News Analysis: Beyond Escalation in Lebanon, a Chance at Renewed Syria Talks?

The worst flare-up on Israel’s northern border in more than a year has prompted concerns about a major military confrontation. For an Israeli public weary of the seemingly interminable embroilment in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah’s massive assault on northern Israel this week has also rekindled debate here over Israel’s role in Lebanon.

The fact that no one was killed when Israel sustained its heaviest Hezbollah rocket attack since April 1996 enabled the Israel Defense Force to refrain for now from carrying out a massive response.

But with Israeli northern residents in bomb shelters — and civilian deaths in Lebanon — the area seemed poised for further conflict.

Ironically, the tensions in the north came amid subtle indications of movement in the long-dormant Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations.

Rumors abounded this week about U.S. contacts between Israel and Syria that could enable U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to pursue the Israeli-Syrian track along with the negotiations with the Palestinians.

Albright is expected to visit the region next month.

Tuesday’s twin rocket assault was the latest — and most serious — in a series of incidents in the past few weeks that have raised the temperature on Israel’s northern border.

Touring a damaged house in Kiryat Shmona, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned the Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah to halt attacks on civilians.

“If there is quiet on the Israeli side of the border, there will be quiet on the Lebanese side. One can draw the appropriate conclusion,” Netanyahu said. “We don’t seek an escalation, but equally, we can’t accept this as a way of life.”

Three people were lightly injured, including one woman who was treated for shock, in the attack.

Hezbollah said it fired the rockets to avenge Monday’s shelling of the Lebanese port city of Sidon by Israel’s ally, the South Lebanon Army. At least seven people were reported killed in that attack.

Israel condemned the SLA shelling, saying it was contrary to the understandings in a U.S.-brokered cease-fire established in April 1996 in an effort to protect civilians on both sides of the Israeli-Lebanese border.

The five-nation committee formed to monitor the cease-fire understandings was scheduled to convene Wednesday to discuss complaints lodged by Israel and Lebanon over the recent violence.

The Israel Defense Force estimated that some 40 rockets landed inside Israel, most in open areas. A smaller number fell inside the security zone across the border.

The first of Tuesday’s two bombardments came shortly after 7 a.m. and the second hit about 90 minutes later, with rockets landing in the Upper and Western Galilee.

A number of buildings were damaged and a child’s room in one Kiryat Shmona apartment sustained a direct hit. The apartment’s occupants were not at home and no one was hurt.

“It was a miracle, that we weren’t here, that’s the only way I can explain it,” said Yaron Kalita, who was in Tel Aviv with his wife and 18-month-old daughter.

“If we were here, we probably would have been dead or injured.”

The Israeli army allowed northern residents to leave shelters hours after Tuesday’s assault, and the prime minister convened senior ministers to discuss what steps to take.

Netanyahu called on the Syrian and Lebanese governments “to exercise control” over the Iranian-backed fundamentalist group.

But it appeared that Israel was intent on not allowing itself to be drawn into what began earlier this week as a firefight between factions in Lebanon.

Monday’s shelling of Sidon by the SLA came after a 12-year-old Lebanese girl and her teen-age brother were killed by a Hezbollah roadside bomb in the area of Jezzine.

Reports from Lebanon said the two were believed to be the orphaned children of an SLA commander who was killed by a Hezbollah bomb four years ago.

Israeli officials quickly distanced themselves from the SLA attack.

“Israel did not, I repeat, did not, fire on Sidon,” the Israel Defense Force’s chief spokesman, Brig. Gen. Oded Ben-Ami, told reporters Monday.

Hezbollah was unwilling to make that distinction.

After the shelling of Sidon, Hezbollah forces fired Katyusha rockets at the southern Lebanese towns of Jezzine and Marjayoun.

Some of the rockets were reported to have fallen close to IDF communications positions near Marjayoun, but there were no casualties.

A senior Hezbollah official in Lebanon, Nabil Kawouk, called for attacks against Israel in retaliation for the SLA shelling.

“We must speak in the language that the Israeli enemy understands, and it is not possible to keep silent about what happened,” he said.

Coincidentally, the escalation in Lebanon occurred as Yediot Achronot, Israel’s mass circulation daily, has been publishing a multipart series on the pros and cons of Israel’s deployment in southern Lebanon, where it maintains a 9-mile-wide security zone intended to prevent attacks on the Jewish state.

The weight of opinions cited in the series, including opinions from within the governing coalition, seems to be moving toward an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon.

But most of the politicians and military officials insist that a pullout has to come in the context of an overall peace accord with Syria, which is the power broker in Lebanon.

A couple of recent developments indicated that there may be a chance of resuming Israeli-Syrian talks, which have been suspended since March 1996.

Netanyahu has adopted a new and significantly flexible formula regarding Syria, according to Yediot Achronot.

The depth of Israeli withdrawal on the Golan Heights, he is said to have signaled, would correspond to the depth of security provisions on the ground.

That stance contrasts with the government’s long-standing opposition to any pullback on the Golan.

From the Syrian side, there have been hopeful words as well.

Syrian President Hafez Assad and Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, in meetings with an Israeli Arab delegation last week, were negative about Netanyahu. But they went out of their way to voice confidence that peace would eventually be achieved with the `peace camp’ in Israel.

These latest subtle indications may in the end not amount to any progress, but for the Clinton administration, looking for a way to jump-start the stalled peace process throughout the region, movement on the Syria-Israel track, however slight, would be encouraging.

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