As he did so guerrillas belonging to Hizbollah, the Lebanese resistance movement, detonated a series of bombs, some hanging from trees, which tore the car apart. General Gerstein was killed immediately with two other soldiers and an Israeli journalist. The ambushers then retreated under cover of a mortar barrage
The general was the most senior Israeli officer to be killed in Lebanon since Israel declared its occupation zone in 1985. His death is a serious blow to the Israeli army's prestige. It underlines as never before the vulnerability of the Israeli army in south Lebanon. It also shows the precision of Hizbollah's intelligence about the Israeli forces it is trying to expel from Lebanon.
The death of General Gerstein comes hard on the heels of another military reversal. Last week the elite reconnaissance patrol of a paratrooper unit advanced to try to set an ambush for Hizbollah. Instead it was ambushed itself by guerrillas, and three Israeli officers, including the patrol's commander, were killed.
The first news of yesterday's attack came from Hizbollah in Beirut. It said its men attacked a convoy of senior Israeli officers as they travelled by road between the villages of Kawkaba and Hasbaya four miles north of the Israeli border. Its spokesman said: "All those in the convoy were killed or wounded."
Israeli officials say Hizbollah has a permanent force of some 600 highly experienced guerrillas, whose skills are improving all the time. Of the 21 Israeli soldiers killed in south Lebanon last year 16 were killed by roadside bombs.
The number of Hizbollah attacks has increased sharply over the past three years rising from 460 in 1996 to 1,200 in 1998. The army, conscious that casualties increase the calls in Israel for a unilateral withdrawal from south Lebanon, has tried to keep deaths and injuries low. It has reduced the number of outposts and convoys and given a greater role to the South Lebanon Army (SLA), which mans most of the frontline bases in the security zone.
General Gerstein was head of the Israeli army liaison unit with the SLA. But the manner of his death is evidence that the SLA, armed and paid for by Israel, is heavily infiltrated by Hizbollah informants. The immediate reaction of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, making a state visit to the newly crowned King Abdullah of Jordan, to the bad news from Lebanon, was to threaten retaliation. He said: "Israel could not tolerate this kind of repeated attack on its territory, on its citizens or on its soldiers. Israel will know what to do."
Nevertheless, Israeli options appear limited. It could launch a wider air war, as it did in the "Grapes of Wrath" operation in 1996 when it bombarded southern Lebanon, killing some 200 civilians. It could also target the Lebanese economic infrastructure, particularly power stations, or Syrian army positions in the Bekaa valley in eastern Lebanon. None of these alternatives would necessarily have any effect on Hizbollah.
Recent military casualties are likely to increase popular pressure on the Israeli government to find some solution in Lebanon. A poll by the Israeli daily Maariv showed that 63 per cent of Israelis thought the government was not doing enough to find a way out of its problems in Lebanon. But a majority was against a unilateral withdrawal without security guarantees from Syria. These are unlikely to be forthcoming while Israel holds territory in south Lebanon and refuses to withdraw from the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in 1967.
Israel's problems in south Lebanon continue to get worse. On Friday 2,000 Lebanese students broke into the village of Arnoun, sealed off by Israel. Arnoun, whose population has dropped from 2,000 to 35 because of Israeli shelling, was previously just north of the security zone. Israel said the village was being used by Hizbollah guerrillas for attacks on an Israeli outpost.
The Israeli army has argued that despite losses the military and political situation in southern Lebanon was essentially static. After the events of the past few days it will be a difficult argument to sustain.Reuse content