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Flare-up on Israel’s northern border

JERUSALEM, July 1 (JTA) — Increased tensions along Israel’s northern border are hampering U.S. efforts to restore calm in the region.

Given the delicate state of affairs in the region, where tit-for-tat attacks come on a nearly daily basis, the U.S. State Department on Sunday urged all parties in the region to exercise maximum restraint.

The plea came as the pattern of attacks and retaliation — so common in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian violence — found a second front along the Israeli-Lebanese border.

On Sunday, Israeli warplanes struck a Syrian anti-aircraft post in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley to retaliate for a Hezbollah rocket attack last Friday that wounded two Israeli soldiers, one of them seriously.

Hezbollah gunmen answered the Israeli action by firing mortars and rockets at Israeli army positions along the border with Lebanon.

Last Friday’s attack took place in the Shabaa Farms region that Lebanon regards as its territory, a claim both Israel and the United Nations reject.

News reports from Lebanon said three people — two Syrian soldiers and one Lebanese — were wounded in the Israeli air strike.

Israel’s Security Cabinet issued a statement saying the warplanes struck in response to “recurrent criminal attacks” across Israel’s northern border.

“Israel has determined that these criminal activities of Hezbollah’s are being carried out with the full knowledge and sponsorship of Syria, whose army is present in Lebanon,” the statement said.

The Security Cabinet also accused Syria of blocking the deployment of the Lebanese army in southern Lebanon — a move the United Nations called for after Israel pulled its troops out of southern Lebanon in May 2000.

Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer downplayed the prospects of war with Syria, despite the weekend violence.

“Thank God, we are surrounded by countries that if they have anything in common, it is not to lead the Middle East into war,” Ben-Eliezer said Sunday.

The cycle of violence resembled similar events in April, when Israel attacked Syrian radar installations in Lebanon after Hezbollah fired on Israeli forces.

The latest tensions along Israel’s northern border followed last week’s visit to the region by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who focused on reducing Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

In his discussions, Powell sought to shore up a U.S.-mediated cease-fire to end nine months of violence.

After a series of separate meetings June 28 with Israeli and Palestinian officials, Powell announced an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on a timeline for advancing toward peace negotiations.

Under the terms of the agreement, a six-week cooling off period would begin after a full week passes with no violence.

But after Powell left the region over the weekend, Israeli and Palestinian officials were unable to agree on when the seven-day period began.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the period has not yet begun because Palestinian violence has not ceased.

Palestinian officials said the period began last Friday.

Along with the violence on the Lebanese front, there were also continued incidents in the West Bank.

On Sunday, Israeli soldiers killed two members of Hamas who were planting roadside bombs near an Israeli army base in the West Bank, the army said. Three other Palestinians escaped capture following a lengthy gun battle.

The same day, a bomb exploded near a busload of soldiers on their way to paratrooper boot camp in the West Bank, according to Israel Radio. No injuries were reported.

And in another incident Sunday, Palestinian gunmen opened fire on an Israeli bakery truck traveling on a West Bank road. The driver, a 26-year-old Israeli Arab, was lightly wounded in the leg.

At the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres came under criticism from some ministers for meeting last Friday with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat in Lisbon.

Right-wing minister Rehavam Ze’evi stormed out of the Cabinet session in protest, complaining he had no say in the government’s policies. He said Peres had undermined Israel’s position not to negotiate while violence continues.

Peres also drew criticism from Labor colleague Dalia Itzik, who said his meeting with Arafat was premature.

Sharon, who has previously been at odds with his foreign minister over policy issues, said he had agreed to the Peres-Arafat meeting.

In his own defense, Peres said no negotiations were conducted with Arafat, only an exchange of views.

During the meeting, Peres said he told Arafat that there must be an end to violence for the peace process to proceed. Arafat called on Israel to lift the closure on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

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