Rocket attack raises stakes in border zone

Israel was anxious last night to avert an escalation of violence across the Lebanese border following the first Katyusha rocket attack on Israeli civilians for 16 months.

The ground-to-ground rockets hit a synagogue in the northern town of Kiryat Shmona during early-morning prayers. A woman passer-by was lightly wounded by flying glass. Hundreds of trippers cancelled weekend visits to Galilee.

Under a deal which ended Israel's Grapes of Wrath operation last year, Israel and the Hizbollah Shia militia agreed not to target civilian populations. Until yesterday, Hizbollah had kept its side of the bargain, though the low-intensity war between the Israeli army and the militia has continued in Israel's self-proclaimed South Lebanese security zone.

The Katyusha raid on long-suffering Kiryat Shmona, where the locals take to their shelters at the first hint of trouble, came at the end of a week of mounting mayhem. Helicopter-borne Israeli commandos killed two Hizbollah chieftains and three of their men.

Hizbollah retaliated by killing four Lebanese civilians and a soldier in the Israeli-sponsored "South Lebanese Army". A multinational monitoring committee is to consider complaints from both sides tomorrow.

The Israelis were encouraged, however, by yesterday's Hizbollah announcement from Beirut that the Islamic Party of God was not responsible for the Katyusha firing on Kiryat Shmona. As one official put it in Jerusalem, "What's important is not whether they are telling the truth, but that they want to cool things down." On the eve of a new initiative by the American Middle East peace co-ordinator, Dennis Ross, Israel too is not looking for a return bout with Hizbollah.

The Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has enough on his plate with the Palestinians, not least because claims that the 30 July suicide bombers, who killed 13 civilians in a Jerusalem market, infiltrated from abroad are looking increasingly plausible. If this is confirmed, it will be much harder for Mr Netanyahu to justify the crushing sanctions he imposed on Palestinian workers and travellers.

Israeli officials are also disturbed by intelligence reports that Iran, Hizbollah's paymaster and principal supplier, has been trying to extend the range of the Katyushas. Up to now, the antiquated Russian rockets have been able to hit only a narrow strip on the Israeli side of the border. Israel would rather not give Hizbollah a pretext for testing any longer- range model, which would increase the population vulnerable to attack and the political pressures that would generate.

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