JERUSALEM (Aug. 26)
Israel’s continued commitment to its military presence in southern Lebanon has been tested again following a series of Katyusha rocket attacks on the Galilee.
Scores of rockets fell Tuesday night in Kiryat Shmona and other targets in northern Israel, leaving 14 Israelis wounded and a number of houses damaged.
The Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah movement, which for years has been waging a battle against the Israeli presence in Lebanon, took responsibility for the attacks.
The rocket barrage came after Israeli helicopters made a raid near the southern Lebanese city of Tyre, killing Hussam al-Amin, a high-level official with the Shi’ite Amal militia, which is generally less militant than Hezbollah.
The Israeli operation appears to have united Amal and Hezbollah, which are often at odds. The two Shi’ite groups reportedly launched the Katyusha barrage jointly.
Israel has long debated the wisdom of its continued military presence in southern Lebanon, which it maintains as a bulwark against terrorist attacks on towns and settlements in northern Israel. The debate grew especially heated last fall amid a growing number of Israeli casualties.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened several top advisers this week to discuss an initiative he has pushed for months: an Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in exchange for guarantees that the Lebanese government would be responsible for security in the area.
Netanyahu is reportedly planning to discuss the initiative during a planned visit to New York in September, when the U.N. General Assembly convenes for its annual session.
Rockets landed in Kiryat Shmona shortly before 10 p.m. Tuesday night and continued for about an hour. More rockets were fired simultaneously at other targets in the Galilee.
Five hours before the rockets landed, Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai warned Amal and Hezbollah not to try to retaliate.
Although Israel anticipated the possibility of a rocket assault after its helicopter raid, residents of Kiryat Shmona were instructed to take cover in shelters only after the first rockets were fired.
Two wedding ceremonies were interrupted by the assault, as the celebrants fled for cover.
Israel condemned the rocket attacks, saying they were contrary to the understandings reached in a cease-fire brokered by the United States in April 1996 in an effort to protect civilians on both sides of the Israeli-Lebanese border.
Israeli officials maintain this week’s operation against al-Amin did not violate those understandings because it was aimed at a military person and not at civilians.
Hezbollah officials claimed in turn that Lebanese villagers were hurt during exchanges of gunfire Tuesday in southern Lebanon.
Israel’s opposition leader, Ehud Barak of the Labor Party, gave qualified support to the Israeli helicopter operation that led to the Katyusha reprisals.
He said that if the army saw fit to attack al-Amin at this time and in this fashion, he was confident that it had to be done. But at the same time, he stressed that it is necessary to find a political solution for southern Lebanon.
The situation in Lebanon was high on the agenda of Israel’s Inner Cabinet meeting Wednesday. Most of the ministers said Israel should act with restraint in the wake of the rocket assaults and try to restore quiet to the region.
Public Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani, however, said Israel should launch reprisal raids against infrastructure targets, such as power plants, in and around Beirut.
“As long as Jewish families lose their sons in Lebanon, there is no reason why there should be business as usual in Beirut and why they should enjoy the regular supply of electricity,” said Kahalani, who is a fierce advocate of settlements in the northern Golan region.
Some military experts said they saw no strategic advantages to the killing of al-Amin.
The question of whether to hit enemy targets in Lebanon at the possible cost of Katyusha rocket attacks is one the army confronts almost every day.
Whenever the army fires at targets in southern Lebanon, it faces the possibility of hitting civilians — which could in turn lead to reprisals against civilian targets in Israel.
Despite this, the security establishment has long sided with carrying out such operations — even at the cost of reprisals — arguing that abstaining from such operations could lead to paralysis.