Hizbollah says raid is 'lesson for Israel': Killing of soldiers by Shia militants shows up failure of last month's bombardment of southern Lebanon

THE attacks yesterday by Hizbollah on Israeli soldiers, like the one earlier this week on posts of Israel's proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army, have demonstrated the failure of last month's Israeli bombardment of Lebanon. The attacks show Hizbollah has neither been contained militarily nor curbed diplomatically through pressure exerted by the Lebanese government, Syria or Iran.

The supposed rapprochement between Israel and Syria after last month's ceasefire, with Syria reportedly agreeing to restrain Hizbollah, also appeared to have been soured by the killings, as Israel again accused Damascus of aiding the guerrillas. Only two weeks ago, Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, brought 'hopeful' messages to Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, from Syria's President Hafez al-Assad, which spurred faint optimism about the peace process.

The comments of the Hizbollah deputy chief, Sheikh Naim Qassem, that the operation yesterday was a 'lesson for Israel' were designed to portray his men as legitimate national resistance fighters, struggling to end the Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory. The international community too, through UN Security Council resolution 425 of 1978, insists that Israel withdraw behind the 1949 armistice line, to allow first UN forces, and then the Lebanese government, to deploy down to the southernmost point of Lebanon. UN officials have expressed their confidence that once Israeli troops withdraw, there will be no reason for resistance, which will end.

There has been little public debate in Israel over the wisdom of maintaining an Israeli presence in south Lebanon. Ten years ago, by contrast, there was a widespread popular revolt against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. As the Israeli forces withdrew, they were harried by Shia fighters who caused half the Israeli casualties of the war. Most Israelis, however, deem it necessary to keep a cordon sanitaire in south Lebanon as a buffer against attacks on settlements in northern Israel. There is, of course, a price to pay, as yesterday showed.

But Israel does not see its presence as the cause of the attacks. It says Hizbollah is intent on attacking Israel to sabotage the peace process. And it blames Iran for directing Hizbollah operations and Syria for allowing it to launch attacks from territory under Syrian army control. Israel points out that in the past few days the Hizbollah leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, has been in Tehran garnering support from Iranian leaders and that over the past 10 years Iranian revolutionary guards actively have been spreading the late Ayatollah Khomeini's virulently anti-Israeli ideology among the Shia villages of southern Lebanon.

Hizbollah, however, is neither completely homegrown, nor totally directed from outside. If in some future arrangement between Israel and Lebanon the Israelis withdrew their forces, Hizbollah could well see much of its support wither away.

Conor Cruise O'Brien, page 20

(Photograph and map omitted)