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`Operation news control' is ushered in

It was crude stuff. Through the heavily fortified border post at Metulla marched 30 schoolboys, living in the Israeli occupation zone in south Lebanon, who waved the Israeli flag with its blue Star of David and the Lebanese flag with its green cedar tree.

"They will be taken from here by buses to the centre of the country for a couple of days of what may be called rest and recreation," said Colonel Shaul Camisa, the head of civil assistance in Israel's liaison unit for Lebanon. He said the boys represented "all the various ethnic groups and religious denominations in Lebanon".

The children themselves cheerfully admitted that they came from a more select group, not entirely typical of the 180,000 people in the occupation zone. They said they were the children of security officials or of members of the South Lebanon Army, the Israeli-controlled militia. They have twice before been on such trips to Israel.

Israel is eager to show that it is doing something for the 400,000 Lebanese displaced by its bombardment. In addition to the jaunt for the children, Colonel Camisa said people ordered by Israel to leave their villages nine miles away on the other side of the Israeli zone were free to seek refuge within the Israeli lines.

In the wake of the 1982/4 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which left 12,000 Lebanese dead, and Operation Accountability in 1993 which killed some 129 Lebanese, Israel is eager to show that it is concerned about civilian casualties. Spokesmen stress that no village is attacked until it is certain its inhabitants have fled.

David Kreislman, an official of the government press office, said Israel has limited interest in letting the foreign media go to Israeli military positions. He explained frankly that Israel wanted to avoid television news stories in which film of an Israeli heavy artillery piece firing a shell was "juxtaposed" with a shot from Lebanon of an ambulance taking people to hospital.

In many respects the Israeli handling of the media during Operation Grapes of Wrath is similar to that of the US in the Gulf war. In both cases public relations were given high priority. Briefings by senior generals were frequent. Video films, taken by attacking aircraft, of guided missiles and bombs striking their targets were shown immediately on television.

At Marjayoun, the Israeli military headquarters three miles into Lebanon, it is less easy to see sure signs of Israeli military success. As we crossed the border at Metulla yesterday there was the thump of a Katyusha rocket slamming into a hillside. The previous day Hizbollah fired 70 rockets, the highest number since the operation began.

On the flat roof of the Marjayoun headquarters Colonel Amal Assad, a senior Israeli commander, said that the operation was succeeding and in future, he added somewhat ambiguously, "there will be no Katyushas in the same quantity".

He said that in the town of Nabatiyeh, the tops of whose houses could be seen across the ridge line, there was "almost nobody left". He stressed that "if there are any houses destroyed they are terrorist houses. We haven't damaged any civilian houses."

It may be that Israel is achieving its military goals, but it has not prevented the Katyushas landing in Galilee, and the Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, is pledged to stop them without a ground offensive.

Colonel Assad, by origin a Druze, said that there had been no ground fighting between Hizbollah and the Israeli army or the SLA militia since the operation started. This could be because Hizbollah is hard hit but, if this is the case, why are so many Katyushas falling on the Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona? A more likely explanation is that the guerrillas are biding their time.

Meanwhile Mr Peres continues to show confidence by saying he wants a written agreement with Syria, guaranteeing that Hizbollah will stop its Katyusha attacks, before he calls off the operation. Hizbollah has rejected a US initiative linking a ceasefire to long term talks about a full Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon.