JERUSALEM (Jul. 27)
When Israeli jets streaked across the sky over Lebanon and bombs began falling at the beginning of the week, some Cabinet ministers expressed quiet concern that the operation might escalate and spin out of control.
Although the operation so far has remained, in essence, one prolonged air strike, the scale of the raids has indeed been stepped up in intensity through a number of distinct phases since the action began Sunday.
By Tuesday, reports from Lebanon said non-stop bombing and shelling had sent tens of thousands of villagers fleeing southern Lebanon.
Initially, Israeli policy-makers hoped that after the first air strike Sunday morning, against 10 guerrilla targets, the pro-Iranian Hezbollah militia would get the message and accordingly back down from its own attacks.
But the opposite happened: Hezbollah responded with Katyusha rockets that killed two Israeli civilians Sunday evening in the northern border town of Kiryat Shmona.
The Israel Defense Force then began Stage 2, expanding the air raids to 39 targets throughout Lebanon.
But Hezbollah refused to back down, still responding with Katyushas. On Tuesday, Hezbollah fighters attacked an IDF tank within the Israel controlled security zone in southern Lebanon, killing one soldier, Cp1. Gadi So’ed, and wounding three others.
And in Beirut, Hezbollah leaders declared they would continue the battle and fire rockets at Galilee until Israel withdrew from Lebanon.
On Tuesday, the IDF appeared to have shifted into a third phase: the massive shelling of villages north of the security zone, with Israel’s declared goal of causing a massive exodus of refugees from those villages to Lebanese towns and cities further north.
HUNDREDS REPORTED INJURED
Rabin apparently believes that once refugees settle around Beirut, they will pressure the Lebanese government to control Hezbollah and, more importantly, get the Lebanese government to pressure Syria to rein in the Shi’ite group.
But the plan may run into difficulties there, since Syria has refrained so far from taking any such action. Damascus, in fact, reiterated its policy of not intervening to stop what it called “legitimate resistance against foreign occupation.” It suggested that Israel withdraw from southern Lebanon and eliminate the motivation for Hezbollah’s aggression.
Another difficulty is that by Tuesday, there was no indication that Hezbollah fighters were following in the steps of civilian villagers and leaving the region.
On the contrary, Hezbollah staged attacks on Israeli forces in the security zone, and the Katyusha rockets kept coming.
The Israeli air force flew hundreds of sorties against Hezbollah targets all along the front Tuesday. At the same time, IDF heavy mobile artillery lobbed heavy shells at targets nearly 18 miles away.
During the first two days of the operation, Israeli gunners had fired smoke and flare shells at villages where Hezbollah guerrillas were hiding among the civilian populations. But on Tuesday, the IDF switched to heavy explosive shells after broadcasting warnings to the civilians to move out of their homes into safer areas up north.
The United Nations complained that four Nepalese soldiers of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon were injured by Israeli bombs.
UNIFIL said that some 200 members of the force were in a post when a bomb fell nearby. Nearly 20 UNIFIL vehicles were destroyed.
Israel Radio said IDF gunners had fired more than 8,000 shells and mortar bombs at more than 1,000 targets in 40 villages along the northern edge of the security zone since the start of “Operation Accountability.”
The number of casualties inside Lebanon since the start of the operation is estimated at over 60 dead, with many hundreds injured.
SYRIA COULD STOP THE ATTACKS
Meanwhile, Israeli civilians in Galilee were ordered Tuesday to remain in their bomb shelters or reinforced safety rooms in their houses and apartments for a third day running.
Hundreds of youngsters from Kiryat Shmona have been sent to summer camps and community centers throughout the country, in an effort mounted by the Jewish National Fund.
It is uncertain what the next stage will be in the flare-up of violence in Lebanon.
Israeli experts have no doubt that Syria has the means to put an end to Hezbollah operations in Lebanon. All of Hezbollah’s supply and communication lines go through Syrian territory. Its main bases are located in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, which is under the Syrian army’s direct control.
Theoretically, all it takes to stop the violence is one word by Syrian President Hafez Assad. But, on the other hand, a directive to shut down Hezbollah could put Assad at odds with forces in his security and military establishment.
U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s upcoming trip to the region may provide an incentive for Syria to crack down on Hezbollah, but only as a gesture toward the Americans, not toward Israel. And Syria will likely demand that it be compensated in some measure by Washington.
One left-leaning Israeli columnist suggested Tuesday that the time is ripe for a peace treaty with Syria, in which Israel would withdraw from both the Golan Heights and southern Lebanon, and the Syrian army would be deployed as a buffer between Israel and Lebanon.
Other Israeli columnists worried about becoming too enmeshed in Lebanon. Yediot Achronot’s Nahum Barnea recalled that during the 1982 Lebanon War, then-opposition Knesset member Yitzhak Rabin urged the defense minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, to tighten the siege on Beirut.
If Israel cut off water and electricity to Beirut residents, Rabin had suggested, they would push their government to exert pressure on the terrorist organizations to surrender.
(Contributing to this report was JTA correspondent Hugh Orgel in Tel Aviv.)