WEEKEND threats by Hizbullah to shoot rockets at Israeli towns if Israel attacks targets in South Lebanon have raised concerns of renewed fighting along Israel's northern border.
A senior source in Hizbullah, the Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim militia, was quoted by a Beirut newspaper on Saturday warning that his men would resume Katyusha rocket attacks on civilian Israeli targets if the Israeli Army strikes at Hizbullah positions in villages in south Lebanon.
The threat came amid widespread concerns in Lebanon that Israel was preparing a punitive operation to retaliate for the death of four soldiers last Monday in a Hizbullah ambush inside the Israeli-occupied ``security zone'' in South Lebanon.
Israel and its Lebanese allies occupy the 10-mile-deep strip of land along Lebanon's southern border, using it as a buffer against guerrilla attacks. Hizbullah is fighting to evict Israeli troops from Lebanon.
Villagers are reportedly afraid of the prospect of a repeat of last July's ``Operation Accountability,'' in which Israeli strikes on alleged Hizbullah bases killed more than 100 people, wounded nearly 500, and forced 400,000 people from their homes.
Last Monday's ambush on a routine Israeli patrol, in which four soldiers were killed and five were wounded, prompted Israeli chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, to pledge that ``we will ultimately present the bill to Hizbullah.... There is a war raging in Lebanon. We will have our tough moments and pay a price, but the other side will suffer very heavy losses, considerably more than we will.''
The ambush immediately provoked a burst of airstrikes and artillery fire on suspected Hizbullah positions just north of Israel's self-declared security zone.
Israeli brings in heavy guns
Since the ambush, the Israeli Army has brought in a half-dozen heavy guns to the area of the ambush, more than doubling its artillery strength in that sector, according to Timor Goksel, spokesman for the United Nations peacekeeping force in Lebanon, UNIFIL. ``They brought the guns in in broad daylight,'' he said. ``They were obviously meant to be seen.''
General Barak's threat of retaliation, and rumors of Israeli troop movements in the security zone, prompted the unnamed Hizbullah official to tell the Lebanese daily newspaper Addiyar that ``the security of residents, especially women and children, in the south, is sacred to us, and if they are harmed, our retaliation will harm women and children in Israel.'' Such an outbreak of retaliatory shooting would end six months of calm for the residents of Israel's northern towns and villages.
Truce brokered last July
A week of fierce artillery and rocket barrages last July ended with a truce brokered by United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
Under the agreement, Israel promised not to launch attacks outside the security zone in return for a Hizbullah pledge not to fire rockets at targets south of the Lebanese border. That effectively limited the fighting to the security zone itself.
Although little attention has been paid to the situation in the security zone in recent months, Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Amnon Shahak recently told a Knesset (parliament) committee that the Israeli Army was engaged in a ``full-scale war'' in southern Lebanon.
Hizbullah launched 330 attacks during 1993, he reported, nearly twice as many as the year before. Although most of the attacks were on units of the South Lebanon Army, Israel's Lebanese militia allies, 27 Israeli soldiers were killed in the security zone last year, according to official figures.
After each major attack in which Israelis die, Israeli officials have called on Syria to rein in the Shiite guerrillas. Syrian troops control the areas of eastern Lebanon where Hizbullah has established rear guard bases, and the group's weapons reportedly come from Iran, via Syria.
``Syria could influence and prevent the activities of Hizbullah in southern Lebanon and establish conditions to develop peace in the area,'' Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said last week. ``Syria does not demonstrate, in deeds or in words, what we would have expected.''
The Syrian government, however, has defended the right of Lebanese guerrillas to resist the Israeli occupation of the security zone, and has shown no inclination to curb Hizbullah's activities until it has reached an overall peace treaty with Israel, involving a return of the Golan Heights to Syrian sovereignty.