The Israeli Army has stepped up artillery barrages and air strikes in Israel's self-proclaimed ``security zone'' north of its border with Lebanon. In an interview Monday, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said that Israel decided to increase its ``activities'' in south Lebanon in the wake of two developments: a resurgence of the Palestine Liberation Organization and a string of successful attacks by Lebanese Shiite Muslims against the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army militia.
In the last three months, some 20 SLA soldiers have been killed and seven of their positions overrun by Shiite fighters, who Israel says belong to the pro-Iranian Hizbullah and the militant wing of the Shiite Amal movement.
Israeli military analysts say the attacks on the SLA have bolstered the Shiite guerrillas' determination to push Israel and its proxy militia out of the ``security zone.'' The Shiite successes have deeply demoralized the SLA, which has reported hundreds of desertions. The combination of Hizbullah's increased confidence and the SLA's demoralization has raised fears here that Israel may be forced to deploy massive forces across the border again.
Until recently, the security zone has been widely regarded in Israel as a success. Since its establishment 18 months ago, no Israeli civilians have died from guerrilla or rocket attacks launched from south Lebanon and there have been few Israeli Army casualties in the zone.
Rabin dismissed fears about the SLA's ability to survive as a ``tremendous exaggeration.'' ``I have no doubt that the SLA will continue,'' he said.
When it pulled most of its forces out of south Lebanon 18 months ago, Israel based its northern border's defense on a policy of keeping only a small Israeli force in the 3-to-12-mile-deep zone. It relied on the mostly Christian SLA to man a string of fortified positions in the area. That policy remains, Rabin said.
``From the very beginning, we said that the amount of IDF [Israeli military] involvement in the backing of the SLA, and the IDF activities in the security zone and north of [it], would be dependent on the amount of terror acts that will be carried out against Israel and against the SLA in the security zone,'' Rabin said. He declined to say whether Israel had sent more troops to the zone, but said he is determined to show Israel's willingness to defend the zone and the SLA.
Rabin was speaking less than 48 hours after an Irish soldier manning a post of the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon just north of the security zone was killed when his outpost was struck by a shell fired from an Israeli tank.
On Sunday, Israel admitted responsibility for the soldier's death and apologized to the Irish government. But the fact that the Israelis were shelling from a position near the village of Baraachit, which earlier this month was controlled only by the SLA, provided the first evidence of an increased Israeli presence in the security zone. The SLA's position near Baraachit was overrun by a Shiite force on Jan. 2, killing four SLA soldiers.
Rabin denied that the Israelis have replaced the SLA at Baraachit. But he acknowledged that the IDF presence there was an example of ``our increased involvement - not replacing the SLA in their positions, but backing them by fire-power and by the close presence of Israeli units in the northern ... security zone.''
He said that the death of the Irish soldier was a ``tragic mistake'' that occurred partly because tensions were exacerbated in the area after the Jan. 2 assault. Israel alleged that the Shiite attack on the SLA was launched from the Irish-controlled area. ``... Everyone unfortunately tends to react more immediately to foil an attempt to attack,'' Rabin said.
He acknowledged that Israel is facing an increasingly complex security problem in Lebanon. In addition to attacks on the SLA by Syrian and Iranian-backed Shiites, the Israelis are worried about the return to Lebanon of Palestinian fighters loyal to PLO chief Yasser Arafat.
Rabin put the number of pro-Arafat Palestinian fighters who have returned to Lebanon in the three years since they were expelled by an invading Israeli Army at no more than 500 to 800. He said, however, that the returning men are ``commanders, organizers, and trainers,'' and are well financed. Fighters are being recruited from the thousands of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, he said.
Just minutes before the interview with Rabin, Israeli fighter jets bombed what the Israelis said were ammunition and equipment depots controlled by Palestinian guerrillas just outside Sidon, a port city in south Lebanon. It was the third such Israeli air raid on Palestinian targets in the past nine days. According to reports from Beirut, Monday's attack left seven people dead or wounded.
Rabin said Israel has refrained from similar strikes against Hizbullah in Syrian-controlled eastern Lebanon at the request of the United States government.
``Over two years ago, the US turned to us, asking not to attack them [Hizbullah] because of the fear that hostages - American hostages and other countries' hostages - are kept there,'' Rabin said.
``You know, keeping hostages sometimes gives immunity to terrorists much more than the price which is needed to bring about their release, even by a deal,'' Rabin said. It was the only comment he would make on Israel's involvement in the US-Iran arms sale scandal.
The defense minister declined to say whether the policy of not hitting Hizbullah targets in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley was still in effect.
``This is a prolonged war against terrorism from Lebanon,'' Rabin said. ``We tried once in 1982 [with the invasion] to bring an end to it by one large action. We didn't succeed. There is no one way to cope with border terrorism, of the kind that we suffered from Lebanon for the last 15 years, as long as there will be no central government that will be in control of all Lebanon's territory. In coping with all the terrorism from Lebanon, we have to assume that terror is there. We have to devise a policy to cope with it. Not to eliminate it. It is impossible to eliminate.''