Hezbollah rocket attacks hurt 19 Israelis in Kiryat Shmona

JERUSALEM — Israel's continued commitment to its military presence in southern Lebanon has been tested again following a series of Katyusha rocket attacks on the Galilee.

Scores of rockets fell Tuesday night in Kiryat Shmona and other targets in northern Israel, leaving 19 Israelis wounded and a number of houses damaged.

Kiryat Shmona, a town of some 14,000 residents, is in the partner region of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

The Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah movement, which for years has been waging a battle against the Israeli presence in Lebanon, took responsibility for the attacks.

The rocket barrage came after Israeli helicopters made a raid near the southern Lebanese city of Tyre, killing Hussam al-Amin, a high-level official with the Shi'ite Amal militia, which is generally less militant than Hezbollah. Al-Amin was killed when an Israeli Apache helicopter blew up his car as he drove through southern Lebanon.

The IDF, in a rare move, announced publicly that it was responsible for the attack that killed al-Amin. The IDF did not, however, admit responsibility for a reported missile attack the previous night on an Amal command center in Kassamiya, where al-Amin apparently lived.

Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai earlier on Tuesday said al-Amin was head of Amal's operations in the western sector and had been responsible for planning numerous terrorist attacks on IDF and South Lebanese Army targets, as well as targets in northern Israel.

Security sources stressed that al-Amin was a military target, whose movements had apparently been closely followed for some time, and was therefore "fair game" under the terms of the Grapes of Wrath understandings — which ban both sides from hitting civilians.

The Israeli operation appears to have united Amal and Hezbollah, which are often at odds. The two Shi'ite groups reportedly launched the Katyusha barrage jointly.

Israel has long debated the wisdom of its continued military presence in southern Lebanon, which it maintains as a bulwark against terrorist attacks on towns and settlements in northern Israel. The debate grew especially heated last fall amid a growing number of Israeli military casualties.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened several top advisers this week to discuss an initiative he has pushed for months: an Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in exchange for guarantees that the Lebanese government would be responsible for security in the area.

Netanyahu is reportedly planning to discuss the initiative during a planned visit to New York in September, when the U.N. General Assembly convenes for its annual session.

Rockets began landing in Kiryat Shmona shortly before 10 p.m. Tuesday and continued for about an hour. More rockets were fired simultaneously at other targets in the Galilee, knocking out power lines and causing minor property damage, but no casualties.

Five hours before the rockets landed, Mordechai warned Amal and Hezbollah not to try to retaliate.

Although Israel anticipated the possibility of a rocket assault after its helicopter raid, residents of Kiryat Shmona were instructed to take cover in shelters only after the first rockets were fired.

Two wedding ceremonies were interrupted by the assault, as the celebrants fled for cover. Many of the residents spent the night in bomb shelters.

Israel condemned the rocket attacks, saying they were contrary to the Grapes of Wrath understandings reached in a cease-fire brokered by the United States in April 1996, in an effort to protect civilians on both sides of the Israeli-Lebanese border.

Hezbollah officials claimed in turn that Lebanese villagers were hurt during exchanges of gunfire Tuesday in southern Lebanon.

Israel's opposition leader, Ehud Barak of the Labor Party, gave qualified support to the Israeli helicopter operation that led to the Katyusha reprisals.

He said that if the army saw fit to attack al-Amin at this time and in this fashion, he was confident that it had to be done. But at the same time, he stressed that it is necessary to find a political solution for southern Lebanon.

The situation in Lebanon was high on the agenda of Israel's inner cabinet meeting Wednesday. Most of the ministers said Israel should act with restraint in the wake of the rocket assaults and try to restore quiet to the region.

Public Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani, however, said Israel should launch reprisal raids against infrastructure targets, such as power plants, in and around Beirut.

"As long as Jewish families lose their sons in Lebanon, there is no reason why there should be business as usual in Beirut and why they should enjoy the regular supply of electricity," said Kahalani, who is a fierce advocate of settlements in the northern Golan region.

Some military experts said they saw no strategic advantages to the killing of al-Amin.

The question of whether to hit enemy targets in Lebanon at the possible cost of Katyusha rocket attacks is one the army confronts almost every day.

Whenever the army fires at targets in southern Lebanon, it faces the possibility of hitting civilians — which could in turn lead to reprisals against civilian targets in Israel.

Nonetheless, the security establishment has long sided with carrying out such operations — even at the cost of reprisals — arguing that abstaining from such operations could lead to paralysis.