Israel's latest onslaught against the Palestinians has taken to the high seas , and its front lines are the Mediterranean beaches of Lebanon. The casualties of this latest wave of Israeli attacks are not only the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) guerrillas and the Lebanese and Palestinian civilians who chance to get caught in the Israelis' lightning ambushes -- but also the fragile efforts of the skeleton Lebanese government to effect a workable national entente.
The Israelis' current tactic is to land small groups of commandos, in soundless rubber boats under cover of night, along Lebanon's twisting coastline south of the capital. There they mount lightning, and usually deadly, roadblocks along the coastal highway, which is a major national artery.
Twenty persons were killed when the first such raid in the present series was mounted near Sarafand April 18, Palestinian sources said at the time. More than half of them were civilians.
The Israelis claimed that raid was in response to the PLO guerrilla attack on a border settlement at Misgavam in which three Israelis were slain.
Since then, the Palestinian and Lebanese leftist forces which are in de facto control of the 50 miles of coast between Khaldeh, just south of Beirut, and the ancient port city of Tyre have tightened up their defenses.
They have strengthened their patrols of Land Rover-borne fighters equipped with anything from assault rifles to light anti-aircraft batteries, and have upgraded communication links. Civilians have been asked to steer clear of the coastal road by night, and some areas of the coast have been put under a nightly blackout.
But still the Israelis come. Their naval frigates maneuver at sea by day, just out of range of the coastal defenses (but well inside Lebanese territorial waters), and then at night provide backup fire for the raiding parties in their rubber boats.
On some occasions, Israeli helicopters balance overhead, apparently ready to take out any casualties.
Meanwhile, Israeli Air Force jets circle regularly over the whole country up to and including the capital, far out of reach of the antiaircraft guns whose shells pop uselessly into puffs of white smoke many thousands of feet beneath them.
Israeli gunners add their dimension to the unfolding drama, regularly pounding Palestinian leftist positions, while the Israeli-backed militias in the border strip keep up their own vendetta with the southern Lebanese citizenry by bombing and shelling villages in the zones controlled by the PLO and the United Nations forces.
Six people were killed in an artillery bombardment of the leftist-held town of Nabatiyeh on May 17 shortly after a spokesman for the border militias said six of their people had been injured when the leftists shelled them earlier.
"Look," pleaded one Lebanese schoolteacher when told of the latest casualties , "the Israelis shout to the world about terrorism. Don't they realize were are people, too, trying to live normal lives and raise children? How can we can go on like this? Isn't all this terrorism, too, and on a huge scale?"
Such pleas, and the ragged little groups of guerrillas on their nightly coast patrols, appear to be the only defense the Lebanese can muster against Israel's constant incursions.
The Lebanese government is to lodge yet another complaint against Israeli activities with the UN Security Council, and may call for a special council session, but there are no illusions about the efficacy of such a step.
Lebanese Prime Minister Selim al-Hoss stated May 16: "By shelling the south so viciously last night, and by announcing its defiant position on east Jerusalem earlier, Israel appears to be reminding the world of its total contempt for all UN resolutions."
He was summing up the consensus here.
Premier Hoss and his government colleagues are no nearer to resolving differences about the rebuilding of the Lebanese Army that threaten to slow down that vital component of the national reconciliation effort.
An attempt to engage the country's warring politicians in the healing process launched by the government earlier this year had been in the doldrums for some time. It now has probably been shattered by the escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence, which throws the Lebanese back into former polarizations.
The Lebanese Army thus is in no shape yet to mount any defense of the south Lebanon coastline.The Syrians, who have 22,000 soldiers on peace-keeping duties in the country, have no mandate for naval defense, and would be loath anyway to deploy ships from their Mediterranean ports north of Lebanon past the potentially hostile Christian enclave just north of Beirut.