Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's government, grieving over the deaths of five Israeli soldiers last week in southern Lebanon, warned Sunday that it would hit back hard at any forces attacking its troops in the region.
Israeli units in the self-declared "security zone" in southern Lebanon were reportedly reinforced over the weekend, more long-range heavy artillery was moved into the area and troops there were placed on "high alert"--all usually indications of an impending major military strike.
"This is a new situation--an ongoing war," Housing Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a former general who is close to Rabin, said after Sunday's lengthy Cabinet deliberations. "Whoever thinks we will continue to absorb (the attacks) quietly and say, 'Thank you very much,' is making a mistake."
He said that recent attacks on Israeli forces--an ambush Thursday and artillery, rocket and mortar barrages since then--are "attempts to change the rules of the game, and we won't accept them."
Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, the chief of staff, added that the guerrillas' ability to bombard not only Israeli forces and their allies in the security zone but also settlements inside Israel means that they are able to hold those communities as "hostages."
"Syria will understand very well our intention to do whatever is necessary to protect our citizens," Barak said Sunday evening.
Health Minister Chaim Ramon said Rabin will decide "very soon" on his military moves to halt the attacks on Israeli forces from the pro-Iranian Hezbollah (Party of God) militia and guerrillas in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command led by Ahmed Jibril.
"Nobody is taking any action from the Arab side--not from Lebanon, not from Syria--to bring an end to it," Ramon said, reflecting the Israeli outrage at an escalation in the midst of the peace talks sponsored by the United States. "I am not saying that Syria is encouraging it, but it is not taking steps to end it."
For all their resoluteness, however, the Israeli ministers seemed uncertain what action to take--which measures would be effective militarily in deterring the guerrillas, which would meet domestic political needs and which would not jeopardize the peace negotiations with Syria and other Arabs.
Remembering Israel's costly "Lebanon war," they said there would be no ground offensive. But they seemed equally mindful of the ineffectuality of massive artillery bombardments and of the limited impact of precision attacks by helicopter gunships and warplanes.
Political sentiment instead appeared to be growing for a daring commando attack, or a series of them, that would attempt to "decapitate" the guerrilla groups by destroying their headquarters and leadership.
Still, there were calls from the right for the government to break off negotiations with Syria, which has long sponsored the Jibril group and which permits Hezbollah to operate in southern Lebanon while supplying arms to both groups.
Moshe Arens, the defense minister in the previous Likud government, called for decisive Israeli strikes to counter the escalating attacks.
"The lack of appropriate action from our side, I fear, will give a signal or even an incentive to the terrorists to strengthen these activities," Arens said. "There is no doubt that the Syrians can prevent these actions."
Rabin on Saturday told Dennis Ross, the special U.S. envoy to the region, that Israel held Syria responsible for the escalation in southern Lebanon and will take whatever steps necessary to protect itself, regardless of the peace talks. Ross met in Damascus on Sunday with Syrian officials and is to meet President Hafez Assad today.
In a Syrian reply to the Israeli warnings, Radio Damascus called the security zone--a nine-mile-deep buffer along Israel's border with Lebanon that is manned by more than 1,000 Israeli troops and 3,000 members of the Israeli-recruited South Lebanon Army--an "explosive trap."
"It is the right of any people whose land is occupied to resist--rejecting the occupation, destroying it and eliminating it," the broadcast said.
Uri Lubrani, Israel's chief negotiator in the peace talks with Lebanon, blamed Syria for the escalation of tensions in southern Lebanon.
"This is certainly a planned escalation," Lubrani said. "I think it is planned by Syria; it would not happen if Syria did not want it."