Thousands flee fresh Israeli bombardment

Syrians seen as key to ceasefire
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The Independent Online
Israel ordered a further 30,000 Lebanese villagers to leave their homes or face air and artillery attack yesterday as Katyusha rockets fired by Hizbollah, the Lebanese guerrilla movement, continued to fall on northern Israel.

Israel expects the US to begin diplomatic moves to put pressure on Syria to curb Hizbollah and set the stage for a ceasefire. There are doubts in Jerusalem, however, that President Hafez al-Assad of Syria will be willing to do this.

Despite Israel's overwhelming military superiority Hizbollah is still firing salvoes of rockets into northern Galilee, where they cause few casualties but have led much of the population to flee or live in shelters. Three Israelis were injured yesterday and five were treated for shock.

Shimon Peres, the Prime Minister, has promised to stop the firing of Katyushas but this may not be feasible by use of air and artillery alone. "This has to be decided on the ground," says Dr Dore Gold at the Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv university. "It cannot be decided by air power and videotapes [taken by attacking aircraft]."

The key to resolution of the crisis is Syria, says Dr Gold. Israel denounces Iran as the hidden hand which controls Hizbollah, but this is largely because it has not wanted to demonise Syria with whom it has been negotiating a peace treaty in return for Israel relinquishing the Golan Heights. President Assad may not want to restrain Hizbollah until there is a final deal with Israel.

Major General Moshe Ya'alon, the head of military intelligence, says that if Hizbollah`s ability to fire rockets is diminished then it will strike at Israel with suicide bombers or hang gliders. He added that Iranian embassy staff in Beirut had left for Damascus. The Israeli press says senior officials in Israel have received signals from Damascus that it wants to see a new arrangement in south Lebanon. If no agreement is reached with Syria then there will be pressure on Mr Peres to use ground troops, something he says he is determined not to do. It was he who withdrew Israeli troops in 1985 from all but the far south of the country.

The firepower available to the two sides is very unbalanced. A spokesman for the UN peace-keeping force said Israeli gunners pumped 3,000 heavy artillery shells into the south in a 24-hour period up to yesterday morning. Israel also launched 63 air raids. Hizbollah kept up a steady barrage of rockets over the frontier, wounding three Israelis. Of the 28 people killed on both sides in the last week only one has been an Israeli, a soldier killed in south Lebanon last week.

In Jerusalem Mr Peres said he was not ready to negotiate an end to Operation Grapes of Wrath. "It is too early to negotiate," he said when asked what were Israel's conditions for an end to the fighting. "The time is always right for a political initiative," Mr Peres added. "I am not going to offer but I think that there are other parties that will offer and we shall have a good look at it."

The conflict has so far much improved the chances of Mr Peres winning the election on 29 May. He regularly appears in a blue, military style- jacket. It is now difficult for Binyamin Netanyahu, the leader of the right-wing Likud, to outflank him on the right for being soft on security. The war has also been accompanied by a sophisticated Israeli army presentation to the media, with video pictures of exploding buildings hit by Israeli missiles.

The Israeli public relations exercise much resembles that of the US in the Gulf war in 1990. The Israeli press notes that the European media has been much more critical than the US. There was only limited domestic television coverage of the destruction of an ambulance, in which four children were killed, by an Israeli helicopter. However, the real reason for the lack of criticism of the operation in Israel is that it is felt to be defensive, has led to no Israeli military casualties and is against an enemy, Hizbollah, which is seen as part of the Islamic militant movement which killed 63 people in Israel with four suicide bombs six weeks ago.

Civilians the main casualties in toll of death

Since Israel opened its bombardment of Lebanon last Thursday, 23 Lebanese civilians have been killed and at least 80 wounded. In the previous three days, a Lebanese teenager and an Israeli occupation soldier were killed and 13 Israelis wounded. Since the start of the Israeli assault, not a single Israeli soldier or Hizbollah guerrilla has been reported killed.

Among the Lebanese civilian victims are: Khatija Deeb, 27, an unidentified male of about 60; Rima al-Youssef, 2; Rana al-Youssef, 12; Lara al- Youssef, age unknown; Ibtissam al-Youssef, 13; Ghofran Karim, 25; Ali Monem, about 100; Hussein Monem, 18; Wajeb Monem, age unknown; and Absha Shaashou, 35 - all killed by Israeli shellfire on the village of Yohmor, in the southern Bekaa valley. And Mahmoud Daher, 90; Mariam Geha, one month; Honein Geha, 3; Zienab Geha, 7; Houdou Alakleh, 11; Noha Alakleh, 35; and Mona Shweik, 35 - all killed in an ambulance attacked by Israeli helicopter at Hannieh, southern Lebanon.