The Israelis hastily but vainly tried to shrug off responsibility for the Sidon killings, claiming that their troops were not involved in the artillery bombardment of the city. The mortar shells that crashed onto the busy afternoon shopping streets, however, were fired by the SLA, which is commanded, paid, uniformed and armed by the Israelis. That the militia's discipline long ago crumbled does not - as the Lebanese were pointing out last night - absolve Israel of responsibility for the SLA's actions. The shells they directed at Sidon were proximity rounds, designed to cause amputation wounds, and were of the same type as those fired into the refugees at Qana by the Israeli army last year.
There was ample reason to expect SLA retaliation yesterday. The couple killed earlier - 16-year old Jean Nasr and his 12-year old sister - were the children of a senior SLA officer, Assad Nasr, who was himself blown up this year by the Hizbollah in Jezzine. Although the roadside bomb had probably been planted days ago, the Hizbollah were almost certainly responsible.
Visiting the wards of three hospitals in Sidon where at least 36 civilians were being treated for wounds, Sheikh Nabil Qaouk, the Hizbollah's commander in southern Lebanon, made it all too clear what would follow the Sidon deaths. "Either we have security on both sides or we have none," he said angrily. "The resistance will not be silent and its response will be harsh and painful." A few minutes later, Katyusha rockets began falling on Marayoun and Jezzine. At least 10 explosions in the former city sent dozens of Lebanese Christian civilians fleeing their homes to seek shelter with Norwegian soldiers of the nearby United Nations peace-keeping battalion.
And so, after the briefest of ceasefires, southern Lebanon was yesterday again on the edge of open war. The five-power truce committee, which met last week to condemn both Israel and the Hizbollah for recent ceasefire violations, is already collapsing amid increasing acrimony. At its latest meeting, General David Tzur, the Israeli delegate, approached General Adnan Balloul, the Syrian representative, with a suggestion that the United States and French delegates to the committee should be ignored in resolving further problems. General Balloul exploded in anger and threatened to walk out of the committee - a step only avoided after Dennis Ross, President Bill Clinton's senior Middle East negotiator, apparently pleaded with Mr Balloul on the telephone to remain in his seat.
The SLA has been suffering increasing reverses over the past six months. Up to one-third of its militia have deserted to the Beirut government or to the Hizbollah guerrilla movement while its existing ranks are packed with informers. In some military positions, the SLA are even forwarned to leave their fortresses by the Hizbollah - so that only Israeli occupation troops should fall victim to mortar attacks. The SLA's actions yesterday, however, are going to draw the Israelis back into the war since no one, least of all the Hizbollah, is going to believe that the Israelis do not control their own proxy militia.