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Hezbollah, Israel Differ in Views Of Fighting In Southern Lebanon

By John Daniszewski

and Tracy Wilkinson

A Hezbollah spokesman proclaimed victory Thursday in a deadly round of clashes in southern Lebanon, arguing that attacks that killed six Israeli soldiers in two weeks have proved that Israel can no longer stand up to the Shiite Muslim guerrillas.

But a still-angry Israel drew a different conclusion from the engagements. The government said it has effectively changed the rules of its war against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and that from now on it reserves the right to strike nonmilitary targets across Lebanon when an Israeli soldier is killed.

“We had grown accustomed to a situation in which the army is allowed only to respond to Katyushas (rockets) against civilians,” Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said Thursday. Referring to the main power broker in Lebanon, he added, “We reject this pattern where we supposedly hold peace talks while our soldiers are being killed -- with Syrian permission.”

Although Israel shelled suspected guerrilla targets beyond the 9-mile-deep strip of land it occupies in southern Lebanon, wounding at least two Hezbollah fighters, and Hezbollah also staged at least one fresh attack, fears of a wider war clearly eased Thursday.

Tensions relaxed after it became apparent that Hezbollah wasn’t planning to fire Katyushas into northern Israel, as the Israelis had feared. In the northern settlement of Kiryat Shemona, the Israeli army sounded an all-clear alert and Israelis emerged from bomb shelters.

For its part, Israel avoided mounting any more attacks on civilian infrastructure sites, such as the bombing of three key electric plants earlier in the week that limited power supplies to a few hours a day for Beirut and other parts of Lebanon.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced Thursday that a five-nation monitoring group, established under a 1996 agreement that followed a previous Israeli campaign, will convene Friday to try to defuse the crisis in southern Lebanon. Lebanon had been seeking such a meeting.

At the busy Hezbollah Information Office in south Beirut, the mood was buoyant among Hezbollah activists, who asserted that Israel had sustained bitter blows both militarily and politically.

“We have proven on the battlefield that Israeli forces are not capable of facing the resistance,” said Hussein Haj Hassan, a Hezbollah member of parliament and a spokesman for the Iranian-backed organization, which has lost 11 fighters in the conflict this year. “This is a glorious victory.”

The attacks on Israeli soldiers and their allies in the South Lebanese Army had provoked confusion and a “deep frustration inside Israel and inside the Israeli army itself,” Hassan added.

Hassan said the guerrillas would have been justified to retaliate for this week’s Israeli bombings of civilian sites by mounting rocket attacks on civilians in northern Israel but that the movement had decided to bide its time.

Several analysts saw the containment of the Lebanese conflict as boding well for a possible early resumption in stalled peace talks between Israel and Syria, because it demonstrated that both sides are still very interested in a deal.