JERUSALEM — THE Lebanese-Israeli border was calm yesterday as the presence of a large Israeli tank force quieted Muslim fundamentalist gunners on the other side of the frontier.
Although Israel sent reinforcements to its self-declared "security zone" in southern Lebanon, none of its troops moved out of the zone, and fundamentalist Hizbullah (Party of God) guerrillas seemed equally eager to reduce the tension in the area.
Having inflicted real damage, by killing 14-year-old Vadim Shuchman on Tuesday, Hizbullah stopped rocketing Israeli territory, just as it halted a Katyusha barrage last February after the death of a girl in a northern Israeli settlement.
The guerrillas also seemed cowed by Tuesday's heavily publicized concentration of Israeli tanks, signaling a threat to use ground forces against their positions, as well as the Israeli artillery and bombing assaults that had begun the day before.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin made it plain, however, that he was reluctant to break the status quo in south Lebanon. As defense minister, Mr. Rabin withdrew the invading Israeli Army to the security zone in 1985, and he is as cautious as any Israeli politician about launching another attack into Lebanon.
Though the violence soured the atmosphere at the Middle East peace talks in Washington, it did not disrupt them. That Lebanese and Israeli delegates continued their discussions, even as Israeli tanks made preparations to enter Lebanese territory, was eloquent proof of all sides' desire to keep the talks going.
Hizbullah's aim, at the behest of their Iranian paymasters, is avowedly to evict Israel from Lebanon, although its broader political goal seems to be to undermine the talks. But the ambush bombing of an Israeli convoy in the security zone last Sunday, which killed five soldiers and sparked this week's flare-up, did not appear timed to coincide with the current round.
Israeli sappers detect and defuse three or four mines or roadside bombs each week in the zone, military sources say. Last Sunday, it happened that they missed one.
So long as the charges are defused, Israeli military planners are content to treat them as routine hazards. But when they kill soldiers, and particularly when Hizbullah strikes Israel with rockets, the government feels it must respond.
But as Israeli Army leaders concede, there is little they can do to deter the Katyusha attacks, except retaliate fiercely against Hizbullah outposts when they occur. The Soviet-made rockets, which can be carried on a man's back or a donkey, are launched from a makeshift wooden frame that can be set up anywhere, and detonated by a simple battery and alarm clock mechanism.
There are no gun emplacements to destroy, and all Israel can practically do is to make Hizbullah movements north of the zone impossible, or at least as uncomfortable as possible, with artillery.
Controlling Hizbullah's movements should, under normal circumstances, be the job of the Lebanese Army, as it reasserts itself in the region. But so long as Hizbullah fighters can justify their actions as the only efforts anyone is making to free the security zone from Israeli occupation, restraining them politically impossible for Lebanese authorities.
Only a peace treaty will resolve Israel's security problem in the north. Which is why, when he spoke to parliament Monday, Rabin said that "despite the difficulties, despite the murderous acts and terror, this government has placed peace at the top of its goals."