JERUSALEM (Aug. 19)
Two weeks after Israel’s weeklong shelling of targets in southern Lebanon ended with an apparent “understanding” between Israel and Hezbollah, the Islamic fundamentalist group appears to be challenging Israel into a new war of attrition.
That was brought home Thursday, when Hezbollah forces launched two separate attacks on Israeli troops in southern Lebanon, killing eight soldiers.
Seven Israel Defense Force soldiers were killed and two wounded Thursday morning while on patrol in the western sector of the border security zone, when a bomb planted in the road by the pro-Iranian guerrillas was detonated by remote control.
A second attack occurred Thursday evening, when an IDF soldier was killed and another wounded as the result of two bomb blasts in the same area as the first attack, near the village of Shihin.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Deputy Defense Minister Mordechai Gur, and the IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, rushed to the scene of the first attack and opened preliminary investigations into what was officially described as one of the most serious incidents recently in southern Lebanon.
There had been two Hezbollah attacks earlier in the week on units of the IDF and its allied South Lebanon Army. But the latest were the most serious since a U.S.-brokered cease-fire brought an end to Israel’s weeklong shelling of southern Lebanon in late July.
The Israeli air force retaliated some hours after the first attack with an air raid on four Hezbollah targets in eastern Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.
An IDF spokesman emphasized that the retaliatory strike had focused on targets at a distance from civilian populations.
According to reports from Lebanon, two guerrillas were killed in the retaliatory raid, which occurred before the second Hezbollah attack.
CONDEMNATION FROM STATE DEPARTMENT
In Washington, the U.S. State Department issued a strong statement deploring the Hezbollah violence. It described the first attack as “yet another calculated attempt by extremists to derail the peace process, just as preparations are under way to resume negotiations in Washington.”
“As this process continues, we urge all parties to do everything in their power to prevent such violent acts from diverting them from the pursuit of a negotiated settlement of their differences,” the statement said.
At the United Nations, Israeli Ambassador Gad Yaacobi also condemned the Hezbollah violence. He described it, as well as Wednesday’s attempt by Islamic extremists in Cairo to assassinate Egyptian Interior Minister Hassan al-Alfi, as part of a campaign by the fundamentalists to “create a reign of terror and murder.”
“It is all aimed at killing the peace process and establishing a Muslim fundamentalist empire, headed by Iran, from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific,” said Yaacobi.
“The militant Muslim fundamentalists are the common enemy of the democracies of the world,” he added. “We should not allow terrorism to stop, even for an instance, the progress toward peace.”
Israeli citizens learned about the first Hezbollah attack from foreign radio and television stations, including the BBC and CNN, on Thursday morning.
But the Israeli military censor did not permit Israel Radio and Television to report the incident until the evening. Normally IDF fatalities are not announced until family members are notified.
One of those killed in the first attack was the officer in charge of the IDF patrol. He was buried Thursday afternoon in a military cemetery on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl while the news blackout on the incident was still in force. News of the funeral spread by word of mouth.
Theoretically, the latest violence is in accordance with the rules of the bloody game in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah, which rushed to claim responsibility for Thursday’s incidents, had said at the time the U.S. cease-fire was implemented that it would continue attacking military targets within the Israeli-controlled border security zone.
Although Israeli officials — such as Housing Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer — admitted Thursday that there was no violation of those rules, they added within the same breath that Israel could not stand idle in the face of such an attack.
EFFORT TO AVOID KATYUSHA ATTACKS
The Israeli helicopter raids later Thursday against Hezbollah targets beyond the security zone was a case in point. Israel intended to hit back, and hard.
But, as an IDF spokesman stressed Thursday, the raids were aimed at purely military targets of the Hezbollah.
Unlike the attacks during Israel’s late-July shelling of southern Lebanon, no Hezbollah positions in civilian villages were attacked Thursday.
Israel clearly wanted to refrain from an escalation that could lead to a renewal of Katyusha rocket attacks against Israeli population centers in Galilee.
Indeed, Hezbollah warned Thursday that if Israel hit civilian villages north of the security zone, “there would be no security for Israeli settlements” in Galilee.
IDF Chief of Staff Barak said Thursday that previous Israeli attacks on Hezbollah targets in the Bekaa Valley had triggered Katyusha rocket attacks on the north.
But he expressed the hope that this would not happen now. “If it does,” he said in a television interview, “we would know how to respond.”
He did not advise residents in northern Israel to spend the night in air-raid shelters.
Minister Ben-Eliezer said Thursday he believed that Hezbollah’s attack had surprised the Lebanese government — but not, he added, the Syrian government.
When Lebanon began moving troops into southern Lebanon on Aug. 9, the Syrians had limited the deployment to 300 troops to ensure they would not attempt to disarm Hezbollah guerrillas.
Syria’s motives are becoming particularly evident as the Middle East peace talks are set to resume later this month.
Damascus appears to be maintaining a dual policy of declaring its peaceful intentions while at the same time keeping the situation in southern Lebanon at a slow burn to maintain pressure on Israel.
In New York, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations put the ultimate burden of responsibility on Syria and Lebanon, saying that the latest violence “once again tests the credibility of Syria’s and Lebanon’s commitment to the peace process.”
“The onus is on Syria and Lebanon,” said the statement, which was issued by conference Chairman Lester Pollack and Malcolm Hoenlein, the umbrella group’s executive vice chairman. “These countries must exercise control over the terrorist groups operating within their borders.
“Syria, which occupies and dominates Lebanon, must cut off the flow of arms and must permit the deployment of the Lebanese army to prevent terrorist attacks in the security zone,” the group said.
(Contributing to this report was JTA correspondent Hugh Orgel in Tel Aviv.)