ISRAEL raised the stakes in its battle with Hizbullah yesterday, bombing the Shiite Muslim guerrillas' strongholds in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa valley in eastern Lebanon.
The air raids, which reportedly killed 12 people, including five Syrian soldiers, were launched in reprisal for a series of recent rocket attacks on Israel by Hizbullah units in southern Lebanon.
"We will not tolerate the attempts by Hizbullah to turn our settlements in the north into hostages which ensure their immunity to act," Israeli Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ehud Barak said yesterday. General Barak warned that further Katyusha (a type of rocket used by guerrillas in Lebanon) attacks on Israel would provoke "a severe, immediate, and painful response." Residents in northern Israel were ordered to spend the night in bomb shelters.
Hizbullah responded by firing additional rockets into the Galilee. At press time, an Israeli Army spokesman said Israeli forces and Lebaneses milita allies were "taking action against the rocket sites and terrorist concentrations north of the security zone.
The air raids, which destroyed a major Hizbullah base near Syrian lines and other targets, were the fiercest Israel has launched this year and risked causing a direct conflict with Syria, which Israel says controls the Iranian-backed Shiite militia.
So long as Hizbullah restricted its attacks to Israeli troops and their Lebanese allies inside Israel's self-declared `security zone' in southern Lebanon, Israel limited its retaliation to the guerrillas' positions just north of the security zone.
But by sanctioning the attacks on Israeli territory, "the Syrians have exceeded a gentlemens' agreement, and we are now pushing the line back," one senior Israeli official said yesterday.
Coming on the eve of United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher's visit to the region next week, the heightened tension between Israel and Syria is bound to sour the atmosphere for his efforts to move the Middle East peace talks forward.
But Israeli officials insist that Washington made no serious effort to deter Jerusalem from its retaliatory raid yesterday.
Although Israel has massed troops and armor along its northern border, analysts here did not expect large-scale ground operations against Hizbullah positions that could escalate into full-scale war. Continued Hizbullah attacks could bring "more air attacks, more artillery bombardment, maybe some elite unit operations," an Israeli official anticipated. But Israel's new determination to strike at Hizbullah rear-guard headquarters in Syrian controlled territory makes any escalation a dangerous game.