Barak warns of ‘painful’ retaliation


JERUSALEM, May 8 (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is warning that Israel will respond harshly to any further cross-border attacks, regardless of its plans to pull Israeli troops out of southern Lebanon by July.

In remarks released from Sunday’s weekly Cabinet meeting, Barak said Israel would give a “painful” response to such attacks.

During the meeting, the Cabinet reiterated its commitment to redeploy Israeli troops along the international border with Lebanon by July. The ministers also agreed to bolster security for Israel’s northern communities.

The Cabinet session came amid public calls for a more forceful Israeli reaction to the Katyusha rocket attacks that the militant Hezbollah launched May 4 on northern Israel, killing one Israeli soldier and lightly wounding more than two dozen people.

Israeli jets later struck Lebanese infrastructure targets, bombing two power stations, as well as a Hezbollah arms storehouse and the Beirut-Damascus road.

In response, Hezbollah launched more rockets at northern Israel last Friday. But this time, Israel opted not to retaliate.

The government’s Security Cabinet said Israel was not interested in an escalation and that it reserved the right to respond when and where it deemed appropriate.

Some northern residents, however, felt otherwise. After spending a tense weekend in bomb shelters, residents of Kiryat Shmona on Sunday burned tires and blocked the city’s main roads as they called for a harsher Israeli response to the Hezbollah rocket attacks.

Israel announced plans for its unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon earlier this year after its talks with Syria were suspended.

Syria opposes Israel’s plans for a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon.

Damascus has long used Hezbollah gunmen in southern Lebanon as a proxy, giving them the green light to step up attacks on Israeli troops to try to force Israeli concessions — particularly on the Golan. A unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon would deprive Assad of this leverage.

On Monday, Syrian President Hafez Assad arrived in Cairo for talks with his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak. The meeting came amid reports in the Arab press that Syria is enlisting the support of key Arab allies in a bid to revive its peace talks with Israel.

The stalled Israeli-Syrian negotiations and the planned Israeli troop withdrawal from Lebanon were believed to have topped the agenda during two days of closed-door talks last week among the foreign ministers of Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra.

Syria’s Farouk al-Sharaa, Egypt’s Amre Mousa and Saudi Arabia’s Saud al-Faisal said little about the Israeli-Syrian talks in a joint statement following their meetings, but Arab-language papers said the trio sounded upbeat about prospects for restarting the talks.

In their statement, the ministers called on the United Nations to take control of security in southern Lebanon following Israel’s planned withdrawal from the area.

This represented a reversal on the part of Syria, which previously had opposed an expanded U.N. presence following the Israeli withdrawal.

Prior to the Palmyra meeting, the Saudi-owned daily al-Hayat quoted Sharaa as saying that “contacts have not broken off” since the abortive March 26 Geneva summit between Assad and President Clinton.

“We still believe that the opportunity is available for the requirements of peace to be met on all fronts,” said Sharaa.

(JTA correspondent Douglas Davis in London contributed to this report.)

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