Hizbollah makes explosive return: Israel's proxy militia under fire in south Lebanon

IT WAS business as usual in south Lebanon yesterday. Anti-tank rockets and mortar bombs were fired at three posts manned by Israel's proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army (SLA). They hit targets in Sojoud, Rihan and the Ghazlan hills. Lebanese security officials said the attack, launched from a stronghold of Iranian-backed Hizbollah Islamic fighters, was the fiercest since a ceasefire brokered by the United States halted Israel's seven-day blitz of south Lebanon last month.

The Israelis could be forgiven for asking what their intervention had achieved. Yet it was never going to put an end to Hizbollah attacks. The chunk of Lebanese territory Israel has carved out as its security zone is designed to aborb and contain hostile actions. The SLA act in effect as human sandbags. And so long as Israelis in south Lebanon or northern Israel do not become targets again, Israel's retaliation is likely to be limited.

The flare-up of violence has political as well as military dimensions. Its aim was to show that fighters in the area were still active and would continue to hit at Israeli targets so long as Israel occupied Lebanese territory. A Hizbollah leader, Sheikh Khodor Noureddine, told a rally in south Lebanon on Monday: 'There has been no direct or indirect agreement between the resistance and the enemy and operations will never stop. If our villages and the houses of our people in the south . . . are bombed, we will respond with Katyusha rockets.'

Hizbollah gunmen fired at an Israeli patrol on Monday in their first attack on Israel's forces in south Lebanon since the ceasefire. No casualties were reported.

The attacks are a message to the Lebanese authorities as well as to Israel. That Hizbollah had no intention of suspending operations became clear after the meetings in Tehran in the past few days between the Hizbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

One declared strategic aim of Israel's operation in south Lebanon was to encourage the Lebanese government to do more to extend its new- found authority to the south to curb Hizbollah's freedom of action. Lebanese efforts to send troops to the south have met a rather more formidable obstacle: Syria. Syria was miffed that Lebanon should take such a step without first obtaining the green light from Damascus. Syria has always insisted that no party - Lebanese, Palestinian or whatever - should take action which could threaten its security interests and bring about an Israeli intervention at a time not of Syria's choosing. This explains why President Elias Hrawi of Lebanon was summoned to Damascus on Monday to be brought to heel.

Political sources said that President Hafez al-Assad told Mr Hrawi that a large deployment of Lebanese troops could lead to a confrontation between the army and Hizbollah guerrillas and strengthen Israel's long-standing demand for security arrangements with Lebanon.

In the end, a symbolic force of 300 soldiers was sent to four of the 70 villages in the zone held by peace-keepers of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon.

In their reports of the meetings the state-controlled media in Syria said that the two countries agreed to put the Middle East peace process back on track. State-run Radio Damascus said in a commentary that Arabs had experienced a 'relative rise in spirit' about the peace process.

The note of hope underlines the fact that, for Syria, the peace process could not be derailed by Israel's incursion into Lebanon, which killed 147 people and drove 300,000 from their homes. The US and Russia, as co- sponsors, have invited Israel and the Arab parties to the 11th round of talks on Middle East peace in Washington at the end of the month.