The danger of an Israeli assault on southern Lebanon increased dramatically last night after a lone Hizbollah suicide bomber attacked Israeli occupation troops in the south of the country, killing an officer and wounding seven other soldiers.
The attack - in which the Hizbollah man walked up to an Israeli motorcade in the village of Taibe and detonated explosives strapped to his waist - came only hours after the US ambassador to Israel urged the Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, not to strike into Lebanon.
According to Israeli press reports, Martin Indyk, the US ambassador, telephoned Mr Peres and asked for restraint while America asked the Syrian president Hafez al-Assad to restrain Hizbollah. Syria reportedly promised to calm the area, while denying that it controlled Hizbollah actions.
One report from Taibe last night said that Major General Amiram Levin, the Israeli army's northern commander, may have been wounded in the ambush, although there was no confirmation of this from Israel. The officers were driving in four cars - two military and two civilian - when the Hizbollah man struck. In retaliation, Israeli howitzers, artillery, tanks and helicopter gunships shelled Lebanese villages north of the occupied area.
In Beirut, a Hizbollah spokesman made it clear that the assault had been in revenge for the "anti-terrorist" summit in Egypt last week at which Mr Peres blamed Iran for the Hamas suicide bombings which killed 58 civilians in Israel. "In response to the Sharm el-Sheikh summit and to those who sleep on the doorsteps of the White House," - an apparent reference to the PLO leader Yasser Arafat - "a mujahed [holy fighter] attacked an enemy convoy today," the spokesman said over the Hizbollah's Voice of the Oppressed radio station.
While Iran has repeatedly said that it does not condone attacks on civilians, it has made no secret of its financial support for the Hizbollah.
Rafiq Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister, had pleaded only a day before the suicide attack for Lebanon to be spared any Israeli reprisals for the Hamas bombings, condemning bellicose statements against Israel emerging from the Palestinian refugee camps as "unacceptable". At one point, he mentioned a television videotape of Palestinian children supposedly training in Sidon to be "human bombs" in preparation for suicide attacks.
"We oppose such childish actions and denounce this kind of behaviour," Mr Hariri said. "Palestinians are visitors [sic] here and they should behave accordingly ... In future, we will respond with measures that protect Lebanon's interests."
The fact is, however, that the Hizbollah are a Lebanese guerrilla group, supported - if sometimes half-heartedly - by the Lebanese authorities and assisted by the Syrians, whose 20,000 troops in Lebanon symbolise the control that Damascus exercises over the country. It was the first Hizbollah suicide bombing this year, but is unlikely to be the last.
Israel faces a dilemma in responding to Hizbollah attacks. It would like to punish the Lebanese guerrillas, but does not want to suffer further casualties. It also suspects that Hizbollah will have dispersed in expectation of reprisals. Mr Peres said: "We do not usually launch operations when there is an air of expectancy." He admitted that he had not authorised a strike last week because President Clinton was in Israel.
At the same time Mr Peres, who faces an election on 29 May, does not want to appear weak in the face of continuing Israeli casualties in Lebanon.
The guerrillas recently changed their tactics, according to Israeli sources. They say that Hizbollah started operating two or three well-trained companies inside the Israeli-controlled zone operating close to the Israeli border. In a series of carefully planned and successful actions they have killed 6 and wounded almost 30 Israeli soldiers in three weeks.