Israelis threaten strikes on Lebanon

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The Independent Online

The tracks of blood ran back from the Israeli border, back over the sand and rocks, the pathetic remnants of Palestinian flags and pictures of the Al-Aqsa mosque flapping like dead birds on the frontier wire.

The tracks of blood ran back from the Israeli border, back over the sand and rocks, the pathetic remnants of Palestinian flags and pictures of the Al-Aqsa mosque flapping like dead birds on the frontier wire.

Two unarmed Palestinians had been shot dead by the Israelis as they tried to climb the wire to the country they still call "Palestine", another 15 wounded, among them stone throwers; but in Lebanon, Israel's killing of Palestinians, far from being routine like the West Bank, was bound to spring a trap.

And within hours, Hizbollah guerrillas - following their routine of attacking Israel whenever civilians are killed in Lebanon - poured mortar and rocket fire on to an Israeli army outpost 20 miles away on the occupied Golan Heights. The result: three Israeli soldiers, after enduring 15 minutes of intense bombardment, surrendered to the guerrillas. Israel's nightmare - of its own men imprisoned by its most ferocious enemy - had been fulfilled. And last night the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, was threatening "forceful action" to defend Israel's northern border.

Nor can there be much doubt why the Hizbollah were so keen, once Israel provided the excuse, to capture the soldiers. There are at least 19 Lebanese prisoners held in Israel's jails, most of them hostages for Israeli servicemen who have gone missing in Lebanon over the past 15 years. Among Israel's prisoners are Sheikh Abdul-Karim Obeid, kidnapped by the Israelis in southern Lebanon more than a decade ago, and Mustafa Dirani, a prominent Shia militia leader.

Two killings on the Lebanese border, therefore - the first of their kind since Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon last May - have substantially increased the momentum of conflict across the region. Last night, Mr Barak also demanded that the Lebanese government stop "hostile activities" on their border - without explaining why his soldiers had fired live rounds at stone throwers rather than rubber bullets or tear gas.

The Beirut authorities - as usual, taking their cue from "Sister Syria" - have no interest in protecting Israel's northern border, despite constant Israeli threats to retaliate by attacking Lebanon's infrastructure. Syria wants the return of the Golan Heights before Israel is allowed a quiet northern frontier. The scene thus appears to be set for a new drama in southern Lebanon.

There were a few signs yesterday that the confrontation on the Lebanese-Israeli border had been pre-planned. Police vehicles were seen in the area shortly before the arrival of 15 bus loads of Palestinian refugees, some of whom walked down a long road, littered with massive cement blocks, to the Israeli frontier wire. According to Lebanese eye-witnesses, the Palestinians then threw stones over the border but, the moment some of them attempted to climb the wire, Israeli troops fired bullets at them.

Why the Israelis cannot control unarmed demonstrators without killing them remains a mystery to Western military officers. But open fire they did, from an outpost on the border and also reportedly from concealed positions in a forest on the other side.Those bullets - followed by the screams of the wounded - led at once to the Hizbollah's attack, the reported capture of the three Israeli soldiers and Mr Barak's latest threat; a quantum leap in the Middle East conflict which neither the Lebanese nor the Israelis can afford.

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