Israel risks peace with double killing

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The Israeli-Hizbollah ceasefire in southern Lebanon was in danger of collapsing last night after Israeli artillery fire killed two more civilians - a Palestinian woman and her son - and Hizbollah fired 18 Katyusha rockets at Israeli forces in retaliation.

The bodies of 50-year-old Laiqa Marmar and her son Ahmed, covered in blood, were brought into the mortuary of the Hammoud hospital in Sidon within minutes of their deaths in an orchard outside the Christian village of Barty, on the edge of the Israeli occupation zone. They had been killed by one of 20 shells fired by the Israelis; Mrs Marmar's 18-year old daughter was seriously wounded.

Their deaths followed a Hizbollah attack on an armoured vehicle belonging to Israel's South Lebanon Army militia allies and the Israelis later said - correctly - that they had fired into fields, not into a village. The terms of the April 1996 truce forbid Israelis or Hizbollah to fire at each other from, or towards, civilian areas of Lebanon.

But the farm on which the Marmars were working was scarcely a war zone, and Lebanese delegates to the ceasefire committee intend to add the names of Laiqa and Ahmed Marmar to that of Ahmed Sweidan, the elderly farmer killed by Israeli fleshette shells on Saturday, when the committee meets at the UN headquarters at Naqqoura today.

There are growing fears in the south of Lebanon that the Hizbollah will fire Katyusha rockets over the border into Israel if the committee does not unequivocally condemn Israel for recent shelling in which at least 15 civilians have also been wounded - including a boy who lost his eye when Israeli artillery batteries retaliated for the killing of an Israeli officer 11 days ago.

Three of the 18 Katyushas fell inside Israeli yesterday. It was in just such a way that last April's Israeli blitz on southern Lebanon - which cost the lives of almost 200 Lebanese civilians - began.

Almost equally ominously, Israel's "Voice of the South" radio station, broadcasting from the occupied area, yesterday quoted the head of the Israeli army's northern command as saying that the Hizbollah were targeting civilians while Israeli troops were showing the "utmost restraint" in not firing upon civilians. A similar quotation was broadcast before the April 1996 bombardment.

The truth is that while the Hizbollah have wounded Lebanese civilians inside the occupation zone - another civilian was hurt in an attack on the SLA yesterday - eight of the nine deaths in southern Lebanon over the past 15 months have been caused by Israeli forces.

But truth in southern Lebanon is worth as little as human life and Israel's military occupation is becoming ever more tenuous as large numbers of its proxy SLA mercenaries are defecting to Beirut. In one village in the Israeli occupation zone, only six of the original 32 SLA men are still working for the Israelis; the rest have fled or been killed in Hizbollah attacks.

At night, the SLA tune in to Hizbollah's radio station in the hope that it will warn them of imminent assaults. So distrustful are the Israelis of their own SLA militiamen that they imprison their local mercenaries in a room at their gun emplacements - with a guard on the door - whenever a senior Israeli officer visits the front lines. SLA men are now paid between $500 and $600 a month - but complain that they are often paid in forged notes.