TEL AVIV (Jul. 25)
In one of the heaviest air strikes since the Lebanon War, Israeli jets and helicopter gunships attacked guerrilla and military bases across Lebanon on Sunday, including at least one Syrian-held position.
Syria’s official news agency reported two Syrian soldiers killed and one wounded in the raids, with other reports saying up to six Syrian soldiers were killed.
These would be the first Syrian soldiers killed by Israeli action in Lebanon in several years.
Two Israeli civilians were also reported killed in attacks by Katyusha rockets fired into Galilee from southern Lebanon. But there were no immediate details on these fatalities.
The Israeli strikes were ordered in response to weeks of increased clashes on the Lebanese border that have resulted in the deaths of six Israeli soldiers this month alone — the largest monthly death toll in nearly three years.
In the latest incident, Sgt. Gad Lipski, 19, of Ramat Aviv was killed last Thursday by a mortar shell that fell near an Israel Defense Force post in the northern part of the border security zone Israel maintains in southern Lebanon.
Following that incident, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin convened a meeting Friday of the ministerial defense committee, which decided that Israel should respond militarily to the escalation of violence in Lebanon.
The air strikes were given final approval during a Cabinet meeting Sunday morning. Shortly afterward, the government summoned the heads of the opposition parties to the Prime Minister’s Office to brief them on the military operation and win their support.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Rafael Eitan and Rehavam Ze’evi, who respectively head the right-wing opposition Likud, Tsomet and Moledet parties, all gave their full support for the operation.
RESIDENTS CONFINED TO BUNKERS
At 11:30 a.m. local time, Israeli air force fighter aircraft and assault helicopters began raiding nine guerrilla targets, eight of them belonging to the Iranian-backed fundamentalist Hezbollah, or Party of God, and one of them to Ahmed Jabril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, a secular Palestinian terror group.
Most of the raids were at the southern end of the Bekaa Valley, which is under Syrian protection, particularly near Ba’albek, the military headquarters of Hezbollah.
It was in Ba’albek where Hezbollah two years ago staged a mass demonstration of some 2,000 of its soldiers, in full military uniform with tanks and light artillery.
As the Israeli army announced the raid, residents of northern Israeli border towns and settlements were instructed to take immediate shelter in air raid bunkers.
During the day, several Katyusha rockets were fired into Israel’s Galilee panhandle, one salvo of which killed two civilians, Israel Radio reported. It was expected that most residents would spend the night in shelters.
In response to the Katyusha attacks, air force planes attacked additional guerrilla bases in a wide area of Lebanon north of the security zone, and Israeli heavy artillery batteries moved about the zone, lobbing shells at long-range targets.
The IDF spokesman stressed that the targets chosen were guerrilla and terrorist bases located as far as possible from civilian concentrations.
The IDF said Hezbollah was warned that it would bear full responsibility for civilian casualties in the IDF raids, since they have a policy of hiding their headquarters and bases among civilians.
Reports from Lebanon said five Syrian soldiers were killed during an air raid on Mashghara village, the southernmost Syrian post in Lebanon and a Hezbollah stronghold.
Another Syrian was killed in a later raid nearby, the unconfirmed reports said.
MEMORIES OF WAR IN LEBANON
In Israel, the attack brought back bad memories of the Lebanon War and concern that the operation could escalate.
“I hope that the operation will not get complicated,” said Commerce and Industry Minister Micha Harish of the Labor Party.
Environment Minister Yossi Sarid of the dovish Meretz bloc said he hoped his fears would not materialize, and another Meretz minister, Yair Tsaban, said he would rather not say anything at this moment, hardly concealing his concern.
When Police Minister Moshe Shahal of Labor was asked about the scope and duration of the present operation, he brushed off his interviewer, asking him not to talk in terms of “another war.”
Prime Minister Rabin, who also serves as defense minister, had said only a few days earlier that there were no easy and clear-cut solutions for the complex situation in Lebanon.
Netanyahu said that as long as the government took the necessary measures to ensure the safety of Israel’s northern settlements, Likud would continue to support the government.
The man who orchestrated Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Likud Knesset member Ariel Sharon, said in an interview prior to Sunday’s operation that Israel should make clear to Syria that the elimination of terrorist activities in Lebanon is a condition for continuing peace negotiations with Syria.
Sharon said that there was no need yet for “large operations,” but that Israel could not live with a situation in which it continued the peace process without demanding that Syria put an end to guerrilla activities in Lebanon.
Sharon’s comments infuriated Meretz Knesset member Ran Cohen, who urged Sharon to keep quiet and stop “bothering the people with painful efforts to justify that damned war.”
Cohen said he would submit to the Knesset a bill calling for the establishment of a parliamentary inquiry commission to investigate the Lebanon War.
(Contributing to this report was JTA correspondent Gil Sedan in Jerusalem.)