Leading Article : Israel's road to nowhere

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Under the stated aims of Israel's "controlled" offensive in southern Lebanon to hit Hizbollah missile sites, a law-abiding Lebanese citizen should have the right to drive in peace along the road connecting his nation's principal cities. He does so today at the risk of being blown to pieces by an Israeli naval shell.

For several days in succession, two Israeli gunboats, cruising just off the Lebanese shore, have lobbed high explosives at cars and trucks passing along the only highway connecting Beirut with the cities of Sidon and Tyre. Yesterday, they fired at a car 25 miles south of Beirut, forcing it off the road and injuring its driver. On Monday, two cars were knocked off the road north of Sidon and their drivers seriously hurt. In another incident, a shell landed close to an ambulance, which swerved and injured a pedestrian.

None of these incidents compare with the horrific, accidental shelling of the UN base at Qana last week in which 120 Lebanese refugees died. Nor do the activities of the gunboats compare with Hizbollah's prolonged rocket bombardment of villages in northern Israel.

But this is a very odd kind of naval engagement: saloon cars versus 500 ton, fast-attack gunboats with rapid-firing 76mm and 20mm cannons. They have all occurred north of Sidon: well north of the area of operations delineated by Israel when it launched its offensive. One consequence has been severely to restrict the flow of international aid to the tens of thousands refugees who, following Israel's own orders, have poured into Sidon.

Israeli officials say the naval blockade of the Beirut-Sidon road is intended to prevent military and other supplies reaching Hizbollah. According to the official line, individual cars are being targeted based on "intelligence information".

Pressed on this point, Israeli officials say the intention is to make it clear that anyone driving supplies to Hizbollah runs the risk of being shelled. UN convoys are allowed - by prior arrangement - to pass unharmed.

This was always a political war, launched to teach Hizbollah a lesson, toughen the electoral image of Shimon Peres and bludgeon Syria into joining the wider Middle East peace. Yet the conduct of the war has rendered it a political disaster: increasing popular support in Lebanon for Hizbollah, giving the Israeli opposition a field day and placing the future of Arab- Israeli peace in the hands of the Syrian President, Hafez al-Assad.

In the absence of a rapid ceasefire, the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, must press Israel to cease its bombardment of Lebanon's main civilian artery and all other activities that endanger civilian life at great political risk for little obvious military gain.