JERUSALEM (Aug. 22)
Israel has put Syria on notice that if it does not restrain the Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah movement from attacking Israeli troops in southern Lebanon, Israel will do so itself.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told members of his Cabinet during their weekly meeting Sunday that he had conveyed this warning to Damascus during a telephone conversation over the weekend with U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
Rabin said he had asked the United States to put political pressure on Syria to curb Hezbollah attacks against Israel, which last week claimed the lives of nine soldiers in a single day.
Rabin, who also serves as Israel’s defense minister, and senior officers of the Israel Defense Force have come under intense criticism from right-wing opposition parties for the relatively large loss of Israeli lives in the two Hezbollah attacks in southern Lebanon last week.
But a preliminary army investigation indicates that the soldiers’ deaths were the result of the particular circumstances of the incidents themselves rather than of any failure to abide by army regulations.
Seven IDF soldiers were killed and two wounded on the morning of Aug. 19 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 that evening, when two IDF soldiers were killed and another wounded as the result of bomb blasts in the same area as the first attack, near the village of Shihin.
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. According to reports from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. According to reports from Lebanon, two guerrillas were killed in the raid.
But on Sunday, Cabinet ministers said Israel would not be drawn into a full-scale assault in southern Lebanon, although they did not rule out limited strikes in the region.
According to reports from the region, Israel began moving reinforcements and large artillery into southern Lebanon on Sunday.
CRITICISM FROM THE RIGHT
In Lebanon, Sheik Mohammed Fadlallah, spiritual leader of Hezbollah, warned over the weekend that if Israel hit civilian targets in Lebanon, Hezbollah would respond with firing Katyusha rockets at northern Israel.
Despite last week’s violence and the dire warnings by both sides, the understanding that ended Israel’s five-day intensive shelling of targets in southern Lebanon in late July appeared to be holding.
Under that tacit agreement, Hezbollah said it would cease firing rockets at settlements in northern Israel but reserved the right to continue attacking Israeli and allied positions in Lebanon.
That understanding has come under fire from Knesset member Ariel Sharon of the opposition Likud bloc, who as defense minister spearheaded Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
Sharon charged that the U.S.-brokered deal gives legitimacy to guerrilla attacks on IDF soldiers.
Other opposition leaders, including former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir of Likud and Rafael Eitan, leader of the hawkish Tsomet party, have directed their criticism at the IDF’s high command.
Charging that the army had become politicized and inept, they placed the blame for the soldiers’ deaths squarely on the shoulders of Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, the IDF chief of staff, and on senior IDF officers.
While opposition attacks on government leaders are far from unusual, open criticism of the army or its commanders is relatively rare. But Barak has emerged as something of a protege of Rabin, which in turn has made him in some eyes a fair political target.
Shamir, in an Israel Radio interview over the weekend, charged army leaders with failing to protect Israeli lives.
“Instead of doing this, the army commanders are unfortunately dedicating themselves to politics, and they follow like blind men after those who head us and lead us to a national disaster,” the former prime minister said.
“The chief of staff must resolve security problems and find solutions to terrorism, rather than to praise Assad,” Shamir added, referring to a recent statement by Barak in which he spoke favorably of the Syrian President Hafez Assad.
PRESIDENT CRITICIZES POLITICIANS
President Ezer Weizman appeared on radio and television, asking the politicians “not to involve the army in public controversies.”
Weizman directed the bulk of his criticisms at “army veterans-turned-politicians,” noting that they should make their comments at the “appropriate forums.”
The attacks on the army were also countered Sunday by strong comments during the weekly Cabinet session.
Rabin criticized the opposition for having “dragged the IDF into the political controversy.”
Agriculture Minister Ya’acov Tsur said that the opposition’s real concern was that the government was close to making achievements in the peace process.
And Environment Minister Yossi Sarid said Shamir sounded last a deposed African ruler who wanted the army to return him to power.
But Shamir himself seemed unimpressed by the criticism. “Judging by the reactions,” he told reporters, “I understand that I hit the target. I hope my comments will contribute to improving the situation.”
The army’s preliminary investigation into the soldiers’ deaths indicated that standard procedures for patrols in the security zone had been followed.
Much of the criticism of the first Hezbollah attack focused on why so many soldiers had died as a result of two explosions.
But the investigation showed that because the men were on patrol before dawn, they had to proceed in close file in order to remain within sight of one another.
The explosive charge that killed the seven men in the first incident was from a Claymoretype mine, a device that sprays shrapnel in a wide arc.
The mines were hidden by Hezbollah guerrillas a day or so before the IDF patrol. Their placement of the charges was based on intelligence about the habits of IDF patrols in the area.
(Contributing to this report was JTA correspondent Hugh Orgel in Tel Aviv.)