Southern Lebanon on brink of war

Civilians in line of fire as Hizbollah and Israelis step up hostilities

Just 16 months after Israel's bloody "Grapes of Wrath" operation left almost 200 Lebanese civilians dead, history is repeating itself in southern Lebanon. Lebanese civilians are cut to pieces by Israeli shells or blown up by bombs - for which the Israelis and Hizbollah guerrillas blame each other - while pro-Israeli militiamen and Hizbollah members die almost daily. Israel yesterday promised to revenge Hizbollah "terror" after two rockets - which Hizbollah say they never fired - exploded over the Israeli border, slightly wounding an Israeli woman. This is how it all began last time.

The horror of another war in southern Lebanon is thus matched only by its predictability - and, as usual, the rhetoric was coming yesterday almost as fast as the shellfire. Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader, and Moshe Fogel, the Israeli government spokesman, were roaring like lions in Beirut and Jerusalem - far enough from the battlefield to know that they were unlikely to be among the casualties - each vowing to strike back at the other for their respective attacks on civilians.

With equal predictability, radio and television coverage focused on the two Katyushas which hit Israel as the "start" of a new crisis - ignoring the fact that the crisis has been building over the past month with a series of Lebanese deaths, most of whom were civilians.

Sayed Nasrallah's remarks at a press conference in Beirut were not likely to dispel the pessimism. The south Lebanon cease-fire - backed by a five- power truce committee - was no longer protecting civilians, he said. "We say that returning to use other means to protect civilians has become necessary - what remains is the right timing and wisdom to safeguard civilians." But he did not say if these "other means" meant further Katyusha attacks on Israel, and denied that the two missiles fired yesterday morning came from the Hizbollah. When his organisation used missiles, he said, they claimed them. "We're not the kind who launch rockets at night and hide in the morning."

The Israelis reported that a synagogue was damaged by one of the rockets - which may have been fired by Palestinians - and that the injured Israeli woman had been hit by pieces of glass. In fact, over the past 12 months, civilian deaths - at least 20 have been recorded - have been entirely confined to Lebanese, most of them killed by Israel or its "South Lebanon Army" militia allies, although the mother and her two children killed by a bomb at Merkaba on Thursday may well have been the victims of a Hizbollah booby-trap aimed at the Israelis.

There might be some reason to hope for an end to hostilities if the Syrian- Israeli-Lebanese-American-French cease-fire committee - which is to meet again tomorrow - was taken more seriously.

At the most recent session, however, the Lebanese delegate spent some time arguing that the Israelis were "trivialising" the committee by raising minor incidents, while his Israeli opposite number spent an equal amount of time complaining that the Lebanese delegate was trying to "show off" to the new chairmen of the committee. This, needless to say, is not the stuff of which peace is made.

It is not difficult to find reasons for the frustration of both sides. In the occupation zone, the Israelis - losing soldiers weekly to Hizbollah attacks while their "SLA" allies are deserting or passing information to the Hizbollah - are holding a militarily untenable area with little purpose or future.

The occupation zone cannot stop rocket attacks on Israel - as the April 1996 war proved all too vividly - but cannot be abandoned without loss of face by a right-wing Likud government. The Hizbollah, after the killing of five of their men - including their head of guerrilla operations for Nabatea - by Israeli booby-trap bombs this week, have sworn to retaliate.

Civilian casualties have been treated with the deepest cynicism. When Israeli planes bombed a hill in southern Lebanon this week, killing two farmers, the Israeli military spokesman claimed "accurate hits" on "terrorist targets."

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