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Lebanon strikes take on new meaning

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NEW YORK, March 15 (JTA) — The cycle of retaliatory violence in southern Lebanon has been a familiar spectacle for years, but this time there are major differences.

The fighting that erupted this week after a monthlong lull came after Israel’s Cabinet decided to withdraw from southern Lebanon by July with or without an accompanying peace agreement involving Syria and Lebanon.

It also came after an Arab League meeting held over the weekend in Beirut at which Arab foreign ministers warned that the Cabinet decision could mean war.

During that meeting, some of the ministers indicated that radical Palestinian groups who reject the Oslo peace process and are operating in Lebanon may launch cross-border attacks on Israel in the wake of a unilateral withdrawal.

Israeli officials reacted angrily to the warnings emanating from Beirut.

These reactions first came in the form of words, but by Tuesday, Israeli jets were striking two of the rejectionist groups, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — General Command and Fatah Uprising, both of whose camps are located near Lebanon’s border with Syria, their longtime sponsors.

These were the first Israeli strikes on these camps in more than a year, and they came as a clear response to the Arab ministers’ threats.

Israel’s airstrikes also included more familiar targets — Hezbollah and another radical Islamic group, Amal.

On Wednesday Hezbollah gunmen retaliated with Katyusha rocket and mortar attacks, some of which landed in northern Israel, according to Israeli officials.

To answer those attacks, Israeli jets and gunboats were soon pounding targets in southern Lebanon.

It was the worst fighting since last month, when seven Israeli soldiers were killed during a three-week period of Hezbollah attacks. During that period, Israel bombed three power stations in Lebanon, one of them near Beirut.

The Arab ministers convened over the weekend in the Lebanese capital instead of at Arab League headquarters in Cairo to show their solidarity with Lebanon following the strikes on the power stations.

Despite Egyptian efforts to soften the concluding resolution of that meeting, the foreign ministers sided with Syria, which has criticized the Israeli Cabinet’s March 5 decision to pull out of Lebanon by July with or without an agreement. From Damascus’ perspective, a unilateral Israeli pullback would deprive Syria of one of its bargaining cards in negotiations with Israel.

Along with the threats of war, the Arab ministers issued several demands.

“The first rule of a comprehensive and just peace lies in full Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon,” their statement said, “and from the Golan until the June 4, 1967, line and from the Palestinian occupied land, including Jerusalem.”

Israeli officials said it is absurd that the Arab League would condemn an Israeli decision to pull out of Lebanon.

Justice Minister Yossi Beilin called the league’s position “surreal,” and former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, a member of the current Cabinet, called the Arab League declaration “stupid.”

Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy said the outcome of the Arab League meeting revealed that “hard-line opposition” to the peace process still dominates the organization.

“In the face of these threats, Israel will take decisive action in order to protect the welfare of its citizens and soldiers,” Levy said.

By Tuesday, the “action” he promised materialized in the form of the air strikes on the Palestinian militant bases and on the Hezbollah and Amal targets in Lebanon.

(JTA correspondent Naomi Segal in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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