Tel Aviv, Israel — A new escalation of combat between Israeli forces and Palestinian guerrillas based mainly in southern Lebanon was virtually inevitable after the car bombings two weeks ago that maimed two prominent West Bank mayors.
Revenge, which seems almost endemic in the Middle East, now appears to have become a means of obtaining effective political influence.
This applies in varying degrees to both parties to the conflict, each carrying out combat missions in accordance with its own tactical capability and strategical acumen.
Such, at any rate, is the most plausible rationale for the unsuccessful seaborne incursion at dawn June 16 in which a fiberglass speedboat manned by three Palestinians was intercepted and sunk by an Israeli Dabour (Wasp) patrol boat.
It is presumed that if the trio had slipped through Israel's electronically augmented coastal defenses, they would have staged another suicide operation involving the taking of hostages and producing a dramatic showdown with Israeli troops.
But the patrol boat closed in on the speedboat a mile and a half off Israel's Mediterranean seacoast due west of the resort village of Achziv. A brief shootout ensued, ending in the death of the three alleged raiders and the wounding of one Israeli sailor.
Analysts here believe political need may have prompted the bid to land the guerrillas on Israeli territory.
Its underlying motive: to retaliate for the planting of explosive charges in the private cars of West Bank Mayors Bassam Shaka of Nablus and Karim Khalef of Ramallah which left both men severely wounded.
Although the perpetrators of these incidents are yet to be apprehended, as are those who planted a bomb at the garage door of Bira Mayor Ibrahim Tawil, they are generally believed to belong to a mysterious underground of Jewish extremists.
All three mayors maintain close links with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), as did exiled West Bank Mayors Fahd Kawasmeh of Hebron and Muhammad Milhem of Halhul.
In effect, the pro-PLO leadership in the West Bank has been depleted by four of its top echelon personnel, a development that could have triggered a show of PLO force, if only to bolster PLO organizational prestige and morale.
The Israelis, it is supposed, will go on waging their anti-PLO campaign with greater subtlety and minimal official confirmation.
Intermittent shelling of suspected PLO targets in southern Lebanon by Israeli gunboats offshore are rarely announced here and reluctantly confirmed when reported by Beirut-based correspondents.
The same policy applies to occasional forays by Israeli naval commandos who go into action as frogmen, working from Lebanon's beaches to carry out quick and often deadly ambushes on nearby roads used by PLO vehicles.