For a long time now, the inhabitants of northern Israel and Israeli military positions have been exposed to unpredictable and indiscriminate barrages of Hizbollah Katyusha rockets that have killed and injured people and destroyed property. During 1995, Hizbollah launched 344 attacks against Israeli troops. These attacks continued into 1996, and on 9 April, Katyusha salvos fired at Galilee wounded 36 civilians.
Hizbollah used the villages and towns in south Lebanon as a staging ground for firing these rockets. When Israel returned fire to the source, they claimed that we were hitting civilian targets. This method of shielding their terrorist launching pads behind the civilian population and taking cover behind innocent women and children became a consistent policy. On 18 April 1996, Hizbollah leader Muhammad Read reaffirmed that "the civilian population constitutes our defensive belt".
Moreover, the objectives of Hizbollah are not limited to the situation in south Lebanon. Their aims are much wider. This is best illustrated in a quote by their leader, Hizbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, in December 1994:
"I say to ... all the enemies' leaders, that Islam ... the Islam of strugglers and martyrs is coming to you Jews, in south Lebanon, in Palestine, and all over the world. It will vanquish you."
Two developments caused Hizbollah to intensify their activities against Israel. The first is the obvious success of the peace process with the Palestinians and Jordan. Militancy and religious extremism are losing ground with every step of progress. Iran, true to its anti-peace policy, decided to magnify its efforts in order to undermine the peace process. They are using Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hizbollah as vehicles to achieve their objective. We have seen this with the series of suicide bombings by Hamas and Jihad in Israel and we are witnessing the same pattern with the Hizbollah operations in Lebanon.
Peace contradicts their agenda. Peace brings stability. Stability yields prosperity. Religious extremism, however, thrives on anarchy, on poverty and on misery. They see the peace process as an obstacle to the fulfilment of their sinister aim: the spread of extremist fanaticism. As a result, they wish to derail peace and kill the hopes of millions of people in the Middle East. We, together with the international community, must ensure that they fail.
Second, they loathed the impressive gathering at Sharm-el Sheikh. On 13 March, 29 heads of state and governments, including President Clinton, Prime Minister John Major, Chancellor Kohl and 13 Arab delegations headed by Egyptian President Mubarak, King Hussein of Jordan and King Hassan of Morocco, convened in the Egyptian resort, with a strong determination to fight terror and encourage the continuation of the peace process. The sight of these world leaders standing firm against terror was not to the liking of the extremists.
During their initial attacks, we displayed utmost restraint. We used diplomatic channels in order to make it clear that tranquillity must prevail on both sides of the border. The US government made every effort to induce the Hizbollah terrorists to stop shelling Galilee, but to no avail. With full encouragement, inspiration and supply of arms from Iran, with Syria sanctioning their activity and Damascus serving as a conduit for the shipment of arms from Iran toHizbollah in Lebanon and with the Lebanese government maintaining that it is incapable of acting against them, they continued to terrorise Galilee with impunity.
It is the primary responsibility of every government to protect the lives and property of its citizens. We could not wait any longer and shirk our duty to protect our people, who spend the nights in shelters, whose children were evacuated and whose properties were damaged by Katyusha shells. Thus we were compelled to launch a military operation. Its objective is limited: to hit Hizbollah operation centres and staging areas. We have no confrontation with the government or people of Lebanon, for whom we would like to see peace and stability in the same way as we would like to have peace on our side of the border.
However, during the past days, in whichHizbollah have fired close to 300 Katyusha rockets at Israel, we found that no less than 19 Hizbollah firing positions were located about 200 metres from United Nations observer posts. A full list of these positions has been transmitted to the United Nations. As the Independent's reporter in Lebanon wrote: when a soldier from Fiji tried to prevent Hizbollah from firing rockets into Israel from close to his position, he was shot in the chest by a Hizbollah terrorist.
When Israel returned fire on Thursday 18 April to the Hizbollah launching ground in Kanaa, many innocent civilians were sadly killed, something that we deeply regret. A UN spokesman admitted that only shortly before fire was returned, Hizbollah used the area for shelling Israel.
Thus the full responsibility for this tragic loss of innocent lives rests entirely on the unscrupulous shoulders of the Hizbollah terrorists. Israel made it very clear that its objective is to bring peace to the inhabitants of Galilee and, if there is peace in Galilee, there will be tranquillity on the Lebanese side too.
It is imperative, therefore, that the governments of Syria and Lebanon rein in Hizbollah. They should do so immediately, before they continue to cause immense suffering and more loss of life.
The writer is Israeli ambassador in London.