Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on Monday visited the site in southern Lebanon where six Israeli soldiers were ambushed and killed the day before by Lebanese guerrillas, as government ministers here predicted that Israel will refrain from unleashing a massive retaliatory attack.
Rabin took the unusual step of traveling on a Jewish holiday, going by helicopter to inspect the scene at the village of Aishiyeh as Israelis observed the one-day festival of Simhat Torah. A nearby outpost of Israel's ally, the South Lebanon Army, came under attack a few hours after Rabin left.
Sources in southern Lebanon said that Muslim guerrillas fired rocket-propelled grenades into the Sojod outpost, in the eastern part of Israel's self-proclaimed security zone. Israel Radio said that two SLA militiamen were wounded and that Israeli and SLA troops returned fire. There were no reports of Lebanese casualties.
Rabin called an emergency Cabinet session for today to discuss the situation in southern Lebanon. But two ministers have said they believe the session is not intended to authorize any large-scale assault.
"Nothing dramatic, no," said Health Minister Ephraim Sneh, a former commander of Israeli forces in southern Lebanon. "The name of the game is not retaliation. It is ongoing combat, not a game of hit and counterhit. Whenever we can hit them, we do."
After more than a dozen years of war in southern Lebanon with Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim militia backed by Syria and Iran, Israel's options are limited, said Environment Minister Yossi Sarid.
"There is no problem to decide about a big strike," Sarid told Army Radio. "But a big operation does not necessarily mean a big success or a great salvation. As we have already learned about Lebanon, you may know how to get in, but you never know how you're going to come out. It always gets you into a complicated jam."
Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the opposition Likud Party, urged the government to take strong action and accused Hezbollah of violating a 1993 U.S.-brokered accord signed by Israel, Hezbollah and Syria that limited the scope of operations between Israeli forces and Hezbollah.
After Sunday's attack, "a very harsh, very tough response must follow," Netanyahu said. "They must know that we can reach them wherever they are and that we will strike them--hard. This is the call of the hour."
But government ministers denied that Hezbollah violated its agreement, and Rabin is under less pressure to respond massively to the Hezbollah attacks than he is to respond to terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians.
"People regard Lebanon as some kind of a curse that you have to live with," said government spokesman Uri Dromi. "They will not riot in the streets about these attacks, because they understand that this is war."
Although Israel's war against Hezbollah has dragged on for years, it has claimed the lives of relatively few Israelis, almost all soldiers. Many here regard the losses as the price they must pay to ensure that Israel can control a strip of land inside Lebanon wide enough to make it impossible for rockets to land on communities in northern Israel.
"A war is taking place in Lebanon which does not interest anyone," political analyst Zvi Barel wrote in the Hebrew daily Haaretz before the last two attacks. "It does not cause Israeli citizens to be blown up in buses, it does not threaten any peace agreement, its rules of the game are clear and its geographic area is defined."
On Thursday, three Israeli soldiers were killed and six wounded when their convoy was ambushed by guerrillas.
There have been debates within the Defense Ministry about simply withdrawing unilaterally from southern Lebanon, Dromi said Monday, "but each time, the question you are always left with is: What is the alternative? We cannot experiment with the lives of the people living in the north, to put them at risk by unilaterally withdrawing."
Israel will remain in southern Lebanon, he said, "until there is a comprehensive settlement, an agreement with the Lebanese government to extend its control throughout the south, to disarm the militias, to integrate the South Lebanon Army into the Lebanese army. And this agreement must be sanctioned by Syria."
Israel set up the security zone in 1985 and patrols it with about 1,200 Israeli soldiers and 2,500 SLA militiamen.
In July, 1993--in response to a string of attacks--Israel unleashed a series of fighter-bomber raids and fired thousands of shells into the region, killing more than 100 people, most of them civilians.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher stopped that escalation by working out an understanding between Israel and Hezbollah, backed by Syria, in which each side would refrain from attacking the other's civilians. Some Israeli military analysts have complained that the agreement allows Hezbollah to use Lebanese villages as covers for military operations.
But Sneh insisted that Israel's war against Hezbollah is generally successful.
"The aim of the war, for us, is to keep life in the Galilee normal," Sneh said in a telephone interview. "If today, one day after such a tragic event [as the ambush of the soldiers], the resorts in the north are full and Israelis and tourists are sitting in outdoor cafes eating ice cream, as they were today, then we are winning this war."