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Israel Strikes Power Lines, Guerilla Posts in Lebanon

By Richard Boudreaux
Los Angeles Times
Jerusalem

Israeli jets struck down power lines and fired missiles at army and guerrilla positions deep inside Lebanon on Wednesday to retaliate for a rocket bombardment of villages in northern Israel.

Officials in Jerusalem insisted the raids were carefully planned to avoid civilian bloodshed, and the known casualties were two Lebanese children hurt when the roof of their house collapsed under the bombardment.

It was Israel's first direct attack in a week of tit-for-tat exchanges that have killed at least nine Lebanese civilians and wounded dozens of people on both sides of the Israeli-Lebanese border. The area for years has been the scene of combat between Israeli troops and Syrian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas.

This week's violence prompted an emergency meeting in Lebanon on Wednesday of the five-nation military team that monitors an April 1996 cease-fire in which the two sides agreed to stop targeting civilians.

Besides the United States and France, the team represents Israel, Syria and Lebanon - the three countries involved in the conflict. U.N. officials in Lebanon said they expect the cycle of strikes and counter-strikes to subside.

That cycle began Monday, when a bomb in Lebanon killed two teen-age children of the late commander of an Israeli-backed Lebanese militia. The militia struck back that day by shelling the Lebanese port city of Sidon, a Hezbollah stronghold, killing six civilians and wounding dozens more.

Hezbollah replied Tuesday by firing more than 40 rockets into northern Israel, destroying homes, driving thousands of villagers into bomb shelters and emptying busy resort hotels. Three civilians were wounded.

Israel's retaliation Wednesday was cautious and somewhat reluctant. According to Israeli newspapers, the defense and foreign ministers argued against an armed response, saying it could provoke more deadly exchanges and undermine last year's cease-fire agreement.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, siding with cabinet hard-liners and the army, approved air strikes on three targets - a mountainous Hezbollah base at Janta near the Syrian border; a Lebanese army artillery battery between Tyre and Sidon that had reportedly sided with Hezbollah in Monday's fighting, and an electricity pylon at Jiye, 15 miles south of Beirut.

The raids reached 75 miles into Lebanon, far beyond the nine-mile strip of Lebanese borderland occupied by 1,500 Israeli soldiers since 1985.

The only target hit, judging by reports from Lebanon, was the pylon, which brought down lines feeding hundreds of Lebanese homes and businesses, causing a blackout of several hours. It was the first such Israeli sabotage in Lebanon since April 1996.

A statement from the Israeli army said its jets caused the blackout "to make clear to the Lebanese government that it must start reining in Hezbollah."

"The message to Lebanon was this: If we can't have tourists, you can't have electricity,' " said David Bar-Illan, a spokesman for Netanyahu.

Timor Goksel, a U.N. official monitoring the border area, said that message set off panic in Lebanon because it revived an Israeli logic of making civilians suffer in the hope that they will turn against their government.

"It's basically the same message they heard from Israel in 1993 and 1996," he said, recalling major Israeli anti-guerrilla offensives that killed scores of civilians in southern Lebanon.

Officials in Jerusalem insisted that a new large-scale intervention is exactly what Israel is trying to avoid.

"The policy today was not to react massively and certainly not in kind," Bar-Illan said. "But if we fail to react at all, we invite another probe by Hezbollah, and another one, and that's what leads to a situation out of hand."