Syria plays Hizbollah peace 'card': Israel's low-key response to death of nine soldiers signals new 'rules of the game' in southern Lebanon

AS THE death toll from the Hizbollah bombing of an Israeli patrol in southern Lebanon rose yesterday to nine, the political and military significance of the attack - and of Israel's muted response - was becoming clear. The deaths dispel any claims that Syria had been persuaded to curb the power of the pro-Iranian Islamic militant group, or give them up as a 'card' to be played in the peace process.

Last month Israel launched a massive bombardment of Lebanon, largely in order to persuade Syria to abandon Hizbollah. In the ceasefire deal that ended the conflict, Israel expressed the hope that Damascus would sever its links with the pro-Iranian group, which operates in southern Lebanon to resist Israel's occupation of a buffer strip on south Lebanese land which Israel calls its 'security zone'.

Syria infuriates Israel by using the Hizbollah militants as a card in the peace process. By stirring up the Hizbollah attacks on Israeli targets from time to time, Syria believes it is in a stronger position to gain concessions from Israel over the Golan Heights, which it wants back. This week's successful Hizbollah action suggests Syria is determined to keep the Hizbollah card in its hand. When the peace talks resume, therefore, the Israeli-Syrian discussions will surely take up their old tracks.

Israel's uncharacteristically low-key response to the deaths suggests, however, that some familiar south Lebanon patterns may have changed.

Normally such an attack would be met, at least, by shelling of Hizbollah strongholds in the villages of the south Lebanon. It would also provoke dire warnings of mass retaliation, megaphoned around the Middle East - or by mass retaliation itself, as happened last month.

Instead Israel this time limited its response to a brief bombing raid in the Bekaa Valley, and restrained comments. There was no shelling of villages. The main reason was given yesterday by the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who said the deaths of the nine soldiers were 'within the new rules of the game' which Israel agreed with Hizbollah, after last month's conflict. The deaths did not breach the ceasefire deal, under which, the Prime Minister appeared to admit, Israel had given up a wide range of military options. The question being asked in Israel yesterday was - if this was the case - was the ceasefire deal not a bad one for Israel, left looking as if its hands have been tied?

It has always been understood that, under the new 'rules of the game' set out in the ceasefire deal, Israel must have agreed to some limits to its actions in southern Lebanon in return for the limited agreement won from the Hizbollah. The Islamic group agreed to stop firing rockets into Israel proper but did not agree to stop attacking the 'security zone'.

In return for quiet in its northern settlements, however, Israel appears to have agreed not to fire at Hizbollah villages - even when the security zone is attacked. Hence yesterday's stunning quiet.

According to military analysts, Israel will not be able to keep to these new rules if many more soldiers are killed in the security zone. 'To fine- tune its response, Israel can keep to the new rules of the game for now. But when the deaths in the security zone reach a new critical mass, the rules will have to be broken. Public opinion will demand it,' said Joseph Alpher, director of the Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies.

For the time being, there is little enthusiasm for another invasion.

(Photograph omitted)