Israel adopts Nato's bomb doctrine

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OVER THE broken Awali river bridge staggered a young man with a tray bearing a massive strawberry and meringue cake. "Happy Birthday to Fatima Begun" the icing announced. And then another cake. And another. Each cake was three feet by two feet. Same birthday, same lady. "It was made in Zrarieh and we're taking it to Beirut," the young man said. I hoped Fatima Begun wasn't going to eat it all herself. But the Israeli air raids weren't going to diminish this lady's birthday.

On the other bank - after I had staggered down the wooden trellis and pounded up the earthen rampart past a lake of brown Awali water - I found Khaled Mourad, the construction engineer who, within 24 hours, would have a new concrete bridge completed with tunnels to channel the water and little chance that it could be destroyed by a single bomb.

"This is the tactic of Yugoslavia," he said. Too true. Drive down the motorway and you had to keep taking detours around dusty lanes and makeshift metal pontoons. Was I on the road from Belgrade or Beirut? En route to Surdulica or Sidon?

And you can't help wondering, driving south to Tyre after last week's Israeli bombardment - which followed a Hizbollah rocket attack on northern Israel, which followed the wounding of four Lebanese civilians by Israel's proxy "South Lebanon Army" militia - if the Israelis didn't learn something from Nato's bombardment of Serbia. Go for the infrastructure of Lebanon, the bridges, the electricity switching stations.

And if civilians die - as they did, nine of them, five of them firemen - who is going to complain after Nato's massive "errors"? If Nato can kill 86 people and call them "collateral damage", who are we to blame Israel for a little "collateral damage" in Lebanon? The Lebanese have understood the message. An Israeli journalist has made much the same point.

But the message here is simple. If Hizbollah fire any more rockets into Israel, then Israel will be free to destroy part of Lebanon. And why did the Hizbollah fire 29 rockets into Israel after the wounding of four civilians? In the past, only the death of Lebanese would prompt such retaliation; now the wounding of civilians provoked a response. And the Israeli reaction was also out of all proportion. Maybe it was Bibi Netanyahu's last throw of the dice, as the Israeli press claims.

But Ehud Barak, the prime minister-elect, has to pull his army out of Lebanon this year. Does he want to withdraw under a truce? Or go out fighting to the border?

Great events have begun in Lebanon. In one month the city of Jezzine has been abandoned by its Israeli occupiers, their militia allies high- tailing it back to the Litani or staying behind to be arrested or freed by the Lebanese government. Hizbollah, fighting to the last moment, simply stopped shooting when the SLA gave up at Jezzine. A delegation from the Hizbollah - funded by Iran, encouraged by Syria - turned up shortly after Jezzine's liberation to assure its largely Christian population that they didn't want a prize because they had forced Israel out. It was for the Lebanese authorities to govern Jezzine, not them. A shrewd move.

And so the Lebanese wait for the next Israeli retreat. Security sources in southern Lebanon suspect the Israelis will hold on to the old Crusader castle at Beaufort until the end, moving their last troops from there across the Litani through Marjayoun to the frontier, taking the hardest SLA men with them, the torturers of Khiam prison, the mafia boys in the militia.

But if the Israelis would like a quiet retreat, the Lebanese have a few conditions of their own. Not only will Syria insist, successfully or otherwise, on a joint Golan-Lebanese withdrawal - since the return of the Israeli- occupied Golan Heights remains Syria's ultimate goal - but the Lebanese will want some resolution to one of their own little problems in Lebanon: the continued presence of 400,000 Palestinian refugees who came - or whose parents or grandparents came - from the part of Palestine that is now northern Israel.

If Israel wishes to pull out of the quagmire of Lebanon, the argument goes, why should not the Lebanese solve their own quagmire by asking for new homes - outside Lebanon - for the Palestinians? The Hizbollah will stop shooting when the last Israeli has left. But will the Palestinians, among whom Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command is closest to the Hizbollah? There is talk of a massive Lebanese army move south when the Israelis go, as well as a vastly reinforced UN peace-keeping force. Yet Sidon, with its great refugee camp of Ein el-Helweh, will remain.

And in Ein el-Helweh, there is trouble. Yasser Arafat's loyalists regularly fight the PLO leader's ferocious opponents; every Palestinian faction is represented in the camp, including Hamas and even Abu Nidal's "Revolutionary Front". The Lebanese daily An Nahar has been frightening its readers with reports of an armed Islamic Algeria-style "Coalition of Partisans" inside the camp - which may be one reason the Lebanese army continues to surround Ein el-Helweh.

There have been murders in Sidon; two beer salesmen on the outskirts of the city, then a policeman and then a Palestinian guerrilla officer and his wife. And then, on 8 June, the most terrible killings of all when two armed men appeared at the window of the local Sidon courthouse - the old two-storey French mandate court building with high walls and heavy shutters - and shot dead the four Lebanese judges in their black robes, in front of policemen, court officials and witnesses. The gunmen blazed away for several minutes and then made their getaway. Was this an attempt to undermine Lebanon's judicial system in the prelude to an Israeli departure? Or part of a feud between two Palestinian factions? The Lebanese army is not going to destroy the refugee camp as the Israelis did in 1982. But did someone want them to try? Mr Arafat still controls the camp of Rashidiyeh outside Tyre. And his opponents have exclusive power in the Palestinian refugee camps of Beirut, Tripoli and Baalbek. But no one controls Ein el-Helweh.

Across the country, the electricity supply flicks on for two or three hours a day after Israel's bombing of the power stations last week. In Tyre, French mobile phones have been temporarily put out of action by Israeli bombing - the Hizbollah switched to a different mobile phone system within hours, the civilians stay disconnected. The president, ex-General Emile Lahoud, demands that Israel pay for the lives of Lebanon's latest "martyrs".

And on the coast road north of Tyre, the Hizbollah have hung a new banner. "Resistance to the last centimetre" it says. Not much hope, then, for a peaceful Israeli withdrawal. The Hizbollah still have plenty of Katyushas, not to mention at least two 122mm artillery pieces - kept in caves, the Lebanese suspect, and moved in container lorries.

Lebanon's power-station workers had better be ready for more repairs. And Khaled Mourad will probably have to rebuild some more bridges. Stand by for Yugoslavia again.