Prime Minister Shimon Peres has called on Syria to restrain the Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah movement, which fired Katyusha rockets into northern Israel for two consecutive days this week.
Peres told reporters during a visit Tuesday to Kiryat Shmona on Israel’s northern border that Syria, which controls parts of Lebanon in which Hezbollah operates, must take responsibility for the rocket attacks.
Referring to remarks made by Syria’s foreign minister only a day before during a conference in Barcelona, Spain, Peres said the attacks stood in sharp contrast to the minister’s hints at resuming peace negotiations, which have been stalled since June.
“We see a big contradiction between calling for peace and firing Katyushas,” said Peres.
The United States condemned the attacks Tuesday and called on Syria to bring them to a halt.
The attacks are “clearly an effort to undermine the search of a peace in the Middle East,” said State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns.
Burns said Secretary of State Warren Christopher had called Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa early Tuesday morning about the rocket attacks.
He added that the State Department had also been in touch with Israeli and Lebanese leaders, urging them to “do everything possible to clam the situation.”
Burns also said that U.S. Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross would visit the region next week in an effort to restart the stalled Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations.
Dozens of Katyushas rained down on the Galilee panhandled and Western Galilee on Tuesday, causing serious property damage and wounding six people lightly.
A medical official in Kiryat Shmona said four people were slightly wounded by shrapnel and that about 30 others were treated for shock.
One resident of a northern settlements told Israel Radio that his house had been battered repeatedly by Hezbollah Katyusha assaults in the past, and complained that there was inadequate security for the settlement.
“There was no one to help us” when Tuesday’s attack occurred, Ya’acov Mashiah said. “Only after the attacks do all the officers come in their nice, clean uniforms.
“People have got to open their eyes. This has got to be the 15th Katyusha that has hit us. My home is the most rocketed in all of Israel.”
Avraham Malka, a French tourist who arrived in Israel two days before the attacks, told Israel Radio that his car was totally destroyed by one of the rockets.
“I saw my life go before my eyes,” he said. “I watched as scraps of shrapnel destroyed my car, only a few meters away.”
The border remained on high alert Tuesday night, and northern residents were ordered to spend the night in underground shelters.
Tuesday’s rocket attacks followed Monday’s smaller-scale assault, in which the Israel Defense Force confirmed that one Katyusha fell inside the Israeli border, causing no damage or injury.
Israel responded to Tuesday’s attack with artillery and air strikes on Hezbollah targets in southern Lebanon.
Internal Security Minister Moshe Shahal called the attacks a clear breach of the understandings reached with Hezbollah in July 1993, when Hezbollah’s Katyusha assaults on northern Israel were met with intense Israeli bombardment of civilian areas in Lebanon.
Under an understanding brokered at the time by Christopher, both sides agreed to refrain from attacking civilian areas and to limit their hostilities to the southern Lebanon security zone.
Shahal said Israel might respond to this breach of the understanding “in such a way that Lebanese civilians who are sheltering Hezbollah will feel less secure than they do today.”
His warnings were echoed throughout the day by other Israeli officials.
There was widespread speculation over what triggered the rocket attacks, the first since July, when a Katyusha rocket hit a resort in northern Israel, killing a French chef.
Three Hezbollah fighters were killed over the weekend in Israeli air strikes. Israeli forces also demolished ten abandoned houses in Lebanon that were believed to be launching sites for Hezbollah infiltration attempts into the security zone.
On Tuesday, according to reports from Lebanon, a senior Hezbollah official was killed in an explosion the group blamed on Israel.
There was also speculation that the rocket attacks came as a response to recent indications of possible progress on the Israeli-Syrian peace track.
Hopes for progress increased as a result of an exchange Monday night between Israeli Foreign Minister Ehud Barak and his Syrian counterpart, Sharaa, at the Euro-Mediterranean conference in Barcelona.
Expectations that the two would hold a face-to-face discussion at the sidelines of the conference were not borne out, but at the conference table Barak issued a direct call to Sharaa for Israel and Syria to make peace.
Sharaa’s response did not include any new Syrian stances regarding its conditions for making peace, but he addressed Barak directly in his remarks, which were devoid of polemics – a sign Barak later described as encouraging.