Arab guerrillas restrict retaliation against Israel

Hezbollah fighters avoid more extensive bombing in Lebanon

February 09, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KIRYAT SHEMONA, Israel -- Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas spared northern Israel's civilians a feared Katyusha rocket attack yesterday, confining their retaliatory attacks to targets inside southern Lebanon and claiming the life of another Israeli soldier.

By sticking to military targets, the guerrillas appeared to have avoided giving Israel a reason for extensive air strikes such as the bombing raids Monday night that destroyed three electrical transformers and hit an underground guerrilla bunker. Israel limited its attack last night in South Lebanon to a municipal building in Tyre and a suspected guerrilla target.

Justifying its attacks, Israel claimed that Hezbollah violated a 1996 agreement by firing at its soldiers from inside populated villages.

It was unclear why Hezbollah avoided sending its infamous Katyusha rockets into northern Israel, other than fear of greater retaliation against Lebanon or pressure for restraint from Syria, which controls much of what happens in Lebanon.

"I don't remember when we've waited for Katyushas for about 24 hours before," said Kiryat Shemona spokesman Ofer Hadar. The wait left many residents here in a mood of tense anxiety, he said.

"We do not specify timing of retaliation because we want Israelis to stay in their shelters, living in fear and psychological turmoil, equal to what the Lebanese people have to put up with," Abdallah Kassir, a Hezbollah politician, told a Knight-Ridder correspondent in Lebanon yesterday.

As Israel's Monday attack drew condemnation from the Arab world and criticism from some European countries, Israel strove to justify its action, citing escalating guerrilla violence over the past several weeks that by Sunday had killed five Israeli soldiers and wounded many more.

Officials said aiming at targets that knocked out power and hurt the general Lebanese population, and not just the guerrillas, stemmed from the fact that Lebanon's government strongly supports the guerrillas.

Uri Lubrani, an adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of Israel's operations in Lebanon, said infrastructure targets were chosen to avoid civilian casualties.

Cabinet minister Daliah Itzik said top officials kept the desire not to sacrifice the Israeli-Syrian peace process constantly in mind during their discussions about how to respond to the escalating violence in Lebanon.

"But if we don't react, what does this do to the public and also soldiers and residents of the north. It was this vs. that."

Monday night's attack was opposed internally by Cabinet ministers Shlomo Ben-Ami, Yossi Sarid and Yossi Beilin, according to Israel radio.

Israeli television showed footage from Lebanon of spectacular explosions accompanied by spreading fires. Millions of dollars worth of damage were reported.

Across northern Israel's mountainous border region yesterday, residents hunkered down in shelters and largely stayed off the streets in anticipation of Hezbollah's response. Schools, factories and many stores were closed, stalling the area's economy.

Last night, the government announced emergency measures allowing authorities to take action against anyone who flouted the order to stay in bomb shelters. A reminder of the order came with a siren at 5: 30 p.m. followed by vehicles with loudspeakers.

In the past, people have been killed after leaving shelters just to grab a cigarette.

In Kiryat Shemona, a town of 24,000 that has been a frequent Katyusha rocket target since 1968, anyone with a car, money for a hotel room or family elsewhere in Israel got out. A stream of traffic started Monday night, heading for Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee and points further south. Some returned to collect belongings yesterday, staying only briefly.

This exodus left behind people like Aliza Levy, a pregnant mother of four who sat outside her beige stucco apartment building at dusk yesterday, dreading another night lying on a metal bunk in a shelter. "It's very hard," she said. "All night I did not sleep. I'm afraid that something will happen."

It also left attendants manning a 24-hour gas station to supply emergency vehicles and a municipal basement full of city employees, who arranged deliveries of meals and blankets to the shut-in population.

Elsewhere along the border, Kishor Village, a farm community for people with mental disabilities, which has close ties to Baltimore's medical and Jewish communities, sent a car to collect three of its young members who were in a town close to the border.

Throughout the day, conversations were laced with bad memories from past Katyusha attacks.

Aliza Danino recalled tripping and falling as she carried her infant son to a bomb shelter during the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

Town spokesman Hadar pointed to a big gash in the third floor of an abandoned old city hall, the site of a fatal Katyusha attack last June. He was among 200 people gathered outside at the time. He and most of the others fled indoors when they heard the whoosh of the rocket, but two men remained.

When Hadar emerged from the building, he saw one man dead on the ground and another, also dead, seemingly leaning against the wall with his face ripped off.

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