Israelis launch strikes in Lebanon

The vanishing peace: Months after Netanyahu came to power, the Middle East slides back to confrontation

Six months after Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in as Prime Minister, Israel is rumbling from a prospect of peace towards violent confrontation with its Arab neighbours.

In the north, ambushes, air strikes and exchanges of fire in southern Lebanon, with a steady trickle of casualties on both sides, are settling into a daily routine. Even the assiduous Americans are no longer trying to bring Israel and Syria back to the negotiating table. It is considered an achievement that they have stopped rattling sabres at each other.

On the Palestinian front, Yasser Arafat is increasingly frustrated at what he sees as Mr Netanyahu's retreat from the Oslo accords. The Prime Minister's cheer-leaders have ceased predicting that an agreement to redeploy Israeli troops from Hebron, the last West Bank city still under occupation, is just around the corner.

Relations between Israel and the two Arab states with which it has signed peace treaties - Egypt and Jordan - are becoming cooler by the day. King Hussein of Jordan, who last summer urged Arab leaders to give Mr Netanyahu time to prove his peaceful intentions, is openly disenchanted. Other Arab rulers, in the Gulf and in North Africa, who established trade or quasi- diplomatic ties, are keeping their distance.

For the first time since Israel's ill-starred Operation Grapes of Wrath seven months ago, Katyusha rockets were fired into northern Israel from Lebanon on Friday night. George Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which killed an Israeli mother and son in a West Bank drive- by shooting two days earlier, claimed responsibility. Although no casualties were reported, Israel has lodged a complaint with the international monitoring groups set up after the spring ceasefire .

On Saturday, an Israeli convoy ran into a Hizbollah ambush in the self- proclaimed south Lebanese security zone. The Shia militia wounded two people, including Israel's regional commander, Brigadier-General Eli Amitai. In the ensuing fight, two Hizbollah were killed. A third Lebanese fighter was gunned down by an Israeli mopping-up team yesterday.

Later yesterday Israel retaliated with air strikes on Hizbollah targets north-east of the security zone. The sites, outside populated areas, were said to have been used by Hizbollah either as staging posts for attacks or as ammunition stores.

Late last night, Mr Netanyahu attempted to ease the tension by sending two envoys to meet Mr Arafat and later speaking on the telephone to the Palestinian leader to offer what the Israeli Prime Minister described as "a message of peace".

In an earlier interview with the mass-circulation Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, Mr Arafat accused Mr Netanyahu of playing with fire by restoring incentives to settle. "Netanyahu knows that this is a time bomb," he said.

"If King Hussein is speaking as he is about Netanyahu," he added, "we have apparently reached the hour of crisis. In the end, it will be impossible to stop the downward flight. After the dead are laid to rest, we shall be standing in the same place."

t Dubai (Reuters) - Iran's supreme leader, ignoring President Bill Clinton's assertion that he has not yet concluded who was responsible for a bomb that killed 19 Americans in Saudi Arabia last June, said the US was preparing an attack on his country. "The American administration ... has decided to strike," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told Revolutionary Guards. "They did not say so but evidence indicates this."

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