Peres warns as rockets strike Israeli town

War in Lebanon: New Katyusha attacks and renewed aerial bombardment escalate crisis, as refugees stream north from Tyre

PATRICK COCKBURN

Kiryat Shmona

The Katyusha rockets which fell on the Israeli border town of Kiryat Shmona early yesterday morning led to an immediate escalation in the crisis in Lebanon. Within hours Israel was threatening to bombard 41 Lebanese villages just north of the Israeli occupation zone inside Lebanon.

"We recommend that all people living in areas from which Katyushas were launched at Israeli villages now leave," said Lieutenant General Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, the Israeli chief of staff.

Sitting beside him in the mess hall of an Israeli military base a few miles from the border, Shimon Peres, the Prime Minister, added; " If they thought that the Katyusha is a superior weapon then we will have to remind them that we have missiles that are better." He said that if Hizbollah, the Lebanese guerrilla movement, thought that Kiryat Shmona was an inviting target and a point of Israeli weakness, then they would discover that the same was true of Beirut.

The deadline for Lebanese villagers to flee was first given at 2.30pm and later extended by two hours. United Nations officers in south Lebanon estimated that Israeli artillery had fired 2,000 shells during the first part of the day, presumably directed at areas outside the 41 villages. It became clear during the morning that an early casualty of the mounting crisis was the understanding, brokered by the US in 1993, under which Israel and Hizbollah pledged to avoid hitting civilian targets.

Overnight Hizbollah had not retaliated for Israeli air raids on Beirut, Baalbek and Tyre the previous day. It seemed possible that they would wait before counter-attacking. Then, shortly after 9am, at least two Katyusha rockets landed in Kiryat Shmona, a nondescript town of 23,000 people. One rocket landed beside a moving car, exploding its petrol tank and badly burning the woman driver.

A second Katyusha landed beside a eucalyptus tree, severing branches and peppering houses on both sides of the road with shrapnel. A shard of the rocket narrowly missed the head of Yitzhak Michaely, a factory worker, who was drinking coffee and reading a book in his flat after returning from taking his family to the safety of Tel Aviv.

"I feel so bad," said Mr Michaely, still looking shaken as he pointed to a hole in the wall at head height. He said he was only saved because he took cover when he heard one rocket explode in the distance, a few seconds before a second blew up across the street.

Mr Michaely had no doubts about what the government should do. "They should go into Lebanon and give them a few good hits." He said there were only 7,000 people left in town.

His neighbour Ilan Petto, a disc jockey, said: "After Peace for Galilee [the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982] there was peace here." This is not strictly true - and the invasion created Hizbollah - but Mr Petto still believes "if we are tough with them, they will stop".

Nobody had any doubts that the new Lebanese crisis will help the right- wing Likud party. Haim Corlikr, 20, said: "Everybody will vote Likud here. Peres talks and doesn't do anything."

Kiryat Shmona is a right-wing town, but this is bad news for Mr Peres 50 days before the Israeli election. When Binyamin Netanyahu, the Likud leader and his rival to be Prime Minister visited Kiryat Shmona earlier in the week he was cheered. The new Likud sticker "Peace with Security" is common in the back windows of cars.

Mr Peres has done his best to avoid military retaliation in Lebanon, but the political costs in a close selection race became insupportable. He cannot afford to look weak or irresolute. He is only just beginning to recover from the political damage caused by the four suicide bombs which killed 62 people in Israel in February and March. The casualties and damage inflicted on Northern Israel this week is slight but they could lose Mr Peres the election.

This explains why the Prime Minister and his Chief of Staff were in Kiryat Shmona within hours of yesterday's Katyusha attack. "What happened this morning did not surprise us," said Mr Peres. He made clear that Lebanon was not going to be allowed to rebuild its economy in peace if Hizbollah attacks continued. He said: "This is an operation against Hizbollah and not Syria." Given that Mr Peres and General Shahak have a soft spoken style it was not immediately apparent that they were outlining a military operation in Lebanon as great as that in 1993 which left over 100 Lebanese dead. Air raids on Beirut were the first since the 1982-84 Israeli invasion.

The visit by Mr Peres was a mixture of a political leader visiting the front line and an election campaign. Much of the local population had moved south and soldiers with loud speakers were telling those who remained to get into bomb shelters, one of which was visited by the Prime Minister. When he stopped briefly by the burned out car, so completely incinerated that it was impossible to discover its original colour, he was heckled. One man shouted: "Peres, we want war." Another said: "Let [General Ariel] Sharon take care of it."

Remarkably, against all the evidence of previous Israeli actions in Lebanon, nobody seemed to doubt that massive use of force would bring Hizbollah to heel.

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