Israel strikes back in Lebanon

Pressed at home, Barak orders attacks on Hezbollah, utilities

Early withdrawal debated

February 08, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Under mounting domestic pressure to avenge devastating Hezbollah attacks on Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon, Prime Minister Ehud Barak launched air attacks last night against targets deep in Lebanon, including the outskirts of the capital, Beirut.

Israeli planes struck at Baalbek, knocking out power to the ancient city used as a headquarters by Hezbollah guerrillas in eastern Lebanon. They struck at power stations near Beirut and Tripoli in northern Lebanon, plunging Lebanon's largest cities into darkness.

In expectation of retaliatory attacks with Hezbollah rockets in southern Lebanon, Israeli residents along the border with Lebanon were ordered into bomb shelters last night. Convoys of civilian cars left the Israeli town most frequently attacked, Kiryat Shemona. Israeli soldiers were ordered to report to command posts along the mountainous northern border.

The Israeli military vowed to continue striking Hezbollah targets and warned that any retaliatory attack inside Israel would bring an expansion of the conflict and a "sharp response."

Israel periodically bombs suspected Hezbollah sites in southern Lebanon where it has maintained a security zone since 1985. But these strikes went deeper into Lebanon than any since June.

They were carried out as Israeli officials debated completely withdrawing their forces from Lebanon before the July target date set by Barak, in the hope that by then he could come to an arrangement with Syria, which effectively controls Lebanon.

Barak was driven to act against Lebanon after Hezbollah attacks left four Israeli soldiers dead in South Lebanon in the past week.

The growing toll of dead and injured Israeli soldiers was brought vividly home Sunday night by graphic television footage of the wounded receiving medical attention as they lay waiting for a helicopter to evacuate them. Among the dead was a medic who had been treating the wounded.

Barak set the stage for retaliation, accusing Hezbollah of systematically violating an agreement reached in 1996 to prevent attacks on civilians. Barak said guerrillas flouted the accord by firing from villages in southern Lebanon, and warned of a "painful price."

"We shall struggle, we shall see to it and we shall ensure that those who hit us will be hit," Barak told Labor Party supporters at Israel's parliament. "Those who send them will be punished."

He said the country was on the threshold of "difficult days" that would bring "tough moments for the citizens of the north." He flew by helicopter last night to meet with local officials in northern areas. Near midnight, cars with loudspeakers instructed residents to move into bomb shelters.

The choice of infrastructure targets, not just guerrilla sites, meant that Israel has opted to punish Lebanese civilians along with Hezbollah, as occurred last year under then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli officials urged the United States, as the powerful mediator of the peace process with Syria, to pressure Damascus to rein in Hezbollah. U.S. officials said yesterday that they were continuing to press all sides to exercise restraint, though they seemed resigned to Israeli action.

The Shiite Muslim Hezbollah, or Party of God, is armed and inspired by Iran. But Israeli officials say that Syria, by virtue of its control over Lebanon, has the power to restrain the guerrillas. Yesterday, they renewed a threat, previously abandoned by Barak, not to resume stalled peace talks with Syria unless it did so.

"If they want the negotiations to continue, they can't let Hezbollah have freedom of action," said Danny Yatom, a political and security adviser to Barak.

Increasing the pressure on the prime minister, Israel's senior defense correspondent, Ze'ev Schiff, reported yesterday in the newspaper Haaretz that Iran recently stepped up arms shipments to the guerrillas in preparation for several weeks of intensive fighting. The accelerated pace "would be impossible without Damascus' authorization and blessing," he wrote.

In Washington, a U.S. official said: "We don't have information to substantiate that. I would view this with skepticism."

Barak campaigned last year on a pledge to extricate Israel from Lebanon, and has vowed to withdraw troops from the occupation zone by July. This would deprive Hezbollah, and indirectly Syria, of a target in Lebanon that can be used to harass Israel.

Starting in January, when the Syrian peace track looked promising, Israeli officials stressed that withdrawal would come as part of a peace agreement. Yesterday, however, Yatom suggested strongly that a pullout could come without an accord.

Others have said there is no point in waiting for July if no accord with Syria is in the offing.

Israel would likely use heavy air attacks to cover a withdrawal.

The planned withdrawal increases the incentive for Israel to inflict damage on Hezbollah, so as not to appear to be withdrawing out of weakness.

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