Ali al-Assad, a leader of the Hizbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon, was killed near Tyre yesterday when a bomb hidden in his car, presumably by Israeli agents, exploded as he started
on the vehicle. At about the same time, on a road 15 miles away inside the Israeli-occupied zone, a bomb blew up beside a Jeep of the "South Lebanon Army'' (SLA), Israel's local militia, badly wounding one of the militiamen.
In his headquarters in an old French fort at Marjayoun, Brigadier-General Giora Inbar, Israeli commander in the nine-mile-wide swath of Lebanon occupied by Israel as a ''security zone'', points to a chart showing the steadily mounting number of Hizbollah attacks. There were 201 incidents in 1992, rising to 385 in 1994. The number is expected to exceed 500 this year.
It is a war, but with rules, notably the 1993 understanding with Syria - acting on behalf of Hizbollah - that Israel will not shell or bomb civilians north of its zone if Hizbollah does not fire rockets into Israel. This unofficial truce is now coming under strain as Israel tries to kill Hizbollah fighters like Assad outside the occupation zone.
Peace talks between Israel and Syria have also hit the morale of the 2,600-strong SLA, which Israel has recruited. Its commander, General Antoine Lahad, sounding as if he believed the political end-game in south Lebanon will inevitably mean his demise as a local warlord, said: "Israel is much more interested in peace than it is in the future of Lebanon." He thought a US-brokered Syrian-Israeli peace treaty inevitable and "the Americans do not care very much about the Syrian presence in Lebanon''.
General Inbar plays down the scale of the fighting. He says it is frequently with long-range weapons like mortars or heavy machine-guns. But the skirmishes have the ability to escalate into incidents which affect negotiations between Jerusalem and Damascus. Last week, for instance, an SLA mortar bomb killed a Lebanese woman in the village of Shaqrah, leading Hizbollah to fire Katyusha rockets into northern Galilee, killing a French cook at a resort.
Regretting that such things do occur, General Lahad admits: "It may happen there is a small mistake in calculations and a shell goes astray, as happened lately." The Israeli commander says the fighting started at Shaqrah because Hizbollah positions in the outskirts of the village opened fire on an SLA post at nearby Houle in the Israeli-zone, just as one unit was being relieved by another.
Denying he was told by the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, not to provoke Hizbollah, General Inbar was clearly keen to avoid retaliation. SLA militiamen, paid $350 (pounds 225) to $550 a month by Israel, can have their pay docked for firing at the wrong target. Hizbollah, for its part, says its policy of revenge attacks on Galilee works and has forced Israel to take care about hitting civilian targets.
It is not as if Israeli military casualties are severe, with seven dead and 51 wounded this year. But there is little enthusiasm in Israel for a war which seems endless.
But the 160,000 Lebanese in the Israeli-run enclave believe that the war may indeed be coming to an end. David Levi, an Israeli born in Sidon, who has run the Arabic radio station for 10 years, points to the amount of building in a Shia Muslim village such as Kafer Kela, on the border with Israel. He says: "They think that after a peace treaty the border will be open and the shops they are building will bring a lot of business."
General Lahad also sounds as if he thinks the Israeli protectorate in South Lebanon, which has existed in one form or another since 1978, has little future. Hizbollah may also worry about their future if Syria signs a peace treaty with Israel. Both may be premature. Israel does not want to be seen too publicly as having lost its long proxy war with Syria for control of Lebanon. As the war nears its end it may enter its most violent phase.