Hezbollah fires at Israeli bulldozer

1 soldier killed in attack near Lebanese border

January 20, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

JERUSALEM - Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon fired an anti-tank missile yesterday that hit an Israeli military bulldozer clearing roadside explosives in the border region. One Israeli soldier was killed and another was seriously wounded, Israeli officials said.

The incident stirred tensions along the uneasy frontier and raised the possibility of an Israeli military response. The episode also increased friction between Israel and Syria, which maintains a large military presence in Lebanon and supports Hezbollah.

Syrian President Bashar Assad called last month for reopening peace talks with Israel, but Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was cool to the idea even before yesterday's incident.

"If President Assad is intent on making peace, the least he could do is restrain Hezbollah from attacking Israel," said Raanan Gissin, a Sharon spokesman. "The first thing Syria has to do is act against terror."

An Israeli military official said the attack occurred as an armored bulldozer was preparing to carry out a controlled explosion of roadside bombs detected about two weeks ago. They had not been removed because of persistent rains.

The bulldozer was on the Israeli side of the border, near the village of Zarit, when it was struck, the official said.

Hezbollah said the bulldozer was in Lebanese territory and was destroyed by the missile, the Associated Press reported from Beirut, Lebanon's capital.

Because of the uneven terrain, an Israeli fence runs a bit south of the border in this area, a military official said. The bulldozer was on the northern side of the fence but was still well within Israeli territory, the official said.

United Nations observers in southern Lebanon were called in to verify the location of the shooting, the Israeli official said.

Earlier yesterday, Israeli warplanes flew over Lebanese airspace on a reconnaissance mission. As is often the case, the planes drew anti-aircraft fire from Hezbollah, the AP reported.

Before the shooting, Sharon told a parliamentary committee that it was clear to him that a peace deal with Syria would require Israel to withdraw from all of the Golan Heights, which is not far from the site of yesterday's attack on the bulldozer.

One Israeli legislator said Syria was in a weak position, and suggested that Israel might be able to win concessions if negotiations were held soon.

"Have no illusions," Gissin quoted Sharon as saying in the discussion. "The price for full peace with Syria is Israel relinquishing all of the Golan Heights."

Gissin added: "The prime minister said this as a statement of fact, not as his position in any negotiations."

Israel captured the Golan in the 1967 Middle East war, and Syria has demanded the return of all the territory as part of any peace deal.

Sharon's political supporters and his opponents in Israel interpreted his comments as reluctance to pursue new negotiations.

Also yesterday, Sharon ordered a review of the separation barrier Israel is building in the West Bank, which has drawn much criticism abroad.

"We came to the conclusion that we have obtained the optimum level of security in some areas, but there is something to be desired in the living conditions for Palestinians," Gissin said.

The review would study possible changes in the route and ways to make movement easier for Palestinians, perhaps by adding bridges or tunnels, a senior official told the AP.

Israel has made several minor alterations to the barrier. But Palestinians reject the idea that any part of it should be built in the West Bank, which is land they want as part of a future state.

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