Netanyahu delivers his message to Hizbollah

ISRAEL AND Lebanon began burying their dead yesterday after a night of bombardment and counter-bombardment that killed at least seven Lebanese and two Israelis and wounded dozens more.

Both sides of the volatile border were reported quiet during the day, but Israeli and Lebanese leaders threatened massive retaliation if the other renewed hostilities. The overnight exchanges were the most severe escalation in the war of attrition between Israel and the Hizbollah Shia militia since Israel's Grapes of Wrath offensive three years ago.

"The Israel Defence Forces will not agree to be victimised by salvos of Katyusha rockets fired at Israeli civilians," the chief of staff, Lieutenant- General Shaul Mofaz, told reporters. "Hopefully, the message of our actions has been understood. We have no wish for escalation, but if Hizbollah resumes its murderous attacks, we shall retaliate a second time in force."

Israel attacked after weeks of mounting frustration, among the army and residents of the northern border, during which Hizbollah humiliated Israeli troops and their surrogate South Lebanese Army. Thursday's Katyusha barrage on Israel towns and villages was the last straw, according to the Israeli military.

In Kiryat Shmonah, a favourite Katyusha target where two civilian relief workers were killed, one resident, Nissim Azulai, insisted: "The time has come to find a solution. Things can't go on like this."

The military complained that they were hamstrung by the absence of a government willing to take decisions in the waiting period between Benjamin Netanyahu's defeat in the mid-May elections and prime minister-elect Ehud Barak's completion of his new coalition.

For the first time in six months, Israeli warplanes bombed strategic targets deep inside Lebanon - two power stations serving Beirut, a communications centre south of the capital, a guerrilla base under a Syrian umbrella in the eastern Bekaa valley, and road bridges linking Southern Lebanon to the north.

The air force was delivering a calibrated message to Hizbollah, the Lebanese and Syrian governments. Mr Netanyahu said after an emergency meeting of his caretaker Cabinet on Thursday night: "Both Hizbollah and the Lebanese government must realise that Israel will respond forcefully to any attack against the residents of northern Israel. If there is no quiet in northern Israel, there will be no quiet in Lebanon."

The targets were selected to inflict damage on the Lebanese infrastructure, while limiting civilian casualties. Israel acknowledges that Hizbollah (the pro-Iranian "Party of God") is nobody's stooge, but it contends that Lebanon and its Syrian overlord can restrict the guerrillas' freedom of operation. The air strikes were a warning of the consequences if they do not.

Mr Barak, who has promised to pull the 1,500-strong Israeli garrison out of the South Lebanese occupation zone within one year, distanced himself from the Israeli bombardments. Since he has not yet taken office, he insisted that Mr Netanyahu must decide.

The Labour leader is eager to resume peace negotiations with Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians. He evidently prefers not to be branded a warmonger before he even gets to the table. Aides hinted that he regretted the air strikes. Yet he could have applied the brakes if he had so wished. Earlier this month he blocked a multimillion-dollar air force order for American F-16 jets because he wanted to be involved in the choice between them and the rival F-15. The caretaker Defence Minister, Moshe Arens, meekly complied.

Some observers are suggesting that Mr Netanyahu was handing his successor a poisoned chalice in Lebanon. But it is just as likely that Mr Barak, a hawkish retired general who campaigned on his security record, was happy to let the lame-duck Likud team do the dirty work for him.

The escalation in the north has cracked a whip over the coalition negotiators. Mr Barak now recognises the urgency of establishing an authoritative administration. The first deals were signed early yesterday with two main partners, the National Religious Party and the Russian immigrants' Yisrael B'aliyah. Others are expected to fall into place next week.

Two of Mr Barak's most vociferous opponents in the May election - the right-wing Likud and the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas - are still negotiating, but their prospects of joining thecoalition are diminishing.

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