Three and a half years after invading Lebanon to oust Palestinian guerrillas, Israel has again been reduced to waging a long-distance air and artillery war against Palestinian concentrations north of its border. Israel's air strike early Wednesday on what it said were Palestinian guerrilla bases south of Sidon signaled a return to the military strategy used before the 1982 invasion -- a campaign that was purportedly aimed at rooting out the very targets of the air raid.
Reports from Lebanon said the Israeli planes struck on the outskirts of Ain Hilweh refugee camp, ironically the same areas ``cleaned out'' by the June 1982 invasion.
The air strike, which was the farthest south in Lebanon since the invasion, indicated that Israel was taking seriously a renewed Palestinian guerrilla threat near its northern border.
With yesterday's strike, Israel may also have been testing the limits of the balance of power in the area which had been tacitly agreed with Syria. The Israeli planes reportedly struck within range of Syrian SA-2 antiaircraft missile batteries which were not fired.
The killing of two Israeli soldiers when an Army patrol was ambushed Wednesday near the Jordan River was bound to heighten Israeli concerns over a similar threat to the east. The attacker who fired on the patrol, apparently a Jordanian Army private, was also killed.
Northern commander Ori Orr warned last week of a guerrilla takeover of Palestinian refugee camps near Sidon. Israeli military sources said there was a steady infiltration of Palestinain guerrillas back into south Lebanon, though they would not estimate their number.
The sources said that before Israel invaded the area in 1982, there were ``thousands'' of Palestinian guerrillas in the region.
General Orr said the guerrillas were mainly from the mainstream Al-Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, though the Army said the air strike was aimed at bases of the PLO dissident Abu Musa faction, as well as bases of Ahmed Jibril's offshoot Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, and the Palestine Liberation Front.
Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres has blamed the PLO for some of the Katyusha rocket attacks from Lebanon on northern Israel in recent weeks. Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin has also accused the Shiite Muslim Amal militia of being behind the attacks.
More than a dozen rockets crashed in or near Israeli border settlements in late December and early January, prompting Orr to warn that if peace is disturbed on the Israeli side of the border, the other side will also have no peace.
On Wednesday, United Nations peacekeeping troops reportedly dismantled four Katyusha rocket launchers in southern Lebanon three minutes before they were set to be fired at Israel.
Israel's strategy in the face of these attacks has become the same as it was before 1982:
It relies on a Lebanese client militia supported by Israeli troops to police the border area and fire artillery at attackers to the north, and uses longer-range air strikes to reach guerrillas beyond the border zone.
The policy has created problems not unlike those that plagued Israel in Lebanon before the invasion.
Its client militia, the South Lebanon Army, has repeatedly clashed with United Nations peacekeeping troops. Last Saturday a Nepalese soldier was killed in an artillery barrage on the Shiite vilage of Kafra.
Last month villagers fearful of an SLA reprisal fled the Shiite village of Kunin after two SLA soldiers were slain in the village. The incident was the subject of a Lebanese complaint in the United Nations.
Israel has also been under pressure from the International Red Cross to allow it access to an SLA-run detention camp at the southern Lebanese village of Khiam. Over the past year numerous reports have alleged torture at the camp. Defense Minister Rabin has staunchly defended his two-pronged ``security zone and air strike'' policy as an effective, but not guaranteed, means of preventing guerrilla attacks on Israel's northern settlements.
He has said that Israel will strike anywhere at any time in Lebanon against ``terrorists,'' and has repeatedly said the buffer zone along the border has ``proven itself'' by preventing Israeli civilian casualties.
At the same time, Defense Minister Rabin has resisted right-wing pressure to expand the buffer zone northward to areas used as staging grounds for attacks on Israel.
``I don't intend to repeat the mistake of entering Lebanon,'' Rabin said in a recent television interview. ``Nor do I intend to return large forces into southern Lebanon.''