Hezbollah escalates violence with deadly attack

JERUSALEM, Feb. 1 (JTA) — Reviving Israeli-Syrian negotiations may prove more difficult following a Hezbollah attack in southern Lebanon that killed three Israeli soldiers.

Syria is the leading power in Lebanon, and it is believed that Damascus gave the go-ahead to step up the fighting against Israel after the negotiations held last month in the United States were suspended.

Killed in Monday’s attack were Maj. Tidhar Templehoff, 23; Staff Sgt. Lior Niv, 21; and Staff Sgt. Tzachi Malcha, 21.

One of four Israeli soldiers wounded in the attack sustained serious injuries. The three others were reported in moderate condition.

In the immediate wake of the attack, Prime Minister Ehud Barak said he would not resume negotiations with Syria until Damascus reins in Hezbollah.

But by Tuesday, Barak had moderated his response, calling on Syria to do more to promote peace in Lebanon.

Speaking at an army base on the Lebanese border, Barak also said he had no interest in escalating the tense situation in Lebanon.

“I am convinced the Syrians also believe there is a shared interest to find a way to rein in these activities,” Barak said.

The Syrians “understand the risks in a deterioration. We understand. We are not afraid of peace and we are not afraid of any other kind of development.”

The prime minister also vowed to retaliate against those responsible for the attack, saying, “Those who hit us will not get away clean.”

For the time being, Israel’s Security Cabinet has decided to refrain from ordering a large-scale reprisal. In the past, Israeli jets struck infrastructure targets deep within Lebanon in reprisals for Hezbollah attacks.

After two rounds of talks, the negotiations were suspended indefinitely in mid-January. At the time, Damascus demanded that Israel give a written pledge to withdraw from all of the Golan Heights as a precondition for resuming discussions.

Following Israel’s refusal, Hezbollah stepped up its attacks on Israel and its allied militia, the South Lebanon Army.

A day before the three Israeli soldiers were killed, the SLA’s second- in-command, Col. Akel Hashem, was killed when Hezbollah gunmen set off a bomb by remote control.

Last week, another Israeli soldier was killed in a Hezbollah attack — the first Israeli fatality in southern Lebanon since last August.

In the wake of this week’s attacks, the United States called on Israel, Syria and Lebanon to avoid an escalation of the hostilities.

The U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, urged all sides on Tuesday to resolve their differences through negotiations.

Within the Israeli Cabinet, however, reaction varied on how Israel should respond to the latest attacks.

Communications Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said Israel should “hit back” — and the sooner, the better.

But Public Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said it was important to “contain the escalation” as much as possible.

Ben-Ami also said Barak should work toward keeping a campaign pledge to pull all Israeli troops out of Lebanon by July.

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