Israel warns of war as rockets blast village

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The Independent Online
Shia Muslim guerrillas appear to have been responsible for the slaughter of at least nine civilians in Lebanon yesterday. Robert Fisk in Beirut reveals that Israel has threatened a massive bombardment if it suffers any more serious casualties.

It was one of those bloodbaths that neither the Hizbollah nor the Amal militia ever admit to. But at 8am yesterday, a series of 25 mortar shells were fired into the tiny Shia village of Beit Leef just 10 miles from the Mediterranean coast, tearing nine of its inhabitants to pieces.

One, a little girl, was beheaded in the centre of the village, along with two women. Among the 12 wounded were four more women.

Israel, whose army occupies that part of the country in which Beit Leef lies, first blamed Amal (whose leader happens to be president of the Lebanese parliament) and then the Hizbollah guerrillas.

Amal blamed the Israelis for the slaughter while the Hizbollah remained ominously silent. Within minutes, however, the Israelis - who were almost certainly innocent of the killings - fired scores of shells into villages outside Tyre, wounding a 35-year old Lebanese woman in the village of Mansouri.

Just another Lebanese massacre, the world will probably conclude. But the consequences could be more serious. Beit Leef, which has been under Israeli occupation for 21 years, should never have been targeted. Under the terms of the south Lebanese ceasefire - agreed in April last year after Israel's bombardment of Lebanon, the so-called "Operation Grapes of Wrath", killed more 160 civilians - south Lebanese villages are supposed to be protected from all attacks. Five hundred metres from Beit Leef, however, there stands an Israeli army observation post, manned by both Israeli troops and members of Israel's proxy South Lebanon Army militia.

This was almost certainly the intended target; only hours earlier, an Israeli soldier at a neighbouring position inside Lebanon had been wounded in a guerrilla attack, ending a virtual two-week suspension of hostilities between the Israeli army and its Lebanese enemies.

The April 1996 ceasefire agreement does allow both sides to attack each other, providing civilian areas are not used as targets or launching points.

But, although this has not been publicly admitted, Israel has warned that if it suffers further serious military casualties inside Lebanon, it intends to relaunch a mass bombardment of the country along the lines of last year's carnage.

The Independent has learned the plan for such an operation has been drawn up by Amnon Shahak, the Israeli chief of staff who led a 1973 raid against Palestinians in Beirut, and Yitzak Mordechai, the Israeli Defence Minister. The approval of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would mean that Lebanon would be faced with Grapes of Wrath Part Two.

Israel's threat was conveyed to Arab governments several days ago. It followed the ambush at Aansariyeh, when an Israeli army unit who thought they would be able to ambush Hizbollah guerrillas were themselves ambushed. Twelve Israeli soldiers were killed, prompting further calls from the mothers of Israeli troops to withdraw from Lebanon. Russian diplomats had warned of an impending Israeli onslaught on Lebanon after the Aansariyeh ambush during a visit to Jerusalem by foreign minister Yevgeni Primakov.

The latest warning by Israeli has been taken more seriously. An American diplomat, playing the familiar role of Israel's messenger, is said to have travelled to Damascus and Beirut within the past fortnight to relay the threat which was, of course, passed on to the Hizbollah. The comparative lull in fighting over the past two weeks appeared to be the result. Yesterday seems to prove the mini-ceasefire is over. If the Israeli position, rather than the village, had been hit by the 25 shells, Lebanon might have been on the edge of another war. Just another weekend in southern Lebanon it may have been; but a bloody and dangerous one - and a possible precursor of things to come.

t Jerusalem - Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu's closest political adviser, Avigdor Lieberman, resigned yesterday, the first casualty of a mutiny against the prime minister within his own party