BRIGITTE BEN SHUSHAN, an Israeli housewife, was doing the dishes when she first heard the news of Israel's raids on Hizbullah positions in Lebanon on July 25. Her reaction was immediate: "Is this war?"
Government officials here, and press commentators, were quick to reassure her that "Operation Settling Accounts," as the retaliatory attacks have been dubbed, was a limited operation that would end as soon as the Shiite guerrillas stopped rocketing northern Israel and attacking Israeli military positions in the nine-mile-wide "security zone" that Israel occupies in Lebanon.
But by July 27, with the Hizbullah gunmen keeping up the pace of their rocket attacks, Israeli jets and artillery hammering Hizbullah and Palestinian positions in Lebanon for the third straight day, and Army reinforcements moving north, memories of the traumatic Lebanon war 13 years ago were unavoidable.
"Paratroopers and infantry could catch the terrorists if they were given orders to chase them, but the battles would most certainly cost us losses of our own, and widen the arena of activity deep into Lebanon," the daily Haaretz editorialized. "The high command is wary of these two prospects, and one can only hope it will not lose its wariness."
Syria's ruling Baath Party, through a newspaper it controls, said the Israeli attacks put the Middle East on the doorstep of a new war. Syria is the main powerbroker in Lebanon and several Syrian soldiers have been killed in the strikes.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has let it be known that he opposes any large-scale use of ground troops north of Israel's "security zone," and a majority of his Cabinet backs his caution. But Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak has repeatedly refused to rule out any form of operation to halt the persistent rocket attacks on northern Israel that are keeping 150,000 Israelis in bomb shelters each night.
US Secretary of State Warren Christopher, worried that the escalating fighting will jeopardize already stalled peace talks, announced July 27 that he would cut short a visit to Asia and return to Washington. He is due in the Middle East on July 31 in an effort to revive the peace process.
Israel's problem, as it steps up the pressure on Hizbullah, is that neither the radical Shiite militia nor their Iranian backers, have any interest in stopping the attacks. Undermining the Middle East peace talks, which will undoubtedly be threatened the longer the fighting goes on, is one of their goals.
Israel's aim thus is to pressure Syria, through the Lebanese government, to force Hizbullah to desist.
"If Syria had wanted to, it would have tried to stop these events," says Jacques Neriah, diplomatic adviser to Mr. Rabin, pointing out that Hizbullah has based its rearguard headquarters in the Syrian controlled Bekaa Valley, and receives its arms from Iran through Syria.
Syria's interests, however, are complex. While involved in the peace process, President Hafez al-Assad has also been careful to cultivate his ties with Iran, "and he wants to maintain them come what may," suggests Dore Gold, a defense analyst at Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center.
At the same time, Syria "could be trying to raise the stakes" in the peace talks, Dr. Gold argues, "to force Israel into an agreement to return the Golan Heights by showing that it can make life miserable for our people in the North." The same logic could apply to southern Lebanon.
Israel's goal now, officials here say, is to make it impossible for Beirut to go on allowing attacks from its territory. "Our operation is designed to force the Lebanese government to act," says Mr. Neriah. "And if the Lebanese government doesn't understand the message, it will be the Lebanese people themselves who will influence the government."
To encourage such influence, Israeli gunners and bomber pilots have been steadily closing in on Lebanese villages over the past three days, first targeting isolated Hizbullah bases, then hitting village outskirts, and finally going for the villages themselves.
"While we regret the damage and loss of life," government spokesman Uri Dromi said July 26, "the message is that you cannot enjoy your life over there while letting Hizbullah harass our people."
About 120,000 Lebanese villagers are reported to have fled their homes in the south, seeking refuge closer to Beirut.
It is ironic that while Israel's justification for the "security zone" is that the Lebanese government is not capable of ensuring border security, Jerusalem's declared goal now is to see Beirut rein in Hizbullah. If the Lebanese government proves unequal to that task, however, "it has some good allies to the east," says Neriah, referring to Syria.