A LARGE Israeli tank force was poised to move into south Lebanon Oct. 27, threatening to retaliate against Muslim fundamentalist guerrillas for a Katyusha rocket attack on Israel.
Military officials refused to comment on the scope or purpose of the operation at press time, but it was clearly aimed at fundamentalist Hizbullah (Party of God) fighters who had launched a lethal Katyusha rocket attack on a northern Israeli town at dawn Oct. 27.
"If they [Hizbullah gunners] act against us, we will respond appropriately," Israeli Army Chief of Staff Ehud Barak had warned as he toured Kiryat Shmona, the town damaged by rockets that killed a 14-year-old boy.
Temperatures rose simultaneously in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, where three Israeli civilians were wounded in two separate attacks by Palestinians.
The impact of the brewing conflict on the ongoing Middle East peace process was unclear at press time, but diplomats in Washington predicted that an Israeli move into Lebanese territory would disrupt the talks.
But according to Israel Radio, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said Oct. 27 that "our goal is to restore calm and avoid pouring oil on the fire." He said he did not want to break off the peace talks in Washington.
As Israeli tanks massed on the Lebanese border, Israeli Air Force planes bombed training camps belonging to Hizbullah and a radical Palestinian faction located east and south of Beirut, an Army spokeswoman said.
The dramatic Israeli move highlighted the Israel Defense Forces' dilemma, in the face of a new spate of attacks by Hizbullah militants in Israel's self-declared "security zone" in south Lebanon - "how to avoid letting the situation get out of control while putting down this wave of terror as quickly as possible," in the words of Ron Ben Ishai, defense correspondent for the daily Yediot Ahronot.
"But the Israeli defense authorities have very little maneuvering space," he points out. "What can you do? Invade Lebanon again?"
Israel's traditional response to Hizbullah attacks has been to launch artillery and bombing raids against Hizbullah targets. That had been the pattern so far this week, after tensions rose sharply on Oct. 25, when five Israeli soldiers were killed in a roadside bomb blast set off by Hizbullah guerrillas inside the zone. It was the deadliest ambush in the area for several years.
On Oct. 26, Israeli warships attacked two Palestinian training camps north of Beirut, 110 miles from the Israeli border, while planes and helicopters strafed Hizbullah positions in south Lebanon and gunners shelled Hizbullah camps in the Bekaa Valley.
Reports from Lebanon said scores of people were killed and injured in the attacks.
The level of military activity recalled a similar violent outbreak in February, when Hizbullah took revenge for the assassination of its leader, Sheikh Abbas Musawi, by firing rockets at northern Israeli towns, prompting an Israeli search-and-destroy mission.
THE week's incidents underlined the difficulty Israel faces in dealing with Hizbullah groups fighting to evict its troops from Lebanon. "With all the big will of the government to do all that we can through the Israel Defense Forces, we can never ever say that terror will be finished. We have to live with that," Housing Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer said Oct. 27.
Any potential impact on this round of the peace talks has been muted because a recess has been scheduled from Oct. 28 until Nov. 9 as a result of the US election. But few observers here doubt the process remains hostage to external events. Arab delegates were expected to consult yesteday about the developments in Lebanon.
"If the Israelis do indeed cross into Lebanon, the Lebanon delegation itself will probably stop or boycott the negotiations," predicted another Arab diplomat close to the talks. "Under the circumstances, it would be difficult for the other Arab delegations to continue."
"I don't think the negotiations are yet at the stage where they are self-perpetuating," said the diplomat. "We're talking about the invasion of another country. I'm not sure under any circumstances negotiations can continue if something like this happens."
Although Israeli officials are convinced that Syria could force Hizbullah to halt its attacks, negotiators are reluctant to bring the issue up at the talks.
They fear that to do so would be to implicitly accept Syrian dominance in Lebanon and its ability to control Lebanese affairs, which Israel is loath to do.
Raising the topic at talks intended to focus exclusively on a bilateral peace treaty between Israel and Syria would also open the door to Syrian efforts to link such a treaty with other questions, such as an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, according to officials here.
Mr. Rabin, who is also defense minister, has said repeatedly in recent weeks, as the level of Palestinian violence against occupation has risen, that he will not allow the current peace talks to dampen the strength of Israel's military response to such violence.
The same attitude clearly prevails as regards Lebanon and Syria, according to Mr. Ben Ishai. "Israel is determined to go about the peace talks as if south Lebanon didn't exist," he said, "and go about pursuing Hizbullah in south Lebanon as if the peace talks didn't exist."