JERUSALEM (Nov. 17)
A major flare-up on Israel’s border with Lebanon this week was being interpreted by officials here as a “hint” from Syria of its displeasure at being sidelined in the peace process.
On Tuesday — just one day after the announcement that U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher will visit the Middle East next month with the specific purpose of reviving the stalled Israeli-Syrian negotiations — guerrillas with the Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah movement escalated their attacks on Israeli positions in southern Lebanon.
The latest attacks by Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria, were seen here as an indication of impatience and frustration in Damascus over the negotiations with Israel, which have been stalemated for months.
Syria has been calling for a return of the Golan Heights, while Israel has been calling on Damascus to establish a “full peace” with Israel that would include open borders between the two countries, free trade and an exchange of ambassadors.
Hezbollah’s attacks on Tuesday were described by Israel Defense Force sources as the most serious assaults since Israel launched “Operation Accountability,” which combined tank, infantry and air operations in southern Lebanon in late July.
Hezbollah began its daylong attack at dawn, with shelling by mortars and Katyusha rockets at bases of the IDF and its allied South Lebanon Army in both the eastern and western sectors of Israel’s security zone in southern Lebanon.
During the day, scores of Katyusha missiles fell not only within the zone but also on the border separating the two countries.
Two IDF soldiers were lightly wounded by shrapnel as they were traveling inside the zone, close to the Israeli border.
WAVES OF HORROR THROUGH ISRAEL
Israel’s retaliatory response later in the dayarried a pointed political message: Apart from a heavy artillery counter-barrage of guerrilla positions, Israel sent its warplanes to bomb and strafe Hezbollah facilities near Baalbek, in the Bekaa Valley — deep in the heart of the Syrian-controlled portion of Lebanon.
It was as if the Israelis were telling the Syrians that they, too, are adept at using violence as an extension of diplomacy.
During his visit to Washington this week, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was urged by President Clinton and other administration officials not to leave Syria out of the peacemaking loop.
At the same time, Rabin had to come to grips with the spiraling violence in the West Bank and Gaza, where Palestinian extremists opposed to the self-rule agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization are attacking Jews almost daily.
The terrorist attacks have sent waves of horror through Israel and have also triggered a violent response from Israel’s settlers.
Both of these reactions are entirely to the liking of the Palestinian terrorists.
Israeli revulsion at their deeds inevitably saps public support for the peace process.
And the vigilantism of the settlers adds fuel to the flames, provoking moderate Palestinians who find themselves and their property caught in the crossfire — which inevitably reduces support for the peace negotiations among the Palestinians as well.
For the IDF, the situation is a veritable nightmare.
A reserve unit, ending a tour of service on the West Bank on Tuesday, told reporters that there were no clear orders regarding how to restrain the settlers — beyond an order not to use force or even tear gas.
Professional officers privately confirmed this complaint, adding that the deployment of units to confront rioting settlers automatically meant there were fewer troops available to hunt terrorists.
In the meantime, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are continuing their meetings in Cairo to conclude a detailed agreement on security arrangements in the Gaza Strip and West Bank town of Jericho after the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the regions, scheduled to begin in less than a month.
That agreement, Israeli officials hope, should at least partly end the atmosphere of uncertainty currently prevailing on the ground.
But according to the terms of the Palestinian self-rule accord signed in Washington in September, Israel must complete its troop withdrawals from Gaza and Jericho by April — four months after the withdrawal process begins.
Israeli officials are viewing with increasing worry the prospect of this four-month period.
Opinion polls show slippage in the popularity of both the Rabin government and the peace agreement among the Israeli public.
And with each new terrorist incident, Knesset members are beginning to wonder out loud whether the prime minister can hold together his coalition during this tension-filled waiting period.
(Contributing to this report was JTA correspondent Hugh Orgel in Tel Aviv.)