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Beirut faces new spiral of violence

ONE DAY it was peace, the next war. Ehud Barak, the new Israeli prime minister, had promised the first to Lebanon and Syria. Benjamin Netanyahu, the outgoing Israeli prime minister, delivered the second.

And by last night, Thursday's ruthless Nato-style Israeli attack on Lebanon's power stations and bridges - costing nine lives, five of them firemen - had left both the Israelis and Hizbollah guerrillas threatening further mutual retaliation.

The decision to bombard Lebanon appears to have been Netanyahu's; his government is still technically ruling Israel. Israelis were informed that Mr Barak, who had been speaking warmly of a future peace with Syria, only knew of the assault once it had begun.

It certainly bore all the hallmarks of Mr Netanyahu's government: it was both bloody and hopelessly disproportionate. Last night, Oded Ben Ami, an Israeli military spokesman, was warning of more bombing raids while the Lebanese government was accusing the Israelis of "barbarism".

As usual, the story of Lebanon's latest bombings and killings was rewritten - swiftly and carefully - within a short while after the attack. Israel explained that it was delivering an "appropriate response" to rocket attacks by Hizbollah guerrillas. But this round of violence in fact began on Wednesday when Israel's proxy `South Lebanon Army' militia fired several mortar rounds into the Lebanese Shia Muslim village of Qabriqa, in violation of the 1996 ceasefire accords.

Four civilians - including Fatima Yassin, a 45-year old housewife - were wounded. As usual, the Hizbollah responded by firing Katyusha rockets over the border into Israel.

Israeli military officers have long accepted the cynical rules of the south Lebanon war: the Hizbollah do not fire into Israel unless Israel or its allies have hurt or killed Lebanese civilians. But on Thursday night, the Israelis decided to retaliate against the Hizbollah's retaliation.

So they fired missiles into the Lebanese electricity switching stations at Jamhour - scarcely a mile from the Lebanese president's residence - and at Bsalim, which they bombed in 1996 and which was afterwards repaired by the French government.

Then, while the fire brigade was endeavouring to control a raging inferno, Israeli jets returned to Jamhour and killed five firemen.

While these attacks were taking place, Israeli pilots targeted road bridges near Nabatea, Sidon and Damour, killing two innocent motorists. In response - as both the Lebanese and Israelis expected - the Hizbollah fired 60 more rockets into Israel, this time killing two Israelis and wounding three others.

The Israeli deaths followed the Lebanese deaths - not the other way round - although Israel was yesterday claiming that its bombardment was a response to "unprovoked" aggression.

Unwilling to accept Israel's change-of-government protocol, the Lebanese prime minister, Selim el-Hoss, insisted last night (Fri) that Messers Barak and Netanyahu were in "collusion" over the attack on Lebanon.

So far this year, Israel and its militia allies inside southern Lebanon have killed 19 Lebanese civilians and an Irish UN soldier.

At least 10 Israeli occupation soldiers have been killed inside Lebanon and two Israeli civilians over the border. Beirut was without electricity through the day yesterday - among the hottest days of summer - as its citizens, along with the population of northern Israel, waited to find out if the fiercest bombardment of Lebanon since 1996 had ended in stalemate.