Lebanon on brink of war with Israel

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The Independent Online

Lebanon was on the verge of all-out war last night - perhaps drawing in tens of thousands of Syrian troops - after Israel unilaterally withdrew from the 1996 ceasefire agreement and lost yet another of its soldiers to Hizbollah guerrillas. Israel's decision, which in effect converts the south of Lebanon, with its large civilian population, into a free-fire zone, followed a night-long blitz by Israel of Lebanon's main power stations.

Lebanon was on the verge of all-out war last night - perhaps drawing in tens of thousands of Syrian troops - after Israel unilaterally withdrew from the 1996 ceasefire agreement and lost yet another of its soldiers to Hizbollah guerrillas. Israel's decision, which in effect converts the south of Lebanon, with its large civilian population, into a free-fire zone, followed a night-long blitz by Israel of Lebanon's main power stations.

In its second night of aerial retaliation for the death of its soldiers, Israel's military aircraft attacked a Hizbollah office in the southern port city of Tyre and targeted a village in a mountainous guerrilla stronghold inland, security officials said.

Helicopter gunships unleashed three air-to-surface missiles Tuesday night, blasting the top floor of an 11-storey building on a seaside residential neighborhood of Tyre, 15 miles north of the Israeli border.

Despite condemnation by the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, and a warning from Syria that the air raids - which wounded 17 civilians and hit three switching stations outside Beirut, Tripoli and Baalbek - were striking at the heart of the "peace" process, Israel seemed intent on a new military adventure in southern Lebanon after suffering six fatalities among its occupation force in the country within two weeks.

The 1996 ceasefire agreement created a monitoring group of the US, France, Syria, Israel and Lebanon after theIsraeli massacre of more than a hundred Lebanese civilians in the Lebanese village of Qana. The agreement was specifically set up to safeguard civilian lives.

The Israeli assault early yesterday was a demonstration of how grievously it could hurt Lebanon and an admission of defeat at the hands of the Lebanese Hizbollah guerrilla movement, which is cutting down Israeli occupation soldiers at the rate of three a week. Destroying the infrastructure of Lebanon - the country is likely to suffer a year of power cuts as a result - was a clear acknowledgement that Israel cannot halt the attacks on its occupation army by striking directly at the Hizbollah.

And with Israel still demanding a peace treaty and security guarantees from Syria before it hands back the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, Damascus has little reason to urge the Hizbollah to end itsassaults.

The latest Israeli soldier to die in southern Lebanon was killed by a hand-held Saggar missile fired by a Hizbollah guerrilla at an Israeli position at Dabshe, in the occupation zone. The massive air raids a few hours earlier were supposed to have taught Lebanon and Syria that such attacks must end - a lesson the Hizbollah simply ignored.

Now the Israelis are threatening a further "lesson" to the Lebanese. "God help us tonight," a Lebanese journalist said yesterday evening as totaldarkness settled once more over the Lebanese capital.

Almost the entire country was without electricity throughout the day, while the Hizbollah said it "reserved the right to retaliate at the appropriate time" for the Israeli raids. Before the attacks, Israel told its tens of thousands of residents south of the Lebanese frontier to stay in underground shelters. The Hizbollah has not so far fired a single rocket in revenge across the border but its statement means Galilee residents will have to stay in their sheltersindefinitely.

A few weeks ago President Hafez Assad of Syria praised the courage and honesty of Ehud Barak, Israel's Prime Minister. But yesterday one of Syria's government-run newspapers was condemning his "racist and criminal policies" for attacks that "have struck the last nail into the coffin of peace".

Most Western nations moved through the familiar liturgy adopted on such occasions - by urging "both sides to exercise restraint". But the French - who had just finished rebuilding one of the stricken power stations after its destruction by Israel last summer - vigorously condemned the raids. Barring a miracle, war rather than peace now seems the immediate agenda for the Middle East.

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