A Lebanese Shiite Muslim drove a car laden with explosives into an Israeli convoy at the Israeli-Lebanese border yesterday. It was a dramatic escalation of the cycle of violence between the Israelis and the Shiites, who have sworn to drive the Israelis out of Lebanon.
The attack reportedly left up to 10 Israeli soldiers dead and 20 wounded. It came just two days after a car bomb exploded in a Shiite neighborhood of Beirut, killing at least 66 people and wounding 200.
The fact that Sunday's attack occurred just north of the ``good fence'' on the border -- through which Israel has allowed Lebanese to pass into Israel for medical treatment -- was a chilling demonstration of the Shiites' growing hatred of Israel. It is a hatred Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin has said he fears more than the attacks of Palestinian fighters that precipitated Israel's June 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
Lebanese Cabinet ministers and the Shiite Amal movement blamed Israel for the Beirut bombing, and for a bombing last week of a Shiite mosque in the south Lebanese village of Maarakeh. The Israelis denied involvement in the bombings.
But it is almost certain that Israel will retaliate for Sunday's attack. The Israelis instituted an ``iron fist'' policy in the south last month in an effort to cut back mounting casualties. Before Sunday, some 620 Israeli soldiers had died during Israel's occupation of the south. For weeks the Israelis have been raiding Shiite villages, arresting hundreds of men, blowing up houses where arms are discovered, and shooting some men believed to be guerrillas who reportedly tried to escape Israeli raiders.
Sunday's attack provided glaring evidence that the ``get tough'' policy cannot eliminate the threat to Israeli troops who are now in the second phase of a three-phase withdrawal from the south. The attack occurred in a heavily Christian area -- the area that some Israeli Cabinet ministers have argued Israel should continue to control indefinitely.
``This attack is not the worst nightmare,'' said Dr. Clinton Bailey, an expert on Shiites with Tel Aviv University. ``The worst nightmare is when one occurs over the fence. But it is high stakes when you strike at the border.''
Dr. Bailey said the attack demonstrated that the Israeli Army ``would be equally vulnerable'' if it withdrew to the Litani River and dug in indefinitely, as some Cabinet ministers from the right-wing Likud bloc insist it should do.
Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Rabin have insisted that Israel will withdraw to the international border by the summer's close, but Rabin recently has expressed fear that Shiite terrorism may follow the Israelis home.
Lebanese Shiite Cabinet minister Nabih Berri promised last week that the Shiites would retaliate each time Israel struck at a village in the south by hitting at northern Israeli towns. Sunday's attack gave new meaning to Mr. Berri's threat.
The failure of the Army's efforts to stop the attacks demonstrates ``that there is quite a reserve of people and equipment in the south,'' Dr. Bailey said. ``If the conflict continues to escalate, eventually you will get to the point where even when Israelis are in Lebanon there will still be attacks in the Galilee.''
According to the Army's own statistics, there were 48 attacks on Israeli soldiers in the two weeks before the crackdown began. Two weeks after it started, however, there were more than 50 attacks.
``There is no way the Shiites are just going to stop at the border after the Israelis finally withdraw,'' said a Western analyst.
``Most of the Israeli military men know that now.''
The government has been coming under increasing pressure recently to hasten the withdrawal in order to avoid antagonizing the Shiites of the south further.
Last week, it voted unanimously to begin immediately the second phase of withdrawal -- from the eastern Bekaa Valley where Israeli troops are face to face with Syrian soldiers. The second phase is expected to take between 6 and 12 weeks to complete.
Some analysts predicted that the Likud faction might push harder now for a semi-permanent Israeli presence from the Litani River to the international border, on the basis that without political guarantees Israel cannot risk withdrawing completely.