Civilians die as Israel takes on Hizbollah men

IT IS a strange and macabre game the Israelis and Hizbollah are playing. After firing 700 shells across southern Lebanon, the Israelis suddenly held their fire at dawn yesterday, leaving the wadis and brown scrub hills to the farmers and butterflies, the skies to the jets flying north to bomb Hermel.

Israeli radio said an armoured column was crossing the frontier into Lebanon. But through the heat haze across the hills, the Israeli frontier - marked by barbed wire, a dusty strip and lines of trees - showed no sign of movement. The United Nations soldiers perspiring in their observation posts did not see a single tank. That old phenomenon, 'The Threat', was hanging once more over southern Lebanon.

The statistics of the previous 48 hours, of course, were easy to collate: five Israeli soldiers killed in their occupation zone on Sunday, a 75-year-old Lebanese woman killed by an Israeli shell, an Israeli teenager and a Lebanese father and child killed by Hizbollah rocket fire, a Lebanese farmer and another civilian killed in further Israeli bombing and shelling and a Palestinian killed in an Israeli attack on a camp in northern Lebanon. As usual, civilians have paid a higher price than soldiers.

Both Israel and Hizbollah issued their usual blood-curdling threats against each other yesterday, the former promising to destroy 'Hizbollah terrorists', the latter putting their men under 'general mobilisation' to fight 'Zionism'. Almost 150 Hizbollah gunmen did try to penetrate the UN lines to fight the Israeli occupation force to the south but were turned back by UN troops.

UN officers had already noted with concern the appointment last week of Brigadier Gaby Ashkenazi to command Israeli activities in the Israeli-occupied zone of Lebanon. The intense bombardment laid down over the past two days was his work. And it was Brigadier Ashkenazi who conducted the brutal - though ultimately unsuccessful - 'iron fist' operations against Lebanese Shia villages in 1984 and 1985 in reprisal for guerrilla attacks against Israeli troops. After almost every Israeli raid, young Shia men would be found near the villages, gunmen - according to the Israelis - who were shot dead 'while trying to escape'. It was Yitzhak Rabin, now Israel's Prime Minister, who ordered Brigadier Ashkenazi to adopt the 'iron fist' policy.

Yesterday, however, the Israelis confined their daylight activities to an air raid in the Hermel region of the northern Bekaa, a strike which flattened a two-storey building - claimed by the Israelis to be a Hizbollah base - and killed a Lebanese farmer. Besides threatening the guerrillas, the Israelis also complained that the UN should accept some responsibility for Sunday's bomb attack on the five soldiers, since UN troops failed to see the Hizbollah men passing through their zone.

'The Israelis send their soldiers to occupy someone else's country and get bombed,' a UN official said angrily. 'Then they say they are being attacked by terrorists and blame us for not protecting them.'

The Israelis must know their current military tactics are more likely to assuage public opinion in Israel than destroy the Hizbollah; not a single Hizbollah member is known to have been killed. Nor does Sunday's Hizbollah attack reflect much credit on Israeli military preparedness. All five soldiers were travelling in an unarmoured truck inside the occupation zone at the rear of a seven-vehicle patrol, and were obviously being watched by Hizbollah guerrillas using radio-controlled explosives.

The Israeli retaliation killed Lebanese civilians but left the Lebanese army untouched. Yet at one point on Monday afternoon, it now transpires, after the Israelis bombarded civilian areas of Nabatea, Lebanese regulars intervened. From their fire-base north of the Litani river, Lebanese artillery fired 155mm shells at the Israeli battery, which then ceased firing. With Lebanese and Israeli negotiators still talking to each other at the Washington peace talks, the last thing the Israelis want is to become engaged in a firefight with Lebanese government troops.

One reason why casualties of the bombardment were comparatively low is that many of the Israeli shells were in fact fired into Israel's own occupation zone.

The Israeli teenager, it also emerged yesterday, was not the only victim of the Hizbollah's Katyusha missile fire; a Lebanese Christian and his infant son were killed instantly when a Hizbollah rocket aimed at the Israeli frontier fell short of its target and exploded in the border village of Rmeiche. Tony Jreish was holding his 18-month-old baby when the rocket came through a bedroom window, killing both of them and critically wounding his wife.

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