Syria set to end Hizbollah attacks in south Lebanon: Both sides seek pause in fighting during US visit and run-up to peace talks

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The Independent Online
ISRAEL'S bloodiest fortnight of occupation in southern Lebanon in months appears to be about to end - not with a bang but with a diplomatic whimper. As usual, Syria has promised a cooling-off period during which the pro-Iranian Hizbollah militia will be restrained from further attacks on the Israelis, at least until the next round of Middle East peace talks.

Thursday's death of another member of Israel's occupation army - the sixth in southern Lebanon in 14 days - brought further warnings of massive retaliation from the Israeli army, but little more than a barrage of shells and a helicopter attack on the village of Jarjouh east of Sidon.

Hizbollah militiamen later refused to allow journalists to visit the scene of the attack, which was said to be a billet for the Islamic Resistance Movement.

Israel's difficulties in occupying a thin slice of Lebanese territory remain the same. In the old, pre-invasion days before 1982, they could bomb their Palestinian attackers with impunity on the assumption that they would run away. But the Lebanese Hizbollah actively seek combat with the Israelis - and wish to provoke the very retaliatory raids which have been standard Israeli policy in Lebanon for more than 20 years.

Having fired 350 shells at the Hizbollah in revenge for the roadside bombs which killed their soldiers last week, the Israelis again found themselves under Hizbollah mortar attack - losing their sixth man in the process. Put very simply, Israel's old 'eye for an eye' policy no longer works here.

The Americans were anxious to pass on Syrian promises yesterday that resistance activity in southern Lebanon will be lessened. Thursday's Hizbollah shellfire, Syria has explained, was to mark the anniversary of Israel's kidnapping of Sheikh Abdul Karim Obeid, the Hizbollah cleric whom Israel is now holding hostage in return for Ron Arad, an Israeli pilot held prisoner by the Hizbollah.

The intensity of guerrilla operations was also heightened this week by the kidnapping of three Lebanese women from the village of Arnoun by Israel's proxy South Lebanon Army militia.

With Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, due to visit Lebanon as well as Israel and other Arab states at the beginning of next month, neither the Syrians nor the Israelis have any interest in prolonging the battles in southern Lebanon. Mr Christopher originally intended to by-pass Beirut on his visit to the region. He changed his mind when the Shia Muslim speaker of the Lebanese parliament, the Amal leader Nabi Berri, warned that if Mr Christopher refused to come to Lebanon, then Lebanon should refuse to return to Washington for the next round of peace talks.