Israel is considering stepping up military aid for its militia ally in south Lebanon following a wave of attacks by Shiite guerrillas. The assaults on the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army have led to concern in Israel that the militia could disintegrate if there is no immediate strong show of Israeli support.
The prospect of an enlarged Israeli deployment in south Lebanon has coincided with increased criticism of the Israeli presence there at the United Nations. An official UN report released over the weekend said Israel's continued occupation of south Lebanon had been a factor in the recent rise in Shiite guerrilla attacks on UN peacekeeping forces in Lebanon.
The South Lebanon Army (SLA) was set up as Israel withdrew the bulk of its forces from Lebanon in June, 1985, leaving a several mile wide ``security zone'' north of its border which has been patrolled by both the SLA and Israeli troops.
Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said the recent attacks, which have paralleled guerrilla assaults on French UN peacekeeping troops, are the work of the Iranian-backed Hizbullah (Party of God) and radical elements of the mainstream Shiite movement, Amal. According to Mr. Rabin, these guerrillas have also received backing from Syria and from Palestinian guerrilla organizations.
Last week seven SLA soldiers were killed in clashes with Shiite guerrillas, including an assault on a string of SLA outposts in which three positions were briefly overrun before being retaken. During the last six weeks, four French soldiers have been killed and 33 wounded in attacks by Shiite guerrillas.
Israeli officials believe the attacks on the SLA and on the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) are part of a radical Shiite campaign to drive armed forces out of southern Lebanon and are connected to an attempt by Iran to carry its revolution to Israel's border.
The attacks have already drawn a response from the SLA, which Friday raided several Shiite villages east of Tyre in a search for guerrillas and has shelled areas north of the security zone.
Though Israeli officials have insisted that the SLA is holding its own and has their full confidence, they have conceded that the militia needs to be bolstered by Israel. In an interview on Israel television, Uri Ubrani, Israel's coordinator of activities in Lebanon, said Israel must give ``complete backing'' to the SLA, including the movement of additional Israeli troops into southern Lebanon, if necessary.
Despite the contemplated plans for increased intervention, Israeli officials have consistently maintained that Israel has no intention of launching a full-scale invasion of Lebanon as it did in June l982.
Meanwhile, Israeli officials reacted sharply to the UN report, arguing that the attacks on UNIFIL were unconnected to the Israeli presence, and reflected internal struggles between radical and moderate Shiite groups.
But UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar called for a full Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon and the deployment of UNIFIL southward to the Israeli-Lebanese border.
But yesterday, Rabin said Israel would refuse to dismantle the security zone, and he rejected a UNIFIL deployment to the border, which he said would leave Israel vulnerable to guerrilla attacks.