As life returned to normal for residents of northern Israel after two days of Katyusha rocket assaults, Israeli leaders weighed possible responses to the attacks.
Israelis living near the border with Lebanon emerged from their shelters to resume their daily routines Wednesday, a day after dozens of Katyusha had been launched from across the border by members of the Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah movement.
Israeli warplanes continued retaliating for the rocket attacks by bombarding Hezbollah targets is southern Lebanon.
But beyond the two days of air attacks and the army’s continued artillery assaults, it appeared unlikely that Israel’s response to the Katyushas would be broadened into a larger military reply.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Shimon Peres publicly blamed Syria, which he said could have prevented the Hezbollah onslaught, and hinted that Israel would mount a massive response to the attacks.
But Wednesday, he muted his response, reportedly telling a group of ministers that there would be no large-scale retaliation.
The ministers were also informed by military officials at a briefing that Syria had not known of Hezbollah’s plans and that there had been “no coordination” between Syria and Hezbollah, Army Radio reported.
Foreign Minister Ehud Barak adopted a similarly muted stance, telling visiting Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Victor Possouvaliok that Syria was not directly responsible for the rocket attacks.
But he added, as Peres had stated Tuesday, that Israel remained firm in its belief that Syria had the power to rein in Hezbollah activities.
Some Israeli ministers said Hezbollah should be made to pay dearly for Monday and Tuesday’s rocket assaults, but the head of the northern command, Maj. Gen. Amiram Levine, expressed doubts that a massive retaliation would stop future Hezbollah attacks.
“We must find the way for it not to be worth their white to fire Katyushas,” he said during a tour of the north.
“I am not sure that of all things, a strong response, or `bang and it’s over,’ is the way.”
He said previous large-scale operations in Lebanon had failed to put a stop to similar attacks.
The Hezbollah attacks, and Israeli retaliation, came at a time of increased hopes for resuming the long sidetracked Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations.
U.S. Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross was scheduled to arrive in the region over the weekend to begin a shuttle mission between Jerusalem and Damascus aimed at advancing the talks.
And Peres was scheduled to fly to Washington at the end of next week to meet with President Clinton, with whom he will discuss proposals to renew the talks with Syria.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah vowed to continue firing rockets into northern Israel as long as the Israel Defense Force continued shelling southern Lebanon.
Hezbollah officials blamed Israel for this week’s flare-up, claiming that three of its members had been killed earlier in the week in Israeli air strikes against its posts.
There was some speculation this week that the Hezbollah 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, Farouk al- Sharaa, at the Euro-Mediterranean conference in Barcelona, Spain.
Expectations that the two would hold a fact-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.
Residents of northern Israel breathed a sigh of relief Wednesday that the rocket volleys had stopped.
Dozens of Katyushas had rained down on the Galilee panhandle and western Galilee on Tuesday, causing serious property damage and lightly wounding six people.
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 settlement 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 Mashah 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.
In the wake of the attacks, Kiryat Shmona Mayor Prosper Azran estimated the damage in his area at some $3 million.
Israel Radio reported that some 100 homeowners and 20 car owners had already filed claims for damages.