Lebanese, Israelis tally latest losses

Raids give way to calm, but raise new worries about Israeli withdrawal

Both sides warn of more strikes

May 06, 2000|By Mark Matthews | By Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KIRYAT SHIMONA, ISRAEL -- Calm returned to Israel and Lebanon late yesterday after a night and morning of destruction, panic and grief.

As the Jewish Sabbath began, residents of this border city left shelters in relief at having narrowly escaped with only wrecked or damaged buildings, burnt-out cars and scattered light injuries and shock.

But in a rural village farther south, soldiers hugged one another and choked back sobs as they buried Israeli Master Sgt. Shaked Ozery, 24, killed Thursday night when a Katyusha rocket fired by Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas struck his Jeep.

And Lebanese, meanwhile, were assessing another body blow to their economy after Israeli warplanes, for the second time this year, bombed power stations supplying electricity to the Beirut area and Tripoli.

Israel and Lebanese guerrillas brought an end to their worst attacks in nearly a year after a renewed barrage of Katyusha rockets fell into northern Israel yesterday morning, followed by more retaliatory air strikes.

Each side warned it would strike again if there were attacks on civilians.

"If they continue, we'll make their world dark," warned Israeli President Ezer Weizman.

"If [Israel] wants to spare its northern settlements the danger of the Katyusha rockets, then it has to restrain its army from any aggression and also has to restrain its agent militia," Hezbollah said, referring to the South Lebanese Army.

Tit-for-tat attacks

The sudden escalation, after a week of tit-for-tat shelling that by Thursday had killed two Lebanese women, raised new fears that Israel's planned withdrawal by July from its occupation zone in southern Lebanon will be difficult and bloody.

Israeli officials vowed yesterday they would not be driven out of the zone.

"We intend [on] leaving south Lebanon in an orderly manner and not abruptly," said Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, the army's chief of operations.

But he held out the prospect of advancing the date.

"If we will be called upon to leave earlier than intended, we will be able to," he said.

Sending a message

In addition to striking two electricity transformers near Beirut and Tripoli and a Hezbollah ammunition dump, Israeli bombs also gouged a large crater on the side of the Damascus-Beirut highway. The site, close to a Syrian intelligence building, was chosen "in order to send a message" a senior Israeli official said.

Israel says that Syria, which controls Lebanon's government, could control Hezbollah if it wanted to.

The renewed Katyusha attacks struck Kiryat Shimona Friday after families had emerged from overnight shelters to do their grocery shopping before the Sabbath. They were abruptly ordered back inside.

Combined, the attacks Thursday and yesterday left part of a senior citizens recreation center in shambles, blasted roofs, walls and windows of several homes and set vehicles ablaze in parking lots.

Prosper Benita, a military reservist, said he had emerged from errands to a bank and the lottery to see his car a ball of fire, and immediately ducked back inside.

Town treasurer Golan Zrihan estimated damage to structures and to the local economy in the millions of dollars.

He attributed the relatively few casualties to sharp instincts developed by residents over decades of being fired upon from Lebanon.

When they hear the boom and the whoosh of the first rocket flying over the hills above town, "they take the best shelter they can find," he said. They even know which parts of buildings are the safest.

But they're not immune to psychological damage, he said - children become frightened whenever they hear a loud boom, and some are afraid to enter the street.

One furious mother of a 2-year-old demanded of Army Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz, who visited the town, "Why [do] we have to suffer through this?"

Mourning the dead

Far south of here, in the mostly Sephardic agricultural settlement of Eliakin, villagers in casual clothes, men wearing yarmulkes, walked en masse to a local cemetery for Ozery's funeral, joining scores of soldiers who came by bus.

Under clear skies, they listened silently as Public Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said he hoped, but could not promise, that Ozery would be "the last Israeli soldier to die" in the border war.

The halt to fighting yesterday followed American and French calls for restraint on both sides, relayed through a variety of channels.

U.S. peace envoy Dennis Ross and Ambassador Martin Indyk were in Prime Minister Ehud Barak's office Thursday when the first Katyushas fell.

Ross is in Israel to try to bridge wide gaps between Israel and the Palestinians in hopes of reaching a framework peace accord by this summer - just about the time when Israel withdraws from Lebanon.

Ross plans to end his visit early next week.

American officials hope to convene a meeting soon of the monitoring group set up to enforce 1996 accords that bar any firing to or from civilian targets in the Lebanon war.

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