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Lebanon's fear: `They are coming'



They came back yesterday, eight Israeli jets flying high over Beirut and the village of Nahme, five miles south of the capital, circling for three hours, taking photographs - or so the Lebanese believed - and prompting UN troops in southern Lebanon to prepare their red alert codes for the next few days. "They are coming," a security official said at midday, without suggesting the time or the place. And Shimon Peres, the Israeli Prime Minister, did nothing to lessen Lebanon's fears.

In just 10 days, Lebanese Hizbollah guerrillas have killed five Israeli occupation soldiers and wounded another 11, two of them seriously, inside southern Lebanon, their latest attack - a roadside bomb against an Israeli convoy - coinciding with the Sharm el-Sheikh "anti-terrorism" conference. "We will draw the appropriate conclusions," Mr Peres said yesterday. "We have decided not to dance to their tune and we will decide how to deal with these provocations." But Hizbollah also knows the tune and is well aware that the Israelis will retaliate.

Not only has Hizbollah attacked Israeli troops in the occupation zone but it is now warning of a more bloody war in the south of the country. "The struggle against Israel is going to get bigger, more powerful and more effective," Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader, told journalists in Beirut. "Clinton's threats against the Hizbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad will only increase our determination."

President Clinton, visiting Israel on Thursday, chose to include the Hizbollah as "enemies of peace" even though the pro-Iranian guerrilla movement - while it maintains a ferocious resistance war in southern Lebanon - was not involved in the suicide bombings which prompted the summit.

The conference, according to Sayed Nasrallah, was held "to terrorise those who struggle against Israeli occupation and American hegemony in the region and to save Peres' head in the peace process". Arabs who participated in the summit - including Egypt, Jordan, the PLO, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Algeria, Oman and Yemen - were "slaves paying homage to their American master."

But where will the Israelis strike? Lebanon, as Israel knows all too well from its disastrous 1982 invasion of the country, is a trap for all foreign armies. A land assault would meet fierce Hizbollah resistance; air attacks - especially on the southern suburbs of Beirut where Hizbollah has offices - would incur the risk of massive civilian casualties. In the old days, when the PLO was Israel's enemy and fought from southern Lebanon, Israeli offensives would drive their enemies northwards. But this is no longer the case.

Hizbollah guerrillas have been moving into the south to fight the Israelis and any action there would bring Hizbollah's usual retaliation: showers of Katyusha rockets on to northern Israel, an event which would not exactly encourage Israelis living there to vote for Mr Peres' Labour Party. A raid from the sea by Israeli troops on guerrilla bases near Nahme - held not by the Hizbollah but by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command - cannot be ruled out. But the last time the Israelis staged such an assault, in 1987, it turned into a fiasco when the Palestinians fought back, killing an Israeli colonel and wounding several of his comrades.

Syria's 20,000 troops in Lebanon will almost certainly not be attacked; however stalled the Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations in the US may be, Mr Peres will not want to offend President Assad or provoke a total break in the talks.

What the Lebanese are asking is how far the US will go in encouraging Israel to strike back in Lebanon for suicide bombings staged by men from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It would be naive to think that US "anti- terrorist" aid for Israel stops at technical assistance. Have the Americans given a green light to Mr Peres to hit at the organisation which once held western hostages in Lebanon? And if so - given the fact that only a full-scale invasion would put them on the defensive - to what end?