Israeli-Hezbollah Truce Unravels; Jerusalem’s Talks With Syria at Risk
A year-old truce negotiated by Secretary of State Warren Christopher between Israel and the militant Islamic organization Hezbollah in Lebanon has unraveled, just as Christopher returned to the region hoping to push Israeli-Syrian peace talks forward.
In what it said was retaliation for an Israeli attack Thursday on a southern Lebanese village, Hezbollah lobbed rockets into northern Israel on Friday and Saturday for the first time in a year. Three Israeli children were wounded in one of the attacks. And in Israel’s self-proclaimed security zone in southern Lebanon, two soldiers were killed and two were wounded when a convoy was ambushed by gunmen.
Israeli authorities evacuated five miles of beach below Israel’s border with Lebanon and ordered vacationers to leave the area. Israeli radio said many residents of northern towns spent Friday night in bomb shelters. The army retaliated by shelling southern Lebanese villages.
The upsurge in fighting between Israel and Hezbollah raises questions about how far Christopher will be able to push forward stalled negotiations between Syria and Israel. Syria, with about 35,000 troops in eastern Lebanon, is considered the primary political and military force in the country. Israel holds Syria responsible for Hezbollah’s actions, and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is likely to demand that the Syrians rein in Hezbollah.
“Christopher will probably try to handle this situation out of his back pocket, because he didn’t come here to deal with Israel and Hezbollah again,” said Martin Kramer, a specialist in Islamic militancy at Tel Aviv University. Whether or not the Israeli-Hezbollah fighting spirals out of control now “is really up to the Syrians,” Kramer said.
Kramer said Rabin will come under strong political pressure to retaliate massively against Hezbollah should rockets continue to fall on northern communities. In July last year, Hezbollah rocket attacks on the north led Israel to carry out Operation Accountability, a huge land, sea and air operation against southern Lebanese villages. That fighting stopped only after Christopher negotiated a cease-fire in which Hezbollah agreed to stop shelling northern Israel and Israel agreed to stop shelling southern Lebanese villages.
But after four attacks in Latin America and Britain last month against Jewish and Israeli targets, the cease-fire came apart. The Israelis accused Hezbollah of carrying out the bombings, which claimed more than 100 lives. Hezbollah denied any involvement.
On Thursday, Israeli fighter planes attacked Hezbollah bases in southern Lebanon but also hit a village, killing seven civilians and wounding 17, according to Lebanese security sources. The Israelis apologized for the casualties, but Hezbollah issued a statement vowing it would seek vengeance.
An Israeli army spokesman said that Capt. Oren Avishalom, 24, and Pvt. Yevgeni Bartzlavski, 19, were killed when their army convoy was attacked by guerrillas near the village of Ishea, in Israel’s security zone, before dawn Saturday.
The spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the army and its militia ally, the South Lebanon Army, responded to the attack and to mortar and rocket attacks on Israeli and SLA positions by shelling Hezbollah positions.