Syrians called to account: Charles Richards, Middle East Editor, explains the latest bout of violence in south Lebanon

THE ISRAELIS have called it Operation Accountability. But they were not trying to balance the books.

In retaliation for attacks on Israeli targets that have killed more than eight Israelis this month there have been three days of the most intense bombardments by air, land and sea of Lebanese and Palestinian groups in Lebanon since Israel's ill-fated invasion in 1982. They were far more than an eye for an eye. The message is clear. Those who take up arms against the Israelis must pay a price for such impudence, and the Israeli war machine is now extracting it.

The main targets of the Israeli action have been bases of the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command, of Ahmed Jibril, and of the militant Lebanese Shia Muslim group, Hizbollah. Both are supported by Syria. And the Israelis are telling the Syrians: it is up to you to rein in these groups.

Hizbollah remain defiant. The secretary-general, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, warned Israel yesterday that it would pay dearly for its offensive, saying his guerrillas would fight to the end. 'We tell Rabin he is illusioned (sic) if he thinks he can crush the Islamic resistance. We promise him he will pay a dear price,' the Sheikh said.

There is a curious symmetry in Israel's action with its 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Then the declared aim was to secure peace for the northern settlements of Israel from attacks by armed Palestinians. The current operation is designed to uproot Hizbollah from southern Lebanon. But Hizbollah is different from the Palestinian groups. It is above all Lebanese, and forms the bulk of Lebanon's resistance against Israel's presence there.

Israel has maintained a military presence along a strip to protect its northern boundary (the 1949 armistice line with Lebanon) since its first limited incursion in 1978. After its withdrawal following the second, 1982 invasion, it again kept control of a chunk of Lebanese territory, which it called its security zone, protected by the South Lebanon Army (SLA). This is a militia trained, paid and controlled by Israel.

The Israelis maintain that the 'security zone' is a necessary buffer to protect Israel from attack from armed groups. The SLA in effect act as human sandbags. Critics, namely the international community, and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) argue that the continued Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon itself has provoked the Lebanese resistance which has led to the spate of recent attacks. Whether the 'security zone' absorbs fire, or draws it, is a subject of debate. It has not eliminated all attacks on Israel's northern flank. But Israeli strategists are convinced it has contained them.

Israel says it is mounting a punitive operation to retaliate for attacks on settlements in northern Israel. But the violence began on 8 July when PFLP-GC gunmen killed two Israeli soldiers in south Lebanon. In the following days, Hizbollah fighters killed more Israeli troops, in what they regard as legitimate acts of resistance. Israeli warplanes counterattacked, and in response Hizbollah fired Katyusha rockets on Israel proper. These prompted the Israeli retaliation.

According to some perverse Levantine logic, the recent attacks by Syria-backed groups in Lebanon on Israeli targets might actually demonstrate Syria's commitment to the peace process. Syria has never seen a contradiction, in talking peace with the Israelis in Washington and permitting or encouraging attacks on Israeli targets by groups under its writ. Rather, allowing such attacks improves Syria's negotiating position. If the talks are going badly, Syria will demonstrate that it can exercise military alternatives.

But the attacks are not meant to sabotage the peace process. The potential gains of a settlement for both sides are too great. Syria and Israel want a broad agreement to assure their security needs. By the standards of Middle East wars, this violent cycle is merely a bloody skirmish. The violence is a symptom of frustrated hopes in the peace process, not a cause of them.

(Photograph omitted)