Hizbollah and Israel step up border conflict

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IT STARTED with six Lebanese civilians wounded by shellfire in the small village of Mashgara. The Hizbollah warned that they would retaliate.

The Israelis claimed the shells came not from their guns but from the artillery of the so-called "South Lebanon Army" - an assertion that cut little ice with the Hizbollah, since it is armed, funded, uniformed and commanded by Israelis.

Then the Israelis attacked a leader of the Lebanese Amal militia as he drove down the coast road south of Tyre. The helicopter-fired missile killed him instantly.

Despite the death of Hossam al-Amin and the six wounded civilians - the latter a clear breach of the 1996 south Lebanon ceasefire - Israel warned the Hizbollah not to retaliate. "I would not advise anyone on the other side to take action in response," Yitzhak Mordechai, the Israeli Defence Minister, said. "We reserve the right ... to act as long as we need to against leaders of terrorism and terrorism itself wherever it is found."

He sounded like President Bill Clinton - and paid no heed to the fact that the conflict in southern Lebanon is a classic guerrilla war against an occupation army. In any event, the Hizbollah would have none of it.

Overnight, they fired up to 20 Katyusha rockets into Israel, their standard response when Lebanese civilians have been wounded. Nineteen Israelis were wounded or in a state of shock - all were treated on the spot - in the northern Galilee settlement of Kiryat Shmona. At least one Israeli Labour party official immediately argued that Israel's killing of al-Amin was not worth the night that Kiryat Shmona's inhabitants spent in the shelters.

In fact, it was the shelling of Mashgara that prompted the rockets - and thus, inevitably, further mutual retaliation yesterday. By midday, Hizbollah fire had killed a "South Lebanon Army" gunman and Israeli shells were falling along a line of hills north of Nabatea.

Full-scale war in Lebanon has been provoked by lesser events; and the Lebanese still suspect that Israel will fulfil a threat to bomb its electricity stations and infrastructure if more Israeli occupation soldiers are killed. President Clinton's post-bombardment rhetoric seems to be finding a dangerous echo in Lebanon.