Air Strikes on Lebanon Continue As Concern over Refugees Mounts

Israel continued its air raids and shelling of southern Lebanon for a fifth day Thursday, as a domestic debate over the military operation intensified.

Environment Minister Yossi Sarid of the dovish Meretz bloc, who was one of the first politicians to speak out against the Lebanon War 11 years ago, has once again taken the lead in criticizing the army’s actions. This time, though, he is a member of the government, rather than of the parliamentary opposition as he was in 1982.

A number of other Cabinet ministers apparently feel the current operation has spiraled “out of control.” They are said to be particularly upset about the large number of Lebanese refugees who have been forced to flee their villages in the south for safer areas in the north.

According to reports from Lebanon, an estimated 200,000 villagers have sought refuge further north.

But senior army officers maintain that, from a military point of view, the operation has been successful, since the Iranian-backed Hezbollah’s ability to fire rockets at Israel has diminished considerably.

Nevertheless, some Katyusha rockets did fall Thursday on northern Israel.

Since the start of the operation, two Israeli civilians and one soldier have died, with another 31 Israelis injured in the rocket attacks. Reports from Lebanon put the death toll there at about 110, with close to 500 wounded.

Israel launched the operation as a reprisal for the deaths of seven soldiers killed earlier in the month in the southern Lebanon security zone.

ARAB FOREIGN MINISTERS TO MEET

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has said the bombing of villages in southern Lebanon and the subsequent flight of refugees is aimed at pressuring Beirut to rein in Hezbollah.

Lebanon’s leaders, though, continued to justify the “legitimate resistance of Hezbollah against Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon.”

Lebanese President Elias Hrawi did hint at a somewhat more flexible position, saying that while he supported Hezbollah’s resistance operations in the Israeli-controlled border security zone, he did not support Hezbollah’s firing of Katyusha rockets into Galilee.

Observers in Israel noted that Hrawi’s statement was probably approved by Damascus and may reflect the Syrian government’s position.

Arab foreign ministers were expected to convene this weekend in Beirut to discuss the situation.

U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali stepped up his attacks on Israel, saying “the policy of deliberately forcing people to abandon their homes must be stopped forthwith.”

In response, Israeli Ambassador Gad Yaacobi charged that Boutros-Ghali “ignores the reasons for the Israeli response in southern Lebanon, and that is most regrettable.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher was slated to arrive here early next week, and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was hoping the crisis would be resolved by then.

(Contributing to this report were JTA correspondents Hugh Orgel in Tel Aviv and Larry Yudelson at the United Nations.)

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