequivocal statement” from Syria would have a “positive impact on the situation.” Damascus must restrain the warlike elements and “tell them their continued action can result in a sharp reaction from Israel.
“I want to be sure that Syria is not interested in a deterioration. I believe she is not,” Levy said.
Reports Tuesday from Lebanon said four Israeli aircraft attacked Hezbollah installations and facilities in four towns in the Tufach area northeast of Tyre. Other low-level flights were reported over Tyre and other coastal towns without bombs being dropped.
(Contributing to this report were JTA correspondents Hugh Orgel in Tel Aviv and Howard Rosenberg in Washington.)