A grenade attack on Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem triggered a dramatic chain of events Thursday in Israel and Lebanon. Beirut news agencies reported Thursday afternoon that an Israeli warplane had been shot down while it carried out a raid on the south Lebanon Palestinian refugee camp, Mieh Mieh. Eyewitnesses in the city of Sidon were quoted as saying that the plane's two-man crew was captured. The Israeli Army spokesman would confirm only that ``there were military attacks'' in Lebanon.
The raid on Mieh Mieh, a stronghold of the Palestine Liberation Organization, is widely interpreted here as Israel's retaliation for the Wednesday night grenade attack in East Jerusalem, which killed one person, and wounded 69. After the PLO claimed responsibility for the grenade attack, Israel took less than 24 hours to -- militarily and diplomatically.
Thursday's bombing of Mieh Mieh, where three people were reportedly injured, showed that Israel took the PLO's claim seriously, though two other groups had also issued claims. Earlier Thursday, the Israeli Foreign Ministry called in Egypt's ambassador to protest that the PLO claimed responsibility for the attack from its Cairo offices. Such a claim, emanating from Cairo, an Israeli official said, did not enhance ``the atmosphere'' between Israel and Egypt.
Swift retaliation for Wednesday's grenade attack was inevitable, Israeli analysts say. Carried out against Israeli soldiers and their families near the Western (Wailing) Wall, the attack is seen as particularly egregious. Young recruits are routinely sworn in at this site, Judaism's holiest. Security forces descended almost immediately on the area and reportedly arrested dozens of local Palestinians. But the attackers had apparently still had not been caught.
The daring attack is thought to have significantly enhanced the prestige of Yasser Arafat's mainstream PLO among Palestinians, at a time when Israel is working hard to militarily emasculate and diplomatically isolate the organization.
Therefore, an analyst says, ``the [Army] is determined to catch the people who did it and to show that such an attack will not go unanswered.''
The attack marked the first time in memory that Mr. Arafat's mainstream PLO faction has carried out a successful operation against a large group of Israeli troops in what the Palestinians consider occupied Palestine, an Israeli analyst says.
The grenade attack came at a time of crisis for the PLO. Palestinian sources in Jerusalem say the mainstream Al-Fatah faction is in the grips of a bitter internal debate over the PLO's future since the explusion of its main offices from Jordan and Tunisia recently. The PLO also feels threatened by the efforts of King Hussein of Jordan to reassert Jordanian influence in the territories occupied by Israel since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
In that context, an Israeli military analyst says, the attack can be seen to have served several purposes: It reminds Israel that the PLO, though driven from Jordan, is still capable of carrying out attacks inside Israel. It signals militant PLO organizations in Damascus that the PLO has not entirely abandoned its military option. It serves notice to King Hussein that the PLO can continue to have an impact in the occupied territories.
Perhaps most importantly, the analyst says, the attack restores some of the PLO's tarnished image in the eyes of Palestinians, particularly those living under Israeli occupation. That view is confirmed by a Palestinian journalist in East Jerusalem who is sympathetic to the PLO. ``Without doubt, I can say that this kind of operation is morally uplifting,'' the journalist says. ``It is the kind of operation people are happy with, in that it is aimed against soldiers and it is courageous. After all, it was carried out in the heart of Jerusalem.''
Although Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin insist the attack was not specifically aimed against soldiers, military sources dispute this. ``Rabin wanted to belittle the operation,'' one source says. ``I think that it was planned. It served two purposes because it was both spectacular and legitimate -- it was directed against a military target.''
Cabinet member Yitzhak Shamir expressed a different view. ``This is . . . a terrorist attack,'' he said. ``I don't think there is a difference whether they attack soldiers or civilians. What they want to attack and to kill is Jewish people. . .''
Pro-PLO Palestinians in East Jerusalem predict that even moderate Arab governments, such as Jordan and Egypt, will not condem the attack. By attacking soldiers in East Jerusalem, one Palestinian analyst says, the PLO was ``keeping within the terms of [its 1985] declaration -- to refrain from attacks against civilians outside Palestine. No Arab government can condemn this one.''
Israelis were so preoccupied with the grenade attack Thursday that few seemed to realize the crisis that has prevented Mr. Shamir from taking office on schedule as new prime minister appeared near resolution. A Labor Party delegation Thursday evening went to President Chaim Herzog and requested that he ask Shamir to form a new government. The Labor move came after Shamir and Mr. Peres settled differences Thursday.