Israel-Lebanon violence takes an unusual halt

February 05, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

NAQOURA, Lebanon -- The United Nations command here is a fitting place to ponder the latest rocket attacks toward Israel.

The dress code is bulletproof vests. The security is sandbags and machine guns. The history includes more than 70 U.N. soldiers killed by various groups among which they were trying to keep peace.

Last week, one of those groups, said to be the Palestine Liberation Organization, fired small rockets toward the border with Israel.

The attacks, on three successive nights, were the most intense since the nightly rain of such rockets provoked Israel into invading Lebanon in 1982. Israeli officials quickly accused the PLO of trying to engage Israel in combat on orders from Saddam Hussein.

The charge was bolstered by statements of a PLO officer in Lebanon who told reporters the PLO had begun "an open-war border" with Israel, adding: "This is Saddam Hussein's northern front."

But like everything in Lebanon, it is not so simple.

Israel immediately responded by shelling Palestinian camps in southern Lebanon. And it seized on the Iraqi connection, threatening further retaliation unrestrained by the multinational coalition that has kept it out of the war in the Persian Gulf.

But before the violence accelerated, unusual intermediaries stepped in. The governments of Lebanon and Syria both called on the PLO to rein in its soldiers. Tunis, the PLO headquarters, repudiated the statement by its colonel. The Lebanese Army vowed to move this week into positions now controlled by the PLO.

And yesterday a PLO official said, "The Palestinian groups have decided to stop the rocket attacks on the Zionist enemy because the drawbacks outweigh the advantages."

"Nobody wants another war like before," said Timur Goksel, a veteran U.N. observer.

"Other forces in Lebanon will settle their scores with the PLO," said Yossi Olmert, an Israeli government spokesman and Arab specialist. "They don't want to be used or exploited by the PLO."

The attacks were made by Katyusha rockets from small, quickly assembled launchers aimed across the five-mile wide buffer zone that Israel controls on the Lebanon side of the border. According to observers from UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon, none of the rockets landed over the border in Israel, and there were no casualties.

The Israeli Defense Forces responded by shelling Palestinian refugee camps. There are seven such camps in southern Lebanon, home to about 75,000 people, and the IDF regularly retaliates against the camps on the ground that the guerrillas live there.

Last Thursday, the IDF fired more than 300 rounds of artillery at the camps. According to UNIFIL, there were two civilians confirmed injured.

One U.N. observer noted the low casualties may suggest that neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis wanted to escalate the matter, and deliberately aimed at empty areas. "It's a propaganda message. This is the most expensive political postal service in the world," he said.

Others disagree.

Gil Livni lives in a kibbutz, Rosh Hania, just south of the Lebanese border. Periodically, the men of the kibbutz rush from their homes with guns at the alarm of a Palestinian infiltrator.

Mr. Livni recalls waking up one night in 1974 to face a "19-year-old, dark, frightened" Palestinian who had swum around the border with an automatic rifle.

"I was looking in his eyes as he was shooting me," said Mr. Livni. He still carries scars where bullets entered his neck, chest and arms. The intruder was cornered in the kibbutz and burned to death with a phosphorus grenade.

"I don't blame the Palestinians for their political ambitions," he said. "But it's a mistake if they take the route of violence and terror. If they shoot Katyushas, they will give us an outlet for our frustrations. We will give them payment like they never had."

Most directly in line with the small rocket attacks is Metulla, Israel's northernmost town. It is a pretty town of olive groves, apple orchards, 2,000 civilians and just as many soldiers from the U.N. and Israeli armies. At the edge of town, next to a playground, is the fence of the Lebanon border.

Behind that rises a great treeless hill, with a stubble on top of guard towers, electric alarms and antennas tended by Israeli soldiers who patrol that buffer strip. But the most recent Katyusha rockets landed right at that fence as residents a hundred yards beyond were sleeping.

"The Katyusha makes a terrible noise. It is a terrific whoosh, and then an explosion. It's frightening," said Yaacov Schneider, 39, who lives near the border. "I'm sure they want to kill us."

But the people of Metulla have heard that sound so often, they take it in stride.

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