Israel blames Syria over border deaths: Damascus warned to halt its 'planned escalation' of attacks in south Lebanon

ISRAEL yesterday accused Syria of deliberately stirring up attacks against its forces in south Lebanon, carried out by pro-Iranian and pro-Palestinian militias, warning that its 'response' to the conflict across its northern border was undergoing a major review and could escalate.

It is no coincidence that the renewed violence in south Lebanon, which has left five Israeli soldiers dead and eight wounded in the past four days, comes as progress in the Middle East peace talks has stalled, and as a US envoy is in the region trying to patch things up. Dennis Ross, US co-ordinator for the talks, arrived in Damascus yesterday for discussions with Hafez al-Assad, the Syrian President, carrying a message from Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, warning Mr Assad not to fuel the south Lebanon conflict.

Uri Lubrani, Israel's chief negotiator with Lebanon, said the attacks were a 'planned escalation'. He added: 'This would not happen if Syria did not want it. I am sure this escalation requires different treatment than others until now.'

Syria exercises a large degree of control over militias in south Lebanon, which aim, without any success, to force back the Israeli army and its proxy forces of the South Lebanon Army (SLA), which occupy a narrow strip just north of the Israeli-Lebanese border in what Israel terms its 'security zone'. Israel keeps its forces in south Lebanon as a protective shield for its northern settlements.

Syria has shown in the past that it can fan attacks in the region, when it suits its purpose to play its 'south Lebanon card', to put pressure on Israel for concessions in the talks.

The first of the two recent lethal attacks on Israeli forces was carried out by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, General Command (PFLP-GC,) led by Ahmed Jibril, which is based in Damascus. Israeli helicopters hit back by rocketing a PFLP-GC base south of Beirut. The second attack was carried out by pro-Iranian Hizbollah gunmen, whose arms supplies are protected by Syria.

Israeli warnings of 'new action' in south Lebanon are often repeated, but options are severely limited. A full-scale invasion would destroy the peace process. Commando-style attacks - such as the killing of the Hizbollah leader Sheikh Abbas Moussawi last year - have achieved nothing. Recently, therefore, verbal threats have been the order of the day.

However, concern about the growing severity of the south Lebanon conflict is real in Jerusalem. Israeli analysts say the number of 'terrorist' attacks, and their sophistication, is rising. Whatever Syria's current purposes, Israel's real fear is Iranian involvement. There is new evidence that Hizbollah and the Palestinian factions are co-ordinating their activities under an Iranian-Syrian umbrella, say the analysts. And the gunmen's casualties, as a proportion of Israeli casualties, is now less than 2:1, compared with more than 5:1 in 1990.

(Photograph omitted)