Hezbollah kills 3 Israeli soldiers, veteran SLA leader in Lebanon

JERUSALEM — Reviving Israeli-Syrian negotiations may become more difficult following Hezbollah attacks in southern Lebanon this week that killed three Israeli soldiers and one of the top leaders of the South Lebanon Army.

Syria is the leading power in Lebanon, and Damascus likely gave the go-ahead to step up the fighting against Israel after fledgling peace negotiations were suspended last week.

Killed in Monday's anti-tank missile attack in the Lebanon security zone were Israel Defense Force Maj. Tidhar Templehoff, 23, of Netanya; Staff Sgt. Lior Niv, 21, of Tel Aviv; and Staff Sgt. Tzachi Malcha, 21, of Metulla.

Four other Israeli soldiers were injured, one seriously.

In the immediate wake of the attack, Prime Minister Ehud Barak said he would not resume negotiations with Syria until Damascus reins in Hezbollah.

"The government of Israel cannot hold peace negotiations when the Syrians are not preventing Hezbollah from attacking the IDF in the security zone," Barak said.

While avoiding directly blaming Syria for the attack, Barak did more than hint that Damascus could and should do more to rein in Hezbollah.

By Tuesday, Barak had moderated his response, calling on Syria to do more to promote peace in Lebanon.

Speaking at an army base on the Lebanese border, Barak said he had no interest in escalating the tense situation in Lebanon.

"I am convinced the Syrians also believe there is a shared interest to find a way to rein in these activities," Barak said.

The Syrians "understand the risks in a deterioration. We understand. We are not afraid of peace and we are not afraid of any other kind of development."

The prime minister vowed to retaliate against those responsible for the attack, saying, "Those who hit us will not get away clean."

Barak also repeated his promise to bring IDF soldiers out of Lebanon by July.

Last week, another Israeli soldier was killed in a Hezbollah attack — the first Israeli fatality in southern Lebanon since last August.

As of Wednesday, Israel's security cabinet had decided to refrain from ordering a large-scale reprisal. In the past, Israeli jets struck infrastructure targets deep within Lebanon in reprisals for Hezbollah attacks.

The nascent Israeli-Syrian negotiations were suspended indefinitely in mid-January following two rounds of talks. At the time, Damascus demanded that Israel give a written pledge to withdraw from all of the Golan Heights as a precondition for resuming discussions.

Following Israel's refusal, Hezbollah stepped up its attacks on Israel and its allied militia, the South Lebanon Army.

The day before the three Israeli soldiers were slain, the SLA's second-in-command, Col. Akel Hashem, was killed when Hezbollah gunmen set off a bomb by remote control.

Barak, who called the death a "difficult and sad" loss, had known Hashem for more than 20 years.

"I believe that this incident emphasizes the potential for a deterioration in the atmosphere in Lebanon. We will do everything so that those who harmed Akel Hashem will receive their just punishment," Barak said Sunday.

The death of Hashem, commander of the SLA's western brigade, was a major blow to the SLA. He had been tried and sentenced to death in absentia by a military tribunal in Lebanon for his role in the SLA.

Thousands of people, including senior IDF officers, attended the funeral Monday in Dibble village in the western sector of the security zone.

"It's not the first time that they tried to kill you, but we thought that after 23 years they would not get you," one Israeli colonel said before the funeral, addressing Hashem's body. "You were our protector, and you trained 11 commanders on where and when to travel, and yet you were the one to fall."

As SLA soldiers and officers cried for vengeance, Hezbollah staged victory celebrations in the streets of Beirut and parts of southern Lebanon. Even Lebanese government officials joined in the orchestrated "festivities" and in announcements commending the killing of one of the SLA's most outstanding officers.

In the wake of this week's attacks, the United States called on Israel, Syria and Lebanon to avoid an escalation of the hostilities. The U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, urged all sides on Tuesday to resolve their differences through negotiations.

Within the Israeli cabinet, however, reaction varied on how Israel should respond to the latest attacks.

Communications Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said Israel should "hit back" — and the sooner, the better.

But Public Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said it was important to "contain the escalation" as much as possible.

Ben-Ami also said Barak should work toward keeping a campaign pledge to pull all Israeli troops out of Lebanon by July.