ISRAEL'S deadliest air raid this year on Muslim guerrillas in Lebanon, and retaliatory volleys of Katyusha rockets aimed at a northern Israeli town yesterday, served only to highlight the ongoing war in South Lebanon that Middle East peace talks have failed to quell.
In a predawn air raid yesterday on a training camp belonging to the Hizbullah (Party of God) guerrilla group, Israeli bombers killed more than 30 fighters as they slept, according to Lebanese hospital reports.
The raid, which an Israeli official described as ``routine,'' prompted Hizbullah guerrillas to launch Katyusha rockets at the Israeli coastal resort town of Nahariyya. No casualties had been reported by press time.
Yesterday's strike, aimed at a base deep in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, only three miles from the Syrian border, was the 17th Israeli air raid in Lebanon this year. Hizbullah launches almost daily attacks on Israeli troops occupying southern Lebanon.
It is a war that has continued almost unreported, except when one side or the other launches a particularly dramatic attack, such as last month's kidnapping by Israeli special forces of Muslim guerrilla leader Mustapha Dirani.
Mr. Dirani was snatched from his home during the night of May 21 and is being interrogated in Israel about the whereabouts of missing Israeli airman Ron Arad.
Arad was captured by followers of Dirani, who heads a pro-Iranian faction called the Faithful Resistance, when his plane crashed in Lebanon in 1986.
Hizbullah officials vowed revenge for last month's kidnapping, and yesterday's raid was believed to be an attempt to forestall new attacks on Israeli forces.
``We got intelligence information that many of the main instigators of Hizbullah would be at a certain place,'' said a senior Israeli government official. ``For us it is an ongoing war against them, and if we know they are up to something, we are going to go after them.''
Israeli Army spokesmen denied that the raid was a violation of an August 1993 accord, brokered by US Secretary of State Warren Christopher between Hizbullah and Israel, which ended a week of cross-border duels that forced 400,000 Lebanese to flee their homes. ``The agreement we had with them was that we would not attack civilian places,'' the spokesman said. ``This was not a civilian place, this was a base.''
For its part, Hizbullah had pledged not to fire Katyusha rockets at Israel's northern settlements. But clearly regarding the Israeli raid as a breach of the 10-month-old understanding, guerrillas fired three volleys of rockets during the afternoon.
The renewed hostilities, coming just as Mr. Christopher is pondering whether to return to the Middle East this month to continue his efforts to restart peace talks between Israel and Syria, are bound to complicate the regional picture.
Hizbullah guerrillas train in bases located in areas of Lebanon under Syrian Army control, and Syrian antiaircraft defenses shot at the Israeli jets yesterday morning, Lebanese Army sources say.
Peace talks between Israel and Syria, and between Israel and Lebanon, have been frozen for nearly a year, and in the meantime Lebanese President Elias Hrawi says that Hizbullah guerrillas have the right to resist troops occupying Israel's self-declared ``security zone'' - a strip of Lebanese territory along Israel's northern border.
Israel insists that it has no long-term territorial ambitions in southern Lebanon, and will be ready to withdraw its troops as part of an overall peace agreement with Lebanon that will ensure a quiet border. But given Syria's dominant influence over the Lebanese government, nobody expects Beirut to reach a peace agreement with the Jewish state until Syrian President Hafez al-Assad has signed an accord. Progress toward such a breakthrough, a US State Department spokesman said earlier this week, is currently ``glacial.''